Carteirra involves its customers in the winemaking process
A South African winery offers clients the chance to make a barrel of their own vintage blend and design the bottle labels, writes Robin Lynam
It may sound improbable, but Hong Kong wine lovers have Robert Mugabe to thank for a rare opportunity to commission their own customised barrels of wine.
A South African company, Carteirra, is making wine tailored to private and corporate customer specifications, not only on the Cape but also in California and in France. Its founder, Peter Stuart, was in Hong Kong recently to introduce the service.
Ten years ago, Stuart says he was "perfectly happy" as a tobacco farmer in Zimbabwe. But then his farm was seized by the Mugabe administration.
"We became part of the land redistribution programme, so we opted to move to South Africa and start a new life," he explains.
Stuart bought another farm at Walker Bay, near the coast of South Africa's Western Cape. Neighbour and winemaker Niels Verburg advised him that his acquisition included one of the best parcels of land for shiraz grapes in South Africa, and Stuart paid attention.
He invited Verburg to help him make some wine, intended mostly for the consumption of friends. For fun, they allowed some of them to have a say in how it was made, participating in the choice of barrels - French or American oak - and in blending decisions.
The wines turned out well, and Stuart's friends suggested that he might have the basis for a business. "We started offering people who lived slightly more remotely, or in places like Johannesburg, the opportunity to make a wine with us, with a select number of vineyards in our area that we knew were producing very good quality wine. It grew from there," Stuart explains.
He called the business Wine Connected, and initially offered the service only to wine lovers in South Africa. But the idea spread abroad, and so Carteirra - a play on the Spanish word for "financial portfolio" with connotations of "terroir" - was established.
"We were approached by some Americans who asked if we'd like to take the concept to California. We selected two good winemakers, to make wine for people in American cities, and then two winemakers in France," explains Stuart.
"The idea is that you have the option of making a barrel - or half a barrel - of wine in France, or in California, or in South Africa, and have that wine labelled with your own label design, bottled, and delivered to you," he says.
That kind of personal engagement with the winemaking process is usually the privilege of celebrities or the wealthy. Carteirra is making some wine in France for golfer Ian Woosnam, but Stuart is the first entrepreneur to market such a service at a relatively affordable level for a wider public.
An order from Hong Kong (which has no wine import tax), for a barrel from South Africa, which has lower production costs than France or California, would typically cost HK$37,000. About HK$7,000 of that would be accounted for by the cost of a new oak barrel, which can be reused for subsequent vintages at a HK$7,000 saving.
Each barrel will produce 300 70cl bottles, which works out at less than HK$125 per bottle.
The Hong Kong tasting of some of Stuart's wines, held at the Hong Kong Cricket Club (HKCC) and organised by his first local client, Dave Murray, Standard Chartered Bank's (Hong Kong) Global Head of Equity Research - was, he says, "effectively Carteirra's global launch event".
So far there are about 150 barrels of wine maturing in South Africa, California and France. Stuart aims to get that figure up to around 300.
Business has come in through a combination of word of mouth and the company website, carteirra.com
"You go on to the site, or engage with us directly," Stuart explains. "You select a particular cultivar or vineyard, you are allocated a winemaker, you select a barrel, and that barrel then becomes uniquely yours.
"During the winemaking period, you design a label, which you submit to us. You can visit the vineyard, visit the cellar, and taste your barrel. We will send you samples and, you can taste the wine three or four times in its early life, to experience the results of the blending and maturation process," he says.
Because the wines are made by professional winemakers with fruit from good estates, Cartierra's clients have reasonable assurances of quality. But their own decisions can nevertheless have a real impact on the wine.
At the HKCC, Stuart blended one of his cabernet sauvignons with 10 per cent shiraz, and vice versa, and invited those present to compare the blended and unblended wines.
Opinion was divided on the merits of each, but everybody agreed that the blending made a distinct difference to the character of the wine.
Murray, who commissioned one barrel of shiraz, and is splitting a second barrel of cabernet sauvignon - both from South Africa - with a friend, had the chance to taste the first samples of his wine during Stuart's visit.
"It's an amazing experience getting unique exposure to experts in the field, and having a product which you feel you've helped create, and which is delicious to drink. It's very rewarding from a whole lot of perspectives," he says.
"I couldn't be on site for the harvesting experience, but they were very good at showing videos and photographs of the event," he says.
Murray does intend to visit South Africa when the wines are ready for blending, but says he has no illusions about the relative importance of his contribution.
"A big part of it is actually learning. Hopefully, I'll have a proactive role, but I'll certainly defer to the winemaker."
Because of the high level of interaction required between winemakers and barrel owners, Stuart says he has selected the former on the basis of personality as well as skill. All have profiles posted on the website.
But Stuart adds that different clients opt for different degrees of involvement. Sam Jones, founder and CEO of computer software company CompIndex, heard about Carteirra from his friend Murray, and was struck by the potential of a personalised wine as a corporate gift. He has also bought a barrel of shiraz, but has left all the decisions so far to the winemaker.
"I liked the idea of getting a personalised quality product from source rather than through the regular supply chain," he says. "The attraction was that we could deliver something to clients which we could build a bit of a story around."
In South Africa, according to Stuart, the client base is split 50-50 between private and corporate customers. Banks, in particular, have used winery visits as means of socialising with important customers.
"Not only are they going to get a bottle at the end of it, but they can become involved in the whole winemaking process. It's a very innovative client engagement platform," he says.
For Murray, the appeal is more personal. "It's for friends and family," he says. "The wine is for sharing. It's definitely not for commercial purposes. Unless this barrel is a disaster from a taste perspective, I will definitely be replaying it.
"Further down the track, if after the third season we decide that the barrel has done enough, I am going to be carving it up and making some cheeseboards out of it," Murray adds.