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Nothing is impossible if your name is Ken Forrester

Nothing is impossible if your name is Ken Forrester

Words: Samarie Smith-Meletiou DipWsET 

Ken Forrester’s sartorial signature is a blue-tone shirt, almost purposefully chosen to resonate with his darting blue eyes. It brings calm to his spirited demeanour like he anticipates telling a fascinating story deserving of a slower pace. Because, without a doubt, a conversation with this man can lead to the bottom of many an empty Chenin Blanc bottle. 

 He has recounted his story in various shades over the years, but with each retelling, he patiently weaves in new developments and anecdotes. A larger-than-life wine personality indeed, whose 2021 Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc earned the world’s finest Chenin Blanc title at the 2022 Decanter World Wine Awards. His prowess was further recognized when he received the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award at the 2023 Wine Harvest Commemorative.

 “My philosophy is that a rising tide lifts all boats,” he gets going in that recognisable, authoritative voice. Then, he leans forward on his elbows, as if all the answers to my questions are bottled up inside him, ready to be uncorked. “Working directly under Sol Kerzner taught me that nothing is impossible; the monuments of his mindset still stand today.”

While Ken Forrester Wines and the various styles of Chenin Blanc they produce are monumental achievements in their own right, for Ken, they are merely chapters in his life’s narrative. It was all destined to be, unfolding in ways that were not always comfortable or predictable! Fresh out of hotel school, an eager-to-please 19-year-old, Ken was one of two

graduates chosen to be part of the opening management team responsible for taking over some of business magnate Sol Kerzner’s hotels from the builders and architects. These included Mmabatho Sun (the oldest casino in South Africa, now called Mmabatho Tusk), Maharani, and Sun City. He vividly recounts a story from 1976, when a demanding Kerzner, dismayed at the absence of palm trees to adorn his hotels, assigned a bewildered Forrester the task of procuring 35 palm trees as he sped off in his Ferrari. This left Ken no choice but to knock on doors with a polite “hello oom, hello tannie,” hoping to negotiate a fair price with locals willing to part with the palm trees growing in their backyards.   

“Nothing is impossible, remember.”

The undertaking demanded the rental of a 40-ton crane in Johannesburg, followed by an agonising 326km drive at a mere 12km/hour. Those sentinel palm trees still stand today (and Ken planted two at the entrance to Ken Forrester Vineyards as a reminder of that time). Within weeks, a cadre of professionals choreographed the transformation of a colossal hotel, turning it into a fully operational establishment. Ken recounts a vivid incident from this period, steering a rental Ford Cortina into a maise field, much to the dismay of a farmer. Luckily, he emerged unscathed and was offered a bed at the begrudging farmer’s house. The sodden car retraced its path to the depot, its keys later discovered in an envelope, left behind by a driver who made a hasty exit.

“Cheers to never being average”

Despite the twists and turns of life, Ken’s dreams stayed the course, crystallising when he undertook the task of resurrecting a derelict farm. There’s no denying that Ken Forrester commands attention — tall, assertive, charismatic, and straight to the point. Two decades immersed in tourism further moulded his vision, so much so he would present a bottle of wine as if it were a 5-carat diamond ring.

Approximately 25 years ago, Ken and other luminaries in the wine industry grappled with the problem of a wine region boasting 200 wineries. Yet, only 32 members were part of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes. “Where were the rest? If something was amiss, we needed to identify the issue and understand how to rectify it. So, we looked at Stellenbosch through a tourist’s lens. As a tourist entering Stellenbosch from the R44 into the Helderberg, I don’t want a dissertation on Cabernet Sauvignon from the Simonsberg or Bottelary. I’ll spend the entire day driving! The same applies when entering Stellenbosch via the R301 – then I want to explore what lies there.”

Thus, they carved out five touristic regions of Stellenbosch based on its tourism access. “It made perfect sense that when people entered a region, they knew what to anticipate. We championed a regional identity for Simonsberg, Helderberg, Polkadraai, etc., encouraging each region to grow and define itself. I eventually chaired the Helderberg Wine Route and served on the board of the Stellenbosch Wine Route. Ever since, Ken navigated various facets of hospitality, restructuring, rebuilding, and spearheading awareness – a crucial component in the triumph of Ken Forrester Wines.

Today, Stellenbosch Wine Route and Tourism have merged, with Ken staunchly believing that the delicate equilibrium between hospitality and tourism entices people to discover a brand. “Understanding your business on a global platform is crucial in wine. In the Chenin Blanc Association with Ina Smith in the driving seat, we collaborated with France for two decades, championing Chenin Blanc. It culminated in the inaugural Chenin Blanc Symposium held in Stellenbosch in 2022. This landmark event witnessed 170 French Chenin Blanc producers descending upon Stellenbosch to witness the ingenuity behind ‘Drink Chenin’ and observe the innovation of South African producers.”

He believes wine tourists are experiential, wanting to experience wine while discovering new foods and having the chance to buy trinkets and homemade products, imbuing their tasting experience with relevance.  “How you present your wine sets the tone for their ongoing relationship with it. Booking a wine tasting should be no different than reserving a table at a fine restaurant, and that’s precisely how you treat your guests. The American market, for instance, sets high expectations, and they’re willing to invest, provided the value is genuine.”

South Africa witnesses more arrivals from the USA than any other country – three direct arrivals daily into Cape Town, constituting 40% of all incoming arrivals. Ken himself has become synonymous with pounding the pavements of New York, personally pitching, and selling his wines.  “The most effective way to sell wine is liquid on lips. Open a bottle, pour, done. When you can sell an experience, consider it in the bag. The most important form of advertising is your relationship with your customers. Traditional media advertising is like a one-night stand. A serious sale happens when you dial in on a repeat basis.” 

His adeptness at nurturing relationships has spawned a collaboration with Sonoma winemaker Jesse Katz in 2012, resulting in a wine called The Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon, rated 93/100 by Wine Enthusiast. On African soil in 2022, the Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc clinched the title of Decanter’s Best Chenin Blanc in the world, boasting an impressive 97 points. 

“Generous, but I’ll take it!”

Ken reflects on a pivotal moment: “I probably blame the hospitable Oom Niel Joubert from Spier for raking me into wine. You’d be invited to stay for lunch or dinner if you arrived close to mealtime, and a bottomless cupboard filled with wine awaited beneath his staircase. He’d sagely advise as midnight approached: ‘Never forget your body is just a filter. If you indulge in young wine after midnight, your filter will work overtime, and you’ll wake up tired. Reserve the late hour for mature wines.’ Thus, we’d be surrounded by extraordinary old wines, uncorking bottles until 4 a.m.” 

The genesis of Ken Forrester Wines sprouted at a braai with former Springbok rugby player and wine personality Jannie Engelbrecht when he told Ken about a dilapidated farm with “bobbejaanskytgronde” that would yield nothing more than an average Sauvignon Blanc. 

“And be sure to uproot the Chenin.” 

“Can you imagine getting out of bed every morning to be average? You’ve got to be kidding me! But that was the wine industry three decades ago.” The year 2022 marked precisely 30 years since he defied all advice and purchased his forsaken farm, destined never to be ordinary.

Three Decades of Ken Forrester

The first decade was dedicated to forging a business from his farm, and notably, from Chenin Blanc, that others were quick to doom to failure. At his first wine show, he found his booth wedged between the greatness of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and well-known Champagne houses. 

“Still, I had stalwarts like Johan Krige and Martin Meinart in my corner. I learned over the shoulder of great winemakers who became my mentors, and 30 years later, we are still friends.” 

It was a “conversation with a pretty woman at the London Wine Fair” that connected him Bernard Germain, whom he then worked a harvest for in France. He was catapulted into the deepest pool of knowledge, yet he swam and returned to South Africa determined to ferment Chenin Blanc in French barrels. Again, he turned a deaf ear to threats of failure and was rewarded with Steve Daniel, a UK wine buyer, purchasing one-third of the entire production. 

“That was the moment — without that, I would never have been in business today.”

In 1996, his restaurant, 96 Winery Road, opened its doors and was named after the vintage. The restaurant was the safety net, allowing him to dabble in the cellar, bringing an income while still finding his wine legs. The better part of the first decade saw Ken traversing the globe in economy class, lodging in cheap hotels, and navigating cities in budget rentals – from early morning meetings to paying for one too many dinners and ending up with 150 business cards with cryptic notes to remember who’s who. 

“But if I could get that liquid on lips, I could sell it.” 

But still, it requires a unique mindset, talent and a thick skin to accomplish that. “Sometimes they don’t like you, your wine, or where you come from. They tell you your price is too low or too high. They all know more about your business than you do about their customers.”

So it was rather tenacity and a good sense of humour, Ken contends, looking up from his wine glass. “You also need to learn to face rejection. Tell people what they want to hear, not what you want to tell them. Make it simple for them to understand — they will love you for it.” 

Talking dirty is another talent, much more interesting than talking trends.

“The Dirty Secret Chenin Blanc is soaring, as if it has a life of its own, selling by the glass for 60 odd pounds in London at about two dozen restaurants. In its fifth release, we could finally make a solera of all parts. I love it for everything it is: natural, no additives, wild fermented, no sulphites before fermentation and no settling agents. It is left in barrel, racked off the lees, and blended. So yes, I have vastly different ideas about oxygen destroying wine – this wine is alive and gets better every time you taste it. 

Pioneering a Heritage Grenache Vineyard

Allowing the chapters in his life to unfold the way they did by learning, making mistakes, adapting, etc, kept his love for marketing and tourism alive without forfeiting his maverick spirit. As you enter Ken Forrester Vineyards, a motley crew of dogs leads the way to where you will often find the man himself enjoying a glass of Chenin Blanc with a friend or passionately elucidating the significance of the magnificent stained glass windows, all his dogs gathered by his feet.  His farm, Scholtzenhof, one of the oldest farms in the Cape, originally granted as Zandberg in 1689, has been transformed into a sustainable business with an array of exciting wines to enjoy. And albeit Chenin Blanc takes centre stage here, he tells a fascinating story of a new project that involves the Piekenierskloof Grenache used to make his edgy Ken Forrester Gypsy.

He points to a young vineyard block outside the tasting room: “What you see planted here is the same Grenache planted in the Piekernierskloof in 1959 by the Marais widow from Nietbegin. She had been taking cuttings, pruning other people’s vineyards in the winter for extra money. She kept some cuttings she intended to sell the following spring; some shot roots. No one wanted to buy them, so she persuaded a farmer to plant them in exchange for the cuttings.” He reiterates her challenges, from deer grazing the vineyard into an oval shape to baboons shamelessly feasting on the fruit until a guard had to be employed. 

“The Chenin Blanc Association collaborated with the University of Montpellier who came out to look at this vineyard, taking samples back with them. The DNA revealed a unique mutation not found in France or elsewhere.” 

Ken also took cuttings from this vineyard and gave them to Vititec. After four years and 30 cuttings later, the plant had outgrown all pathogens and viruses, producing clean cuttings for a Mother block now planted at Ken Forrester. 

“It might not look like it, but it will grow to become South Africa’s first heritage vineyard. Decades ago, I met an Australian with the vocabulary of a sailor, Peter Barry, who would cut vineyards off and let them bleed to regrow. In the first decade, we did the same instead of pulling out the vines, cutting them off 30 cm above the ground – a leap of faith, and you have to believe it will grow back!”

Ken’s words had still not runneth dry, but our time for this visit had, so he wrapped it up, explaining what comes next.

“The soil preparation required ripping up koffieklip, and we built a wall from these stones along the length of the vineyard. It will be called The Rockpile Grenache.

Ken’s fingers tap on the table, not impatiently. Still, he squints as he involuntarily delves into his memory to unearth more stories to share, and then he sighs: “I wish I kept a record of every tasting and event that led me here. It must be thousands.”

“And let me tell you, none of them was done in vain.”

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