Friday, August 31, 2012

My Brilliant Career: Happy to Put His Life on The Vine


07/05/2012Mike Ratcliffe tells Thekiso Anthony Lefifi why he abandoned his dream of becoming a skipper - and why he has never regretted taking up the art of winemaking instead...
What does your job entail?

I am managing director of Warwick Wine Estate & Vilafonte Vineyards. Both are high-end family producers of fine South African wine. In a sense, I am the custodian of quality throughout the production and maturation process. Once the wine is in the bottle, I am then chief brand ambassador responsible for allocations and for making sure that the wine is presented appropriately at all times. Finally, I manage a very strong sales and distribution team responsible for placing our wines into restaurants and retailers worldwide. At the end of the day I become chief wine taster as the sun goes down.

What did you want to be when you were young?

I flirted with being a skipper and passed my yachtmaster qualification. Things were stacked against sailing as I grew up in the wine industry surrounded by a family with red wine in their veins. As a family, we are slightly obsessive-compulsive when it comes to this great product and are all involved in wine in some way. My mother was one of the first women to make wine in South Africa and my sister one of the youngest women ever to qualify as a Cape wine master.

How did you get into this industry? And what did you study?

When I joined the family business, I realised just how much I did not know about the industry and decided to educate myself further. With the help of Dr Phil Freese, Brian Croser and Michael Fridjhon I managed to enrol for the graduate diploma in wine business in Australia - at the time the leading wine business programme in the world. A year of intensive wine education was the catalyst that galvanised my thinking and made my future direction clear. I have no regrets.

Are people who leave colleges well equipped to do what you are doing?

Secondary education is invaluable. It taught me how much I did not know and defined the vacuum of knowledge so that I could more effectively seek it out. College also trains you to think about life in general and was critical in defining my thought processes today. It should be said that education is merely a platform on which you build your life experiences. The more solid the platform, the more attainable the grand objectives which I am in the process of building.

What irks you about the wine industry?

I often feel that the wine industry works according to a predefined template. I like to try to do things differently and have respect for others in the wine industry who break free of the mould. Wine is a very competitive business and there are so many factors which jointly contribute to greatness - this also means that there are so many inputs which are ripe subjects for innovation, but innovation seems somehow to be lacking. South Africa has to apply the lesson of innovation in its marketing of its great product to the world. Another things that irks me is people who subscribe to the belief that wine quality can be accurately judged subjectively. Every great wine has its own nuances which will have a different appeal to a different consumer - once a certain minimum level of quality has been attained, it should be recognised that every wine has its own appeal. The best gauge of quality is your propensity to order another bottle.

What was your worst year as a winemaker and why?

In 2004 I lost my father, a great mentor and a true leader in the real world of wine - the world that is derived from the pleasure of consumption. This great setback was only slightly balanced out by the 2004 vintage, which produced some of the best Warwick and Vilafonte wines that we have ever produced.

In your opinion, is SA slowly losing its status as the home of the world's best wines?

South Africa has a long and chequered history and has never really had a reputation as home of the world's best wines. This might well change. There is a new energy fermenting in the winelands that is being driven by a growing band of exciting and innovative winemakers and proprietors who are continually challenging the status quo. It is a very exciting space to operate in - especially when you are surrounded by risk-takers. I believe that South Africa's reputation as the home of great wines will continue to grow and that within my career our wines will take their place among the best in the world.

Is there good money in wine producing?

Top producers know how to make money in the wine industry.

What or who inspires you?

My family inspires me. Innovation inspires me. The breaking down of illogical physical and psychological barriers inspires me. Every day that a new life lesson is learnt inspires me. A great bottle of wine aged to perfection and served under perfect conditions inspires me.

What is the one thing you wished you knew before you went into this sector? What would you have done differently?

The wine industry revolves around relationships - both with regards to the people who work for you and with regards to the people who you do business with. The entire concept of a brand is built on a sense of trust that pervades the relationship between producer and consumer. It took me a few years to work this out. A few lost years.
Author: Thekiso Anthony Lefifi 
Article Source: Times Live
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