Some fascinating history

Have you ever wondered how Zonnebloem changed from being the name of one of the great South African wines of the middle 20th century to a rather dull brand? Whether or not you have, if you’re interested in the modern history of Cape wine, the story of the decline makes for fascinating reading and gives a good deal of insight into what was happening in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

It’s been researched and written up by Stellenbosch University researcher Chris Venter, and appeared in the November edition of the academic history journal Historia. Generously, they make the article freely available, so if your Afrikaans is up to it, you can download it here. I knew about the article because over a year ago the editor asked me to referee it for Historia: I must say the published version is even more interesting than that first one.

It’s obviously too involved and textured a story to go into here. A few points, perhaps.

Not everyone realises just what a big name Zonnebloem was back then, with even something of an international reputation for its Cabernet Sauvignon, which most likely included some cinsaut. The wine was made and matured for many years at the Furters’ Zonnebloem farm in Simondium, near Paarl, where the grapes were grown. (The other well-known wine under the Zonnebloem label was a Riesling – made, of course, from crouchen.) It was (perhaps only in the 1940s) bottled and at some point marketed by Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (later to become part of gigantic Distell), which also took much of the rest of the Zonnebloem harvest – chenin was the biggest volume after cruchen.

Four winemakers were associated with the wine in its time of triumph. Willem Furter brought it initial fame in the 1930s. On his death before the 1940 harvest, his daughter Marie took over for a few years and also won great triumphs at the Paarl wine show. I don’t know of anyone with better claims to be the Cape’s first recognised woman professional winemaker – let alone successful at her job.

Marie trained her brother-in-law, John de Villiers, and when he and his wife bought the Zonnebloem farm in 1943, he took over as winemaker. Successes piled up and especially after 1946 he became known as the “wine king of South Africa”. His Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1945 was, incidentally, described by the visiting Masters of Wine in 1977 as “a magnificent, superb wine – a great experience”.

Tragically, John de Villiers was killed in a car accident in 1948. Somewhat fascinatingly, one of the two people in his car who was not killed was PW Botha, the finger-wagging State President of later years. (What if …) Marie – now Marie Crouse – took over the winemaking again, and again trained a man to fill the role – this time her husband, Maurice.

zonnebloemMore successes (the pic shows Maurice with the trophies and medals he won in 1951), but decline was not all that far off. The causes seem complex, and I’m not sure that Venter’s article goes into it quite sufficiently. What seems clear, however, is that the increasingly close connection with Stellenbosch Farmers Winery did nothing to save things.

Even clearer is that Bill Winshaw and the rest of the directorate of SFW behaved in a way that the Crouse and de Villiers families apparently now still describe as “unethical and dishonourable”. What Winshaw (famous for his marketing flair) did was to secretly register the name Zonnebloem (which everyone knew at the time to be the farm producing these famous wines) as the property of SFW! The owners of the Zonnebloem farm only discovered this some years later, and of course couldn’t afford to make a legal challenge. Nothing actually illegal about the registration of the name of someone else’s farm, of course. Just a sharp businessman and big business on one side and a few ignorant farmers on the other.

Anyway. Now Zonnebloem is just one of Distell’s brands, respectable enough, but a long way from the glory the company hijacked (is that a fair description?) and which it still trots out in its marketing.

zonnebloem1The grapes from Zonnebloem farm even ceased to go to SFW after 1963, though the winery equipment was sold to the company. (The grapes henceforth disappeared into the tanks of Drakenstein Coop.) Venter’s article includes a poignant photo (taken by Furter Crouse, son of Marie and Maurice, and inadequately reproduced here) of a long line of wagons hauling away the lovely big old oak vats in which the great Zonnebloem Cabs of the past had been matured.

Zonnebloem was sold to Rickety Bridge in 2003. It is, as far as I know, on the market again.

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