Capture the sunshine
A visit with Ernie Els' winemaker offers a lesson in South African wines -- just as it did for Els 16 years ago
April 26, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
A visit with Ernie Els' winemaker offers a lesson in South African wines -- just as it did for Els 16 years ago
STELLENBOSCH, South Africa – A light haze caresses the Helderberg Mountain, which looms behind Louis Strydom's right shoulder as he pours one of his creations into a long-stemmed crystal glass. Shade from the oversized umbrella provides much-needed relief from a challenging hot summer day in South Africa’s Cape Winelands region. The cool False Bay breeze that extends the ripening period has yet to announce its presence.
In Afrikaans, Helderberg means “clear mountain" and now, while sitting in its foothills, you understand why. The setting on the back patio at the Ernie Els Winery is spectacular, one of those life-is-good moments.
On the table in front of Strydom are a variety of wine bottles, a mid-afternoon taste testing ready to begin. It’s not unlike the scene 16 years earlier when Strydom – an award-winning winemaker – first explored the palate of his country’s top professional golfer.
When Els decided in 1999 to enter the wine business, he asked Strydom to join his project. Priority No. 1 was choosing the wine they wanted to make. Potentially, this was a problem, since Els was no wine expert. He grew up in Johannesburg, in the Highveld, a grassy plateau through South Africa’s interior. Big city. No vineyards.
“They only drink brandy and Coke there,” Strydom says with a laugh. “They don’t drink any wine.”
Els’ dad, in fact, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and didn’t allow any in the house. Els’ interest in wine only took off in the early ‘90s after he met his future wife Liesl, who grew up in Stellenbosch. But while he now enjoyed a glass, he couldn’t tell you why. And that’s what he told Strydom that day.
No worries, replied Strydom. “You don’t have to know anything about wines to know what you enjoy.”
He then set aside five bottles, each one placed inside an unmarked bottle-store paper bag. This would be a blind taste test. Strydom didn’t want anything – the grape, the color, the label -- to influence Els. The only thing that mattered was taste.
“What the hell am I tasting here?” Els asked, still feeling out of his element.
“Just tell me. Just talk to me,” responded Strydom.
Els remained unsure. These guys with the oakey and the smokey and all this, he laughed to himself.
“Listen,” he told Strydom. “I’m not gonna tell you what I’m smelling or tasting. I’m just gonna tell you what I like."
So he did. A sip from the first bottle. The second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. It was that fifth and final bottle he enjoyed the most -- a classic Bordeaux-style blend with five varietals.
Strydom then went to work.
A year later, the Ernie Els Signature wine was introduced, utilizing those five varietals – 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 5 percent Petit Verdot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Malbec. It was an immediate success, akin to a golfer making his pro debut by winning The Open Championship. Wine Spectator gave it 93 out of 100 – no South African red wine had ever been rated that high.
Since then, the Ernie Els Signature has annually received 90-plus points for every vintage. Platter’s Wine Guide, the country’s top wine annual, has given it 5 stars on four occasions. It continues to set the tone for all of Els’ wines each year – a high-end product that consumers will appreciate and enjoy.
“I trust him – and I did trust him back then – so I knew he would come up with a good product,” Els says of Strydom. “He just wanted to see what I liked. I’m glad that first meeting went well.”
When it was released, the 2000 Signature sold for R450 in South Africa. At the current exchange rate, that’s just over $31 in U.S. dollars. If you’re a wine connoisseur, you’re probably not flinching at that price. But 16 years ago ...
“It was the most expensive wine in South Africa,” Strydom says. “And it came out of a brown paper bag.”
The Rust en Vrede farm, nestled in the Stellenbosch wine region, was established in 1694. But only in the last 30 years or so has the farm concentrated on making premium red wines. It soon became internationally known; during Nelson Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize dinner, it was Rust en Vrede’s wines being served.
This is where Ernie Els started dreaming of becoming a wine proprietor.
While dating Liesl, Els had befriended Jean Engelbrecht, whose family owns Rust en Vrede. On many occasions, their dates would end up at the farm, where John would have a barbeque – or, as the South Africans proudly refer to it, a Braai – and, of course, glasses of red wine.
During this time, Els became one of the world’s top golfers, winning two U.S. Opens. His name was internationally recognized, and Jean – seeing his friend’s increasing interest in wines, thanks mostly to his soon-to-be wife – suggested that Els have his own label.
“What the hell for?” responded Els.
But after his knee-jerk reaction, Els mulled over the idea. Other golfers had their own wines. Greg Norman launched his Australian wines in 1996. Fellow South African David Frost, whose family had been in the wine business for more than 60 years, bought a 300-acre vineyard in the Paarl wine region a couple of years earlier.
Els began seeing the connection between his sport and the sport of winemaking. Both are played outdoors, a genteel setting that belies that challenge of finding success. You have to figure out how to manage your way around a property, adjusting for the variances thrown at you by a change in elements.
Then there’s the balance between taking a technical approach and playing by feel. Honing your skills provides a better chance for success, but sometimes you must rely on your gut instinct. From this perspective, Els was not all that dissimilar from Strydom.
Speaking of which …
Strydom, a graduate of the esteemed Eisenburg Agricultural College in South Africa, had joined Rust en Verde in 1998 as its cellarmaster. His previous experiences in France, Italy, Germany and the United States had given him a well-rounded view of winemaking, but having grown in the Western Cape, he was quite familiar with the South African terroir.
He quickly made an impact with the Rust en Verde’s Estate wine, which earned a Top 100 listing from Wine Spectator.
With Strydom making the wines and Engelbrecht as his business partner, Els jumped into the business. Now that he had his own label and knew the kind of wines he favored, the next step was obvious – find a piece of land.
It took some time, but Engelbrecht, who led the search, finally secured a place – one mile from his own farm. The Webersburg estate offered 95 acres of vineyards with four varietals, and the Engelbrecht-Els team added 12 more acres with two more varietals.
“John knew what land to buy,” Els says. “We were lucky.”
The winery opened in 2004, a perfect location to do business – on the north slope of the Helderberg Mountain. The Mediterranean climate and the top-soil formation of oak leak and clay components is the kind of canvas that allows a wine artist such as Strydom to thrive.
“With the north-facing slopes, we do get the richness,” Strydom says. “Sun-drenched slopes for the last part of the year – we have to manage that. We have to capture the sunshine and put that into a bottle.
“We have to make sure we don’t overextract that. Don’t push it too far, get that jammy, overextracted style of wine. That’s probably our biggest challenge – to manage the sunshine.”
Wouldn’t we all like that kind of challenge?
Ernie Els has worked with David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon as his swing coaches. Given how much Strydom helps Els understand the process of turning grapes into a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, would that make Strydom his … wine coach?
“Uh, no,” Strydom smiles. “He has an opinion on the flavor that he tastes, the wines that he tastes. He’s forming his own opinion. Let him form that as much as possible without me actually trying to guide him in a direction I think he should go.”
Early on, Els favored the French Bordeaux. Consequently, that influenced his early Cabernet Sauvignon wines, which offered a bolder, powerful, firm taste. Big Cabs.
But then Els began developing a more nuanced palate. He understood flavors more and began moving away from the traditional French taste, letting the subtleties of the grapes dictate his enjoyment. Where before he preferred wine with fruit scents, now he opened up to something more dry, more structured.
“That’s a real natural progression of your palate, a much more deeper understanding of wine that when you just start drinking,” Strydom explains. “Sugar obviously coats those flavors, and then when you start drinking for the purity of the grape, your palate develops over time.”
Els’ palate continues to evolve. Having lived in the United States for several years, he started drinking more wines from Napa Valley, favoring the Cabs from that region. He’s bringing a bit of the fruitier taste back into the mix, only now cloaked under a Napa perspective instead of a French one.
Consider the Ernie Els Proprietor’s Blend. Els thought the wine should taste a little sweeter, so a subtle change was made by Strydom to add more Shiraz to the blend of six varietals.
“I think he listened to me,” Els recalls. “Put a little bit more fruit in the wine. It feels a little bit more fresh.”
Ernie is not the only member of the Els family who influences the taste of his wines. Given Liesl’s background from Stellenbosch, her knowledge of the industry and enthusiasm for discovering new wines – she’s the one with the family’s wine club membership, not Ernie – it would be foolish not to get her input.
When Els and his team meet to discuss wines, she has a voice in the room. In fact, several people have a hand in creating the final product. “It’s a whole team effort,” Els says. “I’m the owner/proprietor, but my knowledge is not totally there like it is with Louis. He’s a scientist.”
The scientist is glad to see Els’ palate evolving. It’s a reflection of the industry as a whole. As Els has moved beyond the Big Cab approach, so have his wines. The goal now is to make a great wine that’s also approachable. Or, more to the point, consumable.
“Those big Cabernets, you can have one glass, then you’re tired,” Strydom says. “We make a wine to complement the meal, not to be a meal in a glass. If you make a meal in a glass, you can make it big and rich and extracted.
“We want to complement the meal, have two or three glasses around a table and relax and not feel palate fatigue. We’re bringing much more balance into the wine that we previously didn’t have.”
Ultimately, the wines should be a reflection of the proprietor. After all, it’s his name on the label.
Fortunately, Els and Strydom work easily together – no surprise, since they’ve been doing it for 16 years. Not only does Els have complete faith in Strydom’s judgment, he appreciates the knowledge and experience his winemaker brings to the cellar.
“I could not have asked for any better guy than Louis,” Els said. “He’s the man, he’s the engine, he’s the everything of that setup. For me to be able to put my name to a product you can be proud of is what it’s all about.”
Strydom shares that desire to make a high-end product, and he appreciates Els’ kid-like enthusiasm and even-handed approach to decision-making. Both know who’s paying the bills, but Els never lets the financial side ruin a good conversation about the next harvest.
“Ernie loves people, he loves entertaining – and wine loves that as well,” Strydom says. “Wine loves people, wine loves entertaining. I think it’s a real good match – wine and Ernie Els. How people feel when they have a glass of wine and how people feel around Ernie. A relaxed easy-going demeanor, which comes through in the wines as well.”
Certainly, there’s a fine line between selling wine with Els’ name on the label and selling wine because of Els’ name. Both men understand the benefits of having a World Golf Hall of Famer as the company figurehead, but neither one wants to rely strictly on name recognition.
As countryman Branden Grace – who celebrated his recent RBC Heritage win by flying to south Florida to share drinks with Els – says, “You don’t just buy his wine because of his name; you buy it because it’s really good wine.”
That’s why Els will never short-change quality. He wants to grow his business, but do it the right way. He recently brought in a German investor to help pay for future upgrades to the facilities in Stellenbosch. He sees what they have in Napa – the latest technology, the best tanks – and knows he’s behind.
He’d like to produce more Ernie Els Signatures; the margins are much better than the nine other, less expensive bottles his winery produces. He mentions Chateau Latour, a First Growth wine estate – the highest honor for a French vineyard – as a model. High-end wine with significant volume.
At age 46 and in the latter stages of his pro golf career, Els will one day spend less time inside the ropes and more time inside the cellar. His hobby has turned into a business. Whether it’s a club in his hand or a long-stemmed glass, his expectations are high.
“Let’s see how close we can come to the perfect wine,” he says.
Heady dreams for a guy who just 16 years ago was taking sips out of bottles in paper bags, unsure of how to verbalize his reaction. Less than 10 bottles of those original 2000 Ernie Els Signatures are left, all securely stored inside the cellar below the tasting room. None are for sale.
Once a year, Strydom will walk down to the cellar, open up each vintage and take a sip. He wants to see how the wine is developing, part of the continuing education process that comes with winemaking. It’s the only time he drinks the 2000 Signature.
As he stands in the cellar on this day, the dank room offering respite from the soaring temps above, he thinks fondly of that first meeting so long ago. All he needed from Els was an answer to a simple question: Do you enjoy the wine or not?
At the end of the day, it’s the only thing that mattered. Sixteen years later, it remains the only thing that matters.
“That’s how I gauge how we put the wines together, how we work with the wines,” Strydom says. “I don’t tell Ernie how to putt. He doesn’t need to tell me how to make wine.”