Words Fiona McIntosh, pics Shaen Adey
The mood is festive at Koelenhof Wine Cellar, where we’re gathered for the launch of a new wine brand, ‘Son of the Soil’. It’s the culmination of four years of work by a young man from the Stellenbosch winelands, Denzel Swarts.
Voice full of emotion, but wearing his usual contagious smile, he thanks the room-full of supporters; his proud mother, wife and children; friends that span several generations; representatives from the wine industry.
His has been a tumultuous journey, a story of unwavering determination in the face of obstacles. Today is a milestone.
Like his father before him, Denzel’s father was a farmworker at Simonsig Wine Estate, in the Koelenhof area of the Stellenbosch Winelands. Growing up on the farm Denzel did odd jobs in the vineyards to earn pocket money. But he dreamt of become a viticulturist. He begged his parents to send him to agricultural school but there was no money. Undeterred, he saved throughout his teenage years. “I’d work on the farm in the school holidays washing dishes, carrying bottles, buffing glasses, cleaning toilets…anything,” he recalls.
In his matric year Denzel enrolled on a vineyard pruning course at Elsenburg Agricultural College without telling his folks. “They wouldn’t have been impressed at me bunking school to cut vines,” he grins, “but I had to learn the trade. I wanted to make wine. I had developed a consciousness about my own people, about what was going on in the vineyards,” he continues. “And I wanted to be in a position to affect change; a managerial position.”
“Denzel always went his own way,” his mother smiles proudly. Denzel beams. “I wasn’t your average farm child. From a young age I knew exactly where I needed to go. And I was prepared to graft. I learnt that from my father. He was a foreman but he was always prepared to work hard alongside the labourers.”
The first Son of the Soil wine that we taste, his Chenin, called Break the Mould, represents that stage in his life. “It’s the story of breaking the cycle,” Denzel explains. “Chenin is the work horse of the wine industry in South Africa: the most planted and flexible cultivar. It resonates with my upbringing, when I was going in a completely different direction to the one I wanted, but not giving up.”
He tossed around various possible names for his wine but Son of the Soil made sense. “I played and worked in the Koelenhof area as a youngster: it’s my soil. It’s still where I train for athletics. So to launch his Son of the Soil wine brand at Koelenhof is appropriate, and extra special.
Koelenhof Wine Cellar, which specialises in making wine for private labels, is the producing and bottling partner for the Son of the Soil brand. “I explained what style of wine I wanted, and tasted the product until I was happy with it,” Denzel explains.
It’s a good match.
“Denzel has always been someone who gives back,” insists Bertie Cloete, Chairman of the Board at Koelenhof Wine Cellar. “Our philosophy is the same. We want to improve the situation of workers in the industry, to empower people, to make a difference. So we’re proud and excited to be associated with Denzel. We will run the full mile with him. How can a guy from such humble beginnings succeed without help? If he succeeds then we succeed. ”
Our next tasting is Son of the Soil Pinotage, The Undiscovered Jewel. “Pinotage is the authentic grape of SA,” explains Denzel. It represents the phase in my life in which the rough-edged, dogged farm boy was “polished up” and began to shine.
After matriculation Denzel applied for a post as a wine advisor at Simonsig, a white-collar job that gave him entry into the world of wine. He started working in the tasting room under manager Maureen Basson.
“Maureen was an incredible mentor,” says Denzel “and I learnt a lot. But I was frustrated by the lack of progress for coloured people like myself. I wanted to promote farm workers and show what we are worth, to earn recognition.”
Feeling that it was not going to change Denzel left the wine industry in 2005 went on a personal pilgrimage, working in youth development programmes in Australia, Germany and Spain.
Returning home in 2011 he realised that he’d been focusing on the wrong things. He needed to change the landscape, to challenge the system.
With that came a new approach and understanding. He returned to the Simonsig tasting room, rising, after Simonsig sponsored his studies at the Cape Wine Academy and Maureen stepped up to tourism manager, to manager of their tasting room - the first farm child appointed to the post. “Maureen continued to mentor me,” Denzel recalls. “But she is a big personality and had been at Simonsig for over 30 years so those were huge shoes to fill. She taught me a lot about wine, management and customer service, for which I am eternally grateful.”
He used this opportunity, and his later appointment as a director of the VinPro Foundation (a non-profit company which, among other things provides strategic direction and drives people development in the wine industry) and mentor to the Pinotage Academy, to open the doors into the wine industry for many farm workers and their children.
“We have a good spread of men, women, white, coloured and black in the Simonsig tasting room,” he explains. “I select my staff on their value system, not on their skills. Skills can be learned, but values determine how you work as a team and interact with customers.
“I wanted to continue to do development work, but funding for such work is not easy to come by,” Denzel states, introducing the next stage in his life. The activist in him kicked in. He decided to produce a wine that would generate income for his chosen charities.
“My wine brand is not just a business, it’s a passion,” he elaborates. “Helping other people is important to me, so for the first three years the proceeds from the wine will go to keeping NGOs and selected charities afloat. Before I make money from the wine I want to see young people, and my country, benefitting.”
So the farm child finally achieved his goal, and recognition, which is a cause for celebration. Appropriately the third wine we taste is a bubbly, an MCC named The Infinite Sparkle. “It’s the expression of my gratitude to the soils and the people around me, summed up by African word ubuntu, which means humanity to others, the ‘I am because of who we all are’ philosophy. ”
“What you have is not yours. It is passed on knowledge and material goods. If you work in the wine industry you are you because of the soil. The responsibility that ubuntu leaves you with is to pass on your skills and the fruits of your labour to others.
Denzel is addressing the inequalities of the past and embracing ubuntu in his own ever-positive way. His Son of the Soil Leadership Foundation identifies young leaders and helps them move forward. It’s no coincidence that he’s launched his wine brand on 16 June, Youth Day. Working as butlers at the launch are 17-year-old Keanan August and Melvin Wakefield, two of the four youngsters from Mitchell’s Plain that he mentors. Son of the Soil is donating its profits to fund their pilgrimage to the next World Youth Day Meeting in Panama City, where, in 2019, around one million young people from all over the world will gather to discuss social issues. Denzel has been to four such meetings so far, in Australia, Spain, Brazil and Poland, and is keen to share this life-changing experience and help them reach their true potential.
Donating the profits from his wine for three years is also not arbitrary. “Great vineyards take three years to give a proper yield. Son of the Soil is the same. For the first three years we’ll give back to the soil by enhancing the lives of the farm workers. Then in three years time we can relook the situation.”
It’s a powerful narrative: an ordinary guy who bottled his story. A visionary: the first third generation farm child to produce his own wine brand. The story of a South African who wants to change the lives of other South Africans; of an African who wants to change the lives of other Africans. The story of ordinary people – Denzel, his family, church, sponsors in the wine industry - who want to acknowledge and improve the lives of all farm workers and their children.
What better way to celebrate than by raising a glass of The Infinite Sparkle.
Cheers, and good luck Denzel.
Son of the Soil wines will not be retailed for the next three years. But you can access the wines by donating to Son of the Soil Leadership Foundation.