“Understanding is the best thing in the world”

Last month I visited Groot Constantia and wrote about its illustrious history and its place in the Cape Wine landscape today. Dr Ernest Messina is the chairman of the board which oversees the running of this icon winery, and so I chatted to him to find out more about his role there.

Historian, businessman and philanthropist, Dr Messina grew up on a Cape wine farm where both his parents were teachers at the local school. He later studied and lectured history at the University of the Western Cape but with the birth of a democratic South Africa in 1994, he saw the opportunity of getting involved in business. He was instrumental in forming the Black Business Forum and became involved early on in facilitating Black Empowerment deals, bringing together expertise and skills to build a common vision. 

“You can ask me what I knew about business then,” says the erstwhile history lecturer, “and the answer is ‘not much’, but I do know how to work with people, and I love that challenge. Every business has to do with a combination of products, systems and people, and the challenge is how to bring these together to make a business profitable for all involved.”
And so with this background, Dr Messina joined the board at Groot Constantia in 2000 and became the chairman in 2003, a position he has held ever since.

“When I joined the board I knew nothing about wine or the wine industry. I was brought up in a farming community where alcoholism was rife, and so seen as an evil. But I am curious by nature and so read extensively and developed a love and understanding of the science, art and heritage of the wine industry. I see my role as chairman as an opportunity to make a contribution on many levels to the industry as a whole.

“My job is to make real and give content to the statutes of Groot Constanta and continue to grow it into an icon. We must tell the story of Groot Constantia in a way that makes us all proud to be part of it and its heritage. South Africans must visit this magnificent place and feel a sense of ownership. But it must also inspire them to take part, to be bold enough to put up their hands and use their potential to make a better life for themselves and those around them.

“I firmly believe in the potential we all have,” he continues. “My job is to encourage and inspire people to overcome their fears, learn from the past and create a positive vision for the future.

“My favourite song is that one from Ray Charles that goes: ‘Understanding is the best thing in the world….’ To understand each other, we need to understand what has happened before, and that is why history is so important. Did you know that the first owner of Groot Constantia, Simon van der Stell, was a person of colour? He made a massive contribution to the wine industry at the Cape, and his example just shows us that we all made a contribution, and we can all make a contribution today. We can dream and we can make things happen and we can work together if we just take the trouble to understand.

“Groot Constantia is one of the oldest trademarks in the world. It has been enjoyed by kings, poets and statesmen over centuries. We must celebrate that and hopefully this will inspire others to reach higher. Groot Constantia’s success should inspire our own.”

- Julia Moore