"Making love pay": Meerlust's Chris Williams on why he started his own label.
The only thing that unites Meerlust and The Foundry in any meaningful way is that they share the same winemaker, namely Chris Williams. In every other respect, they couldn't be more different.
Meerlust, that most prestigious of Stellenbosch properties has been in the Myburgh family since 1756. The first bottling in the modern era took place in 1975 and it is, of course, home to Rubicon, South Africa's second-ever Bordeaux-style red blend, maiden vintage being 1980. Today, there are slightly over 100ha of vineyard under cultivation and own label production amounts to 50 000 cases.
The Foundry, meanwhile, is a wine venture begun by Williams and business partner James Reid (MD of Accolade Wines SA, which owns Flagstone). First bottling in 2001, no vineyard to their names (all fruit brought in) and total production now at 2 000 cases.
Could there possibly be a starker contrast between two wine operations in terms of brand equity? Williams, however, does not want Meerlust to be perceived as bigger than it is. "The Foundry might be small but Meerlust is also relatively small in global terms. When it comes to the great wines of the world, few are made in large quantities, the classed growths of Bordeaux being the obvious exception," he says.
So why begin something like The Foundry in the first place? Winemaking, for Williams, is not a means to an income but a deeply held interest which somehow affords a living. "The Foundry was about making love pay," he says.
It is an honour to be the incumbent winemaker at Meerlust but Williams is aware that the position also entails some subtle limitations. "The Meerlust's style has developed over time, involving many people. I want to see it continue to evolve gracefully – I have no intention of putting my personal stamp on the wines". The Foundry therefore becomes his "creative outlet", the platform which allows him "to push the envelope".
In addition, Williams realises that necessarily he can't work at Meerlust for ever. "The Foundry is my retirement plan. Rather than putting money into something soulless and dead like an Old Mutual retirement annuity, I'd rather invest in something I control directly. Come a certain point, I want to make a graceful exit from Meerlust and develop The Foundry further."
A problem which occurs all too often when a winemaker employed at a high-profile winery starts his own label is one of divided loyalties. Williams points out that he started The Foundry between stints at Meerlust, having worked as assistant winemaker until 2000 and re-joining as head winemaker in 2004 so Meerlust's current owner Hannes Myburgh couldn't have been under any illusions. Even so, The Foundry gets made in the Meerlust cellar and Williams is quick to give credit to Myburgh. "Any success The Foundry is currently enjoying has got a lot to do with the generosity of the man".
Williams insists there's no conflict in terms of production given that the wines of Meerlust are reflective of a single property whereas he sources from various different growers for The Foundry. "Meerlust is an estate, for better or for worse, while The Foundry is varietal focused".
Where conflict might potentially arise is in how the two brands are presented to the market, but Williams believes that this is quite easy to head off simply by keeping any interactions with customers separate. He took official leave, for instance, in order to present The Foundry at the recent London International Wine Fair.
Would he be happy, then, for Meerlust to be viewed as the "First Growth" and The Foundry as an ultra-cool "garagiste" label? From his reply, it is clear that he particularly relishes the idea of Meerlust having such well established credentials that it is considered one of the world's pre-eminent properties. "It's got the potential to be First Growth. It has the intrinsic quality, the history, the sense of place and the drama".
As for The Foundry, he simply says that it's "very young" as a brand. The current range consists of a Roussanne 2010, a Viognier 2009 and a Syrah 2007 from different vineyards in Stellenbosch and a Grenache Blanc 2010 from Voor Paardeberg. "The wines don't exactly scream of origin yet. When I started out I had very fixed ideas how I wanted the wines to show but now that I'm a bit older, I'm much more inclined to let the vineyard come to the fore".
This is not yet more lip-service to the notion of terroir; rather, it's about coming up with something that wine enthusiasts find truly compelling. "Make something unique and you can just about guarantee success. Keep chopping and changing and you're doomed to failure."