Legend of SA Wine – Norma Ratcliffe
As the first woman to become a member of the Cape Winemakers Guild, Norma Ratcliffe is regarded by many as a doyenne of the South African Wine industry. She and late husband Stanley established Warwick Wine Estate.
“I’d like to write a story about Warwick,” says Norma Ratcliffe. “My grandchildren are always saying, ‘What did you do? What did you used to do?’“I’ve told them lots of stories, but I’d like to make it into a book for my family.”
On her early years
“I grew up in Northern Canada, which is very cold, so we all did winter sports big time. I went to school and went to university, at the University of Alberta.
“I decided on BSc Textile because I was good at chemistry. Half the people I graduated with never ended up doing what they were trained for, but the brain was trained.
“Those were the golden years all over the world really, not just in Canada. When we graduated from university, businesses were queuing to hire us. I had an offer in Montreal. I thought, this sounds pretty exciting, so I went. I worked in the promotions department, which I loved. But I had itchy feet. I wanted to travel. I went to Europe, and qualified as a ski instructor. I found a job at a resort in Switzerland.
“You know, you just think how naïve one is at that stage in your life! I never thought about how I was going to live or where I was going to get money, although I had already worked.
“From the ski resort, I went to Greece, where I worked and that’s where I met my husband.
“We met sailing. My girlfriend and I ran a restaurant in Mykonos. We worked out that we didn’t have to work every day. We could work alternate days and make enough money to go on. It was cheap in Europe in those days. So, one day she went. I got another job on the alternate day working as a disc jockey in a discotheque to make more money.
“I got fired from that job actually because it was still a thing when you picked up the needle put it on the record, that’s how ancient it was. It was 50-something years ago. I think I’d had too many glasses of wine; I think I’d dropped needle on some record and completely destroyed it.
“My girlfriend had met these South Africans who were sailing in. They used to come in for lunch invited us to go out for dinner. One of them was my future husband.”
On coming to South Africa
“I didn’t want to tell my dad I was coming to South Africa. He was so anti, so I told him I was going to Ghana to visit some of his friends who were in the diplomatic service. He wasn’t stupid and knew there was a man involved here. He asked, do you know what you’re doing? Then I said I’m going to South Africa. He said, you know this is a police state and I got the big lecture. I said I’m going. And then we went back to Canada and were married there, as we did, in our mother’s church. That’s how we did it.”
On the early history of the farm
“We built that farm up from nothing. There were no vines on it, no winery. We had a big bond on the farm, and we said we wouldn’t start making wine until we’d paid it off.
“It seems ridiculous the amount the bond was then, but it was a lot. I mean, it was a lot. We did a lot of cash crops and things like that. We needed cash to just operate. And then we’d get enough cash and plant one vineyard.
“Stan died 17 years ago. It’s hard to believe. He was in his 60s.
“But it was Stan who bought the property. He and his father had a chicken farm in Kraaifontein and they grew broilers for County Fair. Stan loved farming as did his father, who was like a closet farmer because he worked in the family business, but he really wanted to farm.
“That farm was later expropriated and its now a suburb called Sunrise.
“Stan’s father asked him what he’d like to do and he responded: grape farming. So, he went to Elsenburg and he wanted to buy a farm, but obviously he couldn’t. He was a young man. He was still in his 20s. His dad said he could pay it off and he’d be the guarantor.
“Stan wanted a farm that was undeveloped. He was a young man and wanted to build it up from scratch. It eventually came down to Warwick or Rust en Vrede.
“I asked him why hadn’t bought Rust en Vrede? It had that gorgeous house. He said they didn’t have any water! It already had grapes planted. But he looked at farms in the Koue Bokkeveld and everywhere.”
The first plantings
“The first varieties that were planted were Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault.
“I asked Stan why? He said, I went to have drinks with my neighbours Greyling du Plessis, De la Rey du Plessis and Annemie Calitz. They said this is what works. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel, which is what I told my own son when he came into the business and had a lot of very good ideas.
“I said go talk to the neighbours or anyone in the wine industry. Cabernet still works in the Simonsberg ward.
“We later planted Pinotage, which served us well. We only planted Cabernet Franc in 1981 after we’d been to Bordeaux.
“We planted the [Cabernet Franc] at the same time as Meerlust because they had that clone. It was an Italian clone from Northern Italy. We got it from Distell, which was Distillers Corporation at that time. We weren’t the first to plant it, but we were the first to produce a good Cabernet Franc as a single varietal. That was 1988.
“I loved it from the beginning. It also worked well where we planted it. That’s one of the big keys. It wasn’t because we were so clever. It was a guess because nobody knew what they were doing with that variety.
“Nico Myburgh at Meerlust gave me a lot of help and mentorship on this whole story because they had already planted it for their blend. The Rubicon, I guess. He was really, really helpful. They were all helpful.”
On the challenges
“In the beginning before we started making wine, I also had two little babies. Stan was very much the farmer, which was his love. His love was not winemaking. I think if I hadn’t come along in 1971, we wouldn’t have made wine. We only started in ’84.
“He was very much the farmer and viticulturist. Stan was also a bit of an entrepreneur. He also had a business in Klapmuts called Klapmuts Concrete and had a hazardous material business that he started in Bellville. He had many hats.
“When I said I think we should make wine…No! My neighbours and colleagues said you are crazy not to be making your own wine.
“I got interested in that side. They said you have the brilliant terroir and I said, I don’t really know how to make wine. The other issue we had going on in those days, were the restrictions in the industry with the KWV and with pricing. We had to deliver grapes because we needed the money. We couldn’t make wine.
“It got to the point where they were paying us so little that we said, really?! This isn’t covering our costs. This is not good. So, we said we should do something else, and we did.
“I said OK, I’ll take this on and we also went to Distiller’s Corporation. We didn’t want to lose the contract and I said I’m only going to make a little bit of wine on the side, which turned out being a lot of wine. The first year was very successful…
The Cabernet Sauvignon was also the first. It was ’84, which was a brilliant vintage to start on. It was encouraging.
“We ordered the books from America. That’s how you did it. I just read the books and used them as reference books when I had a problem, I’d look them up and say, oh dear! This is a lot worse than it looks! But I also consulted the labs. I consulted my neighbours and would say, I’ve got a problem. What do I do? They’d say, we can fix this. This is how you do it.
“I studied and went to the Cape Wine Academy. We did that with my husband, Harvey Illing from Uitkyk, who also helped me a lot. We didn’t do the Cape Wine Masters or anything like that, but we learned a lot. We had a group, so we’d buy wines and taste them.
“I used to go to Elsenburg quite a lot. They were really people that were so happy to help. Everybody was helpful.
“The next year – 1985 – wasn’t as a good vintage but it was the first in which we launched properly. The ’84 I hadn’t learned how to get the paperwork right for the Wine and Spirit Board. They wouldn’t certify it. So, I put a beautiful Cezanne style label on it and sold it out of hand. I don’t know if they knew or not, but we needed money. I said we’re selling this.
“We decided we really liked the Rustenberg style of wines. So, we copied it. We took Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, and crushed them together. I still have one bottle left.
“People ask me how do you copy a wine? Well, I’ve done it since too. I also did it later on. I said this wine is fantastic, let’s try to do this style, because everyone is crazy about it!”
On working together
“Sometimes it was quite fiery. For instance, even in ’84, when I said, OK. We’ve been to Bordeaux. We know how this works. We’ve looked at what Nico Myburgh is doing and his success. We’ve looked at Billy Hofmeyer. We need new French wood. So, I went off to Demtos and bought six new barrels.
“They were R184.00! Stan said I was going to bankrupt him! It was a lot of money. But I said we needed to invest if we were serious. Eventually, when we had successes, I think he was more relaxed about it.
“He saw a future.
“The other thing we argued about sometimes was what we were going to plant, where. One particular example was this beautiful location. Some consultant said we should plant Sauvignon Blanc. I refused, opting for Cabernet Sauvignon. I just put my foot down. I was more involved in the vineyard, and I won.
“Eventually we did plant Sauvignon Blanc somewhere else, which was a brilliant success for us.”
On selling Warwick
My husband died and we carried on. It was long before the industry hit this slump. Things were booming.
Neither of her children – Mike or Jenny – were keen to run the farm and had other interests.
“I said, all right. I’m in my 70s. I don’t want to run it on my own. I said if I get a buyer at the right price, I’m going to sell it and they agreed.”
On the wine industry
“[The challenge in the industry is not a lack of] cohesion, but you run out of time.
“We knew everyone in our area because of proximity and accessibility. We could get together and have a meeting and say, all of us together can say we have to do something because the prices we’re getting from the wholesalers are ridiculous.
“I think there is huge cohesion in the industry. The challenge is focus.”
On proud moments
“I think the one thing is that I was a woman in the wine industry. Everyone says, didn’t you have push-back? Weren’t these guys resistant? I said, no, they weren’t. But then, I was a bit of a novelty.
“I remember Kevin Arnold, then at Delheim, saying: ‘If you’re going to make wine, we’ll help you because we don’t want bad wine in this valley.’ That was the approach.
“In terms of doing things for the women in the industry, OK, I think I ploughed a lot of rows for sure, but that was not what I set out to do. I was doing it for myself. I mean, I have to be honest. This was totally selfish. It was exciting and the fact that I took a lot of women along with me, was a big bonus.
“And then, when we started the Women in Wine exchange, about 10 years ago, that was a cohesive moment. It’s about women asking other women: What do I do now? Where do I get this? Who’s going to help me get a job for a vintage in California?
“Before Covid, we used to meet physically and there weren’t all technical tastings, some were just parties, networking. We started being winemakers and then marketing girls came and journalists came. They said, can’t we join? Sure! Why not?
“I think I did quite a bit of mentoring.
“One of the things I was very proud of happened when things really took off after Mandela was released from jail. Suddenly we were the dreamchild of wine and they came from everywhere. They wanted to sell our wine. That was good for us, and we started immediately with various agents.
“I really got out there. I saw this export opportunity as something that was just going to take our business up and up, and it did. It totally did, so we actually didn’t have enough wine. We had to pep this up.
“We still sold some grapes in those days, even in 1990, but we said, we’re going to make all this wine ourselves. In 1995 they had President Mandela Awards for Export Excellence and we were selected. They had a big co-op and various sized business; and, it wasn’t just wine. We ended up winning the small cap award. That was one of my biggest thrills because I put a lot of energy into it.”
“Receiving the 1659 Medal was also one of my highlights because it’s not for a winemaker. It’s for your contribution, what you’ve contributed to the industry generally that has left a legacy. That really made me feel good.”
About selling wine
“I think there are many people who still have a pie-in-the-sky attitude about making a living from beautiful wine. People come to me and ask advice. I say, this wine’s beautiful. Now, how are you going to sell it? Because you have to sell it before you can make more. They say, well, I’m an artist and I say, then you’re not going to survive. Hire someone to do it for you! But, of course, most new winemakers can’t afford to hire someone to do it.”
In 1994 a whole group of us went to the Vancouver Wine Show and right across Canada, and we were marketing Pinotage. Everybody was so interested, but I still had some of this left. So, I generously put it in to show what it can be as a blend, not as Pinotage because when I came back from that trip, I said, you know what, there are two things we have to do. We have to sell wine in hard currency, and we have to put a Pinotage blend on the market because Pinotage at the moment is too Pinotagey for them, in North America, because they don’t really understand it yet.
When I came back, I said we’re going to make a Pinotage blend, so it was Pinotage, Cab and Merlot because it would be something they would recognise, like a Bordeaux blend but it had Pinotage in it. Three Cape ladies took off. I did enter it. It was the 1997 vintage. I did enter it in a competition that came up, I think it was Diner’s Club or something. I didn’t win and I was so disappointed because I really thought it was so stunning. They had overseas judges and at that stage, you didn’t have to have Pinotage in a Cape Blend. Ronelle Wiid, she won it and hers was a Shiraz blend. I see when I cleaned out my cellar, I’ve still have one bottle of that. It was Cab Shiraz and something else. She won, which I was very happy about, but I still thought I really love this wine. I was proud of it, and it had a gorgeous label, which also sold it.
On the Warwick name
When the Ratcliffe’s acquired the Stellenbosch farm, it already bore the name Warwick and they decided to keep it.
“They say it’s bad luck to change the name. It’s a nice name!”
Norma tells the story of how it came by its title. “Colonel Gordon came out for the Boer War and his regiment was the Warwickshire Regiment. His brother was also Colonel of the Highlanders. But, they both stayed in South Africa. He bought Warwick much later, after the war, in the ‘20s. The property had been part of a huge farm in the valley called De Goede Sukses, but he called it Warwick.
“When we got going, we also thought it would be quite useful to have this English name, but of course nobody in South African can pronounce it!
“When we started with our labelling in 1994, a friend did our labels. She said we needed something female about this because you’re starting a new brand. So, we used the marriage cup that we used on all the labels; and, we used The Lady as brand name too.”
Advice to young winemakers
“I think one of the big changes in the industry in my time, that is significant, is not winemaking, but viticulture. Varieties we’re planting; the places we’re planting. Whole new areas have opened up.
“The Old Vine revival is unbelievable. I have a bottle of that standing ready to drink; some old Cinsault.
“I think that people have to move with that. A lot of the young guys have been very successful, and you know, I cheer them on. They can’t afford to buy vineyards anymore. It’s too expensive. They’re buying in from interesting areas and perfecting that style from what they bought.
“What they’re doing is really exciting. However, these lovely winemakers…some of them are making too little wine to make any impact in the market anywhere. If they have a small importer in Europe, it’s OK, but if they want to get a listing somewhere, they must be able to supply on a routine basis. The day you don’t supply a restaurant, they just take you off the list and say goodbye.
“I think if people could be more aware of the exciting wines that are being made here, I think the future of the wine industry is the likes of middle-sized Beyerskloof, Warwick, Delheim, Rust en Vrede. They’re the people who can produce the volume to make a statement.”
This feature was derived from a series of interviews by radio show host Martelize Brink, conducted in association with Winelands Media, a division of Vinpro.