By founder Alex Dale - September 2023
This year, Radford Dale turns twenty-five years old. As a team we are extremely proud that we have been successfully producing and selling South African wine for a quarter of a century, no mean feat in a market as fiercely competitive as ours, and one which is woefully under supported by national government.
As we've learned, it's not enough to simply produce a knock-out collection of wines. To survive (indeed thrive) for 25 yrs as an independent, small-medium sized producer you need to adopt stand-out business strategies and initiatives, the ability to evolve constantly and the courage to do things differently.
Our overall ethos is that doing good, respecting the environment, providing quality, individuality and value, always, make for good business sense. We do this instinctively; it’s just common sense.
Here are five strategies that we've adopted over the years that have enabled us to grow, do good and retain our individuality.
I am the co-founder and co-manager of Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa. We are 12, independently-owned premium wineries working to collectively raise the bar for the reputation of SA wines in targeted Export Markets. We are self-funded and received absolutely zero subsidies from the government -or any other organisation. Each year, we develop a focused program with the sole goal of single-handedly bringing home the message, within a given market, of the exceptional attributes of the finest Cape Wines.
The reputation of SA’s wines is most often centred around commercial, unexciting wines, making it exceeding difficult to position our premium offerings and create a positive reputation and market dynamic. PIWOSA members believe that unless we do something about this ourselves, this is unlikely to change. The dominant players, historically, in the SA category, are not wine Companies, but spirit / cider / drinks businesses, and they do not get wine. Which is a dramatic disadvantage for SA in the brutal international markets.
Over the past dozen or so years, we have therefore rolled-up our sleeves and collaborated very actively for the good of the premium SA sector. Logically, this is destined to benefit the entire category, wherever and whenever we instigate a program, but, as a group, we certainly believe in karma ! We have had great success and have contributed to strongly challenge and change perceptions, across Asia, North America and in the UK, where we have developed our efforts over many years now.
Being a founding member and co-manager of PIWOSA is a key strategy in the positioning of Radford Dale as a leading premium independent South African winery, on the world stage.
2. Elegant Reds and bringing back Gamay from the brink of extinction in SA
Over the past 15 years or so, and long before it became fashionable to do so, we have championed lighter style reds in SA (indeed reds and whites with high natural acidities and restrained alcohols). This during an era where Parkerised wines with heavy oaking, extraction, high alcohol, big points etc were the pre-requisite. Fast-forward to today, and we are, for example, the sole Producer of Gamay in South Africa.
This granite-loving lighter style red varietal (in the Cape, all of our winelands are rooted in ancient granitic soils) was down to fewer than 10 hectares in production and was in the process of becoming completely extinct. Not only was this grape statistically no longer existent in any official figures, but it had totally disappeared from the nursery system, meaning it could not be replanted. We have spent over a decade saving the very few parcels left in existence, bringing them back to health and then negotiating with the nursery sector until we secured one who accepted to reintroduce Gamay into the system, using cuttings from these parcels we had salvaged.
A decade later, Radford Dale now has 4 new vineyards planted (the first Gamay plantings in two decades), between Stellenbosch & cool-climate Elgin (two of these parcels are in production already), and we have successfully brought-about a situation where 2 nurseries are now able to offer Gamay material to the SA industry for planting purposes. 2022 marked the first vintage where we produced the first Gamay from newly-planted vineyards (we are sold-out already!). We continue to plant new parcels of Gamay each year now.
3. Organic Estate
South Africa has caught-up significantly with its international peers over the past 30 years, in terms of winemaking. Where we still lag behind is in terms of the quality of our viticulture and our general ecological focus. For example, there are very, very few Organically / Biodynamically-certified wineries in SA, and even fewer in the Premium segment (less than a dozen, depending on what one calls premium).
After running an experimental Organic program for a number of years, since 2012, Radford Dale in 2021 invested in acquiring the only Organically-certified Estate in the cool-climate Elgin region (first planted between 2006-2008). In September 2023, we will be releasing therefore our Maiden Vintage (2022) from Radford Dale Organic Estate, in Elgin.
As the population of the planet becomes increasingly concerned and alarmed by all things environmental (including climate change, sustainability of agriculture etc), Radford Dale has pro-actively positioned itself among the head of the field as a Producer focussing on Organic viticulture in the Cape. This in a far riskier higher-rainfall (diseases-prone thus), cool-climate location; the only producer thus-far to do so.
4. LAND OF HOPE Educational Trust
When I moved to South Africa (I resigned from my position in Burgundy -where I grew-up- the day my hero Nelson Mandela was elected President, and I emigrated to the Cape in 1994), I witnessed first-hand then how the majority of the population had been totally side-lined from opportunity (quite apart from all the rest). As we built Radford Dale, and as we worked with our local community, I was hugely touched by the work ethic, loyalty and sheer eagerness to succeed of the people of colour, having been given a genuine chance, for the first time.
As the years passed, we wanted to do more than simply pay a decent salary, provide a career path and invest in training team members. We saw around me by then, 2006, that the level of education in South Africa for black people was so dismal and how, under democracy, it had gotten increasingly worse. One of the great tragedies and disgraces of the ANC, since it came to power. South Africa lays today at the lowest levels of the United Nations’ Educational tables for numeracy, literacy, sciences and female education.
After much thought and contemplation, we hatched a plan to create a structure which would see the children and dependents of our black employees receive the finest private education possible. We set up the Land of Hope Educational Trust, after vintage 2006, and since calendar year 2007, we have paid 100% of the private school fees of each of our black employees’ children and dependents. This throughout their education, from crèche to tertiary institutions. While I have never had any children of my own, I am proud to say that we currently have 15 children in the best private schools !
By investing in our team’s childrens’ future, we are helping to truly and durably uplift our local community. Beyond merely providing employment. This is the best gift or contribution I believe we can provide to our people. As Nelson Mandela poignantly said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And I believe to also change society.
5. Over, over-deliver
While one often hears the mantra that it’s vital to over-deliver in the Wine Industry, my conviction is that, for the most part, this usually comes down to a price-driven weighting in the so-called equation… Our key strategy, since the onset of Covid, has been to develop a range of wines which, at a key price point, where SA has a true advantage over its competitors (mainly from the developed world and who have higher input costs), to invest in such quality that the final product stands-out more through over-delivering on quality than it does in (also) over-delivering on its price point. We call this over, over-delivering.
We have, since vintage 2021, developed a range of wines under the name Radford Dale Vinum, comprising 6 wines (the composition of which delivers among its selection SA’s Heritage Grapes, Chenin Blanc & Pinotage). The collective complexion of the range, however, is far from the ‘usual suspects’ one commonly sees. It includes lightly-styled Gamay Noir, Grenache Noir, Pinot Noir, for example, and excludes the over-present Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot etc. Even the Pinotage is made in a whoelberry, semi-carbonic maceration style, meaning that this range completely dove-tails with point 2 above.
It has been received commercially with, for us, unprecedented rapidity and the critical acclaim has been, consistently, extremely high. Especially given the price level (retail in SA under R200, $19.95 in the USA & Canada, £15.95 in the UK). All the wines have received between 90 – 94 Points (inclusive), in such Publications at Wine Anorak, Tim Atkin’s SA Wine Report, Winemag.co.za, Decanter etc. Jancisrobinson.com has also given consistently impeccable ratings too, over the two vintages released thus-far.
The growth brought-about with this range has seen our headline revenue figures grow in the current fiscal year 15% year-on-year, despite the incredibly difficult market conditions. We have significantly grown sales (and profitability) in both the domestic and export markets due to this strategy.
Sustainability is not limited to the environment; it is also essential to run a good business, in order to be able to afford all of the policies enumerated above. It is not possible to continuously execute a determined ecological and people-oriented Winery, if it is run at a loss. This journey has taken us 25 years, to fine-turn the balance between idealism and financial viability. As a result, and as luck would have it, our wines have never been better.