SA wine trailblazer: Denzel Swarts

“We grew up amongst the vines, swapping stories while we picked the grapes. Wine and viticulture have always been about stories for me,” shares Denzel Swarts. “I loved being in the vineyards harvesting with my parents, extended family and friends. We all lived on the farm, we knew each other. There was always a sense of community.”

Denzel was born into a third generation farm-working family on Simonsig Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. The farm has also been owned and tended by the Malan family for three generations. Now 37-years-old Denzel has big news to share, he’s been appointed sales and brand executive of Zoetendal Vineyards and River Estate in Elim.

Other memories flicker up from his childhood, the plum trees, the graceful avenues of the historic estate – but mostly he remembers playing with the Malan children. “I always say I grew up in their home, I never wanted to go to the crèche that was available to us.”

When not in harvest Denzel worked in other areas of the estate from age 16. “My passion was to become a viticulturist. My dad worked in the vineyards and I would go with him on the weekends, the two of us on the quad bike, to help with pest control, pruning, you name it.” He soon started working in the tasting room, buffing glasses, packing wine – but the desire to be in the vineyards burned steady.

Hatching a plan he saved up the money he was earning to pay for a pruning course at Elsenburg. The catch? He had to miss a term of school to do it. His parents unaware at first ordered him back to school to finish his matric when they found out.

“My dad was very insistent on us doing well in our chosen paths. He was hugely motivating. While my mom instilled a sense of humility in me. She also taught me to have respect for people, no matter what they did. Part of this was understanding that growth in a career is often based on other people’s contributions to your life.”

This was particularly true at Simonsig he discovered. By age 20 Denzel was employed there full time, his trajectory culminating in his early thirties to the position of regional brand ambassador for the Western and Eastern Cape provinces.

Denzel credits Simonsig for offering its employees career development opportunities, and cites his time working with Simonsig winemakers Johan and Michael Malan as hugely inspirational.

“I respect their approach in the cellar, but also outside of it. Simonsig has this golden thread of family values that runs through the generations that’s bigger than the business and extends to the families of people working for the farm.”

During his tenure at Simonsig he has completed numerous courses with the Cape Wine Academy. The catalyst for him however was enrolling in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) for the The Business of Wine course. He has since completed a post-graduate diploma in administration through the GSB.

“The business of wine fascinates me,” he says. Much like those formative years in the vineyards, clipping bunches and engaging with his community, Denzel hasn’t stopped telling stories.

“It intrigues me how you bring a particular story of a brand to life and how you pull that through into marketing the product.”

In 2016 he put his learnings into practice with the not-for-profit wine business, Son of the Soil. The profits are used to fund his Leadership Foundation, a platform he uses to mentor Grade 10 to 12 learners from rural areas in the Western Cape.

He further continues to change the wine narrative as an executive member of BLACC (the Black Cellar Club). The association is made up of wine trade members from previously economically disadvantaged backgrounds in southern Africa and further afield who are interested in furthering their wine knowledge to benefit their careers.

“The new wave of young people getting into wine is exciting,” he enthuses. “Things are changing. We are slowly breaking this old way of saying European food culture must go with wine, it’s becoming more lifestyle orientated. We’re moving into a space where people drink wines with the foods they grew up with.

“For me personally pinotage paired with pap, boerewors and Chakalaka is to die for,” he says laughing.

Denzel, his young family in tow, is on his way now Zoetendal, at the Cape’s southernmost point of viticulture.

“We’re planning exciting things,” he says. “Watch this space.”

- Blog by Malu Lambert