SA Wine Legends: Bartho Eksteen

The Sage of Sauvignon, Bartho Eksteen is framed for a moment in the doorway of the Old Mill House on his farm. His silhouette cuts a broad-shouldered figure, hinting at his Germanic ancestry.

“This is the oldest building still standing in the Hemel-en-Aarde, it’s even older than the town of Hermanus,” says Bartho coming inside and pulling up a chair at the table where I’m waiting for him. The thick walls retain a cool, ambient temperature, Bartho tells me they’re in the process of making it into a tasting room.  Bartho Eksteen Wines are stacked up against one wall, the labels flashing pearlescent in the low light. There are some of his grandmother’s floral paintings against the rough hewn stone as well as an embroidered tiger piece that his mother created. The ceiling beams are burnt black, harking back to the days when the vineyard workers would light fires inside to keep warm on cold mornings.

Bartho has recently become a member of the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG), yet another feather in a cap that’s already pretty weighted down by plumes.

“I’m very proud of becoming a member, but I’m not one of those guys that takes the front seats,” he says humbly. “I’m not shy, I just don’t like to show off. What I do like to do is share knowledge. One shouldn’t have secrets in winemaking. As a winemaker you learnt from other people, so why shouldn’t you pass it on?”

And for Bartho the love of winemaking has been passed down through generations going all the way back to the 1700s.

Heinrich Oostwald Eckstein settled in the Cape in 1702 (thanks to the Dutch influence of the time the surname was changed to Eksteen).

“He was the richest guy in the country, but he lost most of his money… he went through too many wives,” Bartho says laughing.

And since then the Eksteens have been involved in wine farming from Constantia to Loevenstein (Welgemoed). More recent history saw Bartho’s grandfather making wine at La Bri in Franschhoek, where Bartho also lived with his parents in a second, smaller house.

“My bedroom was next to the wine cellar. I was a real boerseuntjie [farm boy]. I would lie in bed and wait to crow back at the roosters in the morning.”

He was schooled at Boland Landbouskool, where he boarded. A real agricultural school they worked the farm most of the week, but on Sundays they could relax over the newspapers. It was on one of those days that the thought of becoming a winemaker first entered his head.

“I came across an advert for a winemaker in in the careers’ section of The Rapport, and I thought ‘I can do this’.”

So after he finished his studies it was off to co-op, Rooiberg. His job was to classify the grapes into quality categories.

“At first winemaking was just a job, but that all changed when I went to Romans Rivier [now Mountain Ridge]. There the penny dropped.”

There he was mentored by winemaker Olla Oliver, who handed the red wine production over to him as well as the wooded white.

It was around this time he met his wife, Suné. The pair have been married for 28 years and have two children: a son, Pieter Wilhelm and a daughter, Shani.

On how he and his wife met he says: “I was caught in a speed trap. Suné was the state prosecutor for Montagu and Ashton, and we met when I went to go plea… 28 years later I’m still paying for it,” he finishes laughing.

“I’m very happily married. I tell her that’s why I still speed, who knows what other good fortune might be coming my way?

But it was the newspaper again and not another speed trap that held his next piece of luck. This time it was advertising the job of winemaker at Wildekrans.

“I had five fantastic years there,” says Bartho. His appointment in 1993 at the Bot River winery saw him becoming the Walker Bay ward’s first official winemaker.

In 1996 he won the General Smuts Trophy for Wildekran’s maiden Cabernet. “This was the first time it was awarded to a red wine from ‘the other side of the mountain’,” smiles Bartho. “We had a big party!”

He followed this with consultant winemaking gigs at Sumaridge and Raka, before founding Hermanuspietersfontein—the country’s first urban winery—where he was both winemaker and director.

His excellence there saw him winning the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 2010, which led to the realisation of a lifelong dream of both his and Suné’s. With the help of some funding from Diners Club, they took the opportunity to realise their vision of a wine academy or Wijnskool.

“I wanted to give as many youngsters as possible the opportunity to learn the culture, art and craft of winemaking.  The course is offered to high school learners who have to make a career choice, it’s about mentorship.” Wijnskool got its start at his alma mater (the school his son also attended) the Boland Landbouskool.

(These days the academy’s activities are divided between the school and Bartho’s Hemel-en-Aarde farm.)

In 2014 he hung up his hat at HPF and poured his considerable energy back into his own brand of wines, Wijnskool by Bartho Eksteen. His wines and the academy have kept him busy ever since.

Pieter Wilhelm has followed in his father’s footsteps and works alongside him making wine. “He’s not taking over, I’m still enjoying it too much. He will have to wait a few years.

“I feel lucky that we work together so well, I think that’s rare in families.”

When asked if he has any advice for the younger generation he says: “As jou glo in jouself, jou huiswerk doen en hard werk, sal jy sukses behaal.”

Which translates to: If you believe in yourself, do your homework and work hard, you will succeed.

And Bartho Eksteen is living proof of that mantra.

- Malu Lambert