The Helderberg is just a little bit agog over reports about the sale – at last – of Cordoba. Only a little agog because even now final confirmation and details are lacking, and because rumours have been rife for so long (as I mentioned back in January) about its purchase by California cult winery Screaming Eagle.
It was either definitely on or definitely off, depending upon which rumour stream you waded into. The price, in both streams, was spoken of as in the order of R100 million (about a quarter of what Screaming Eagle was supposed to have gone for in 2006.
Now the definitely ons seem to be right – and also wrong, because the purchaser seems to be not Screaming Eagle itself, but one of the investors behind the winery, Charles Banks. The intriguing detail (especially for those concerned with Napa more than Stellenbosch) is that Banks is severing his connections with Screaming Eagle. This latest, Banks-centred, strand of the story was first publicised last week by the always well-informed Jancis Robinson on the subscription part of her website, and subsequently affirmed in a story on Wine Spectator.
There the focus was understandably on Screaming Eagle and the break-up of the partnership with joint owner Stan Kroenke. No mention of which two wineries in South Africa Banks was expecting to close a deal on – and of course no mention of a possible bad-blood bust-up, but one can have one’s suspicions. Could it have been a bust-up precisely over the Cape connection, one wonders?
An interesting factor, you see, is that while Banks now emerges as the buyer in his personal capacity, all along the investigations and approaches have been carried out by the personnel of Screaming Eagle. As recently as January, Screaming Eagle winemaker Andy Erickson was out here, and his assistant JessicaTarpy has been prowling the Helderberg too, sussing out the neighbours. (Presumably their reports must have been favourable. I bet that the 1997 Cordoba Crescendo helped convince them … a great wine.)
As to the second winery that Banks is apparently buying. The most persistent rumours (generally pooh-poohed) have centred round Mulderbosch, and there was also talk about buying Nooitgedacht, the farm on the Helderberg owned by Rustenberg’s Simon Barlow. I can confirm that the latter is not in question – the land is in the process of being sold, in five sections, but there is no dark foreigner involved.
Mulderbosch? Well we must wait and see. This is a winery that already makes wines that are perhaps already tending to the American in style, with their forward charm and touch of residual sugar in Mike Dobrovic’s recipe, so I don’t much care what happens to it, frankly. But I would very much hope that Cordoba will be allowed to continue producing a wine like Chris Keet’s much-lamented Crescendo. This cab franc-based wine never got the renown or the sales it deserved, I thought, as one of the Cape’s best classic-styled reds. Again we will have to wait and see – and to see if the winery name will even continue, I suppose.
It’s probably a good thing for the image of Cape wine, to have another big investor like this: an interesting feature since 1994, and a strength, in my opinion, is that foreign investment has mostly been at the level of individual properties and has involved personal ambitions to make fine wine, rather than investment in big wineries and with the goal largely limited to making lots of money – interestingly, Mr Banks did remark in the Spectator article, presumably a touch wrily, that the wine business is “not an easy way to make money”. Perhaps when you’ve made as much as he has already, that doesn’t matter quite so much.
Meanwhile, the modest folks on the Helderberg (IT moguls et al) will remain a bit agog, and look forward to a smart new neighbour popping in occasionally to view his domain. And no doubt, all round the wine industry, there’ll be some discreet jostling, and a whole new set of rumours, about the personnel for the new venture. When (and we must still say “if”) it happens.