What is a winemaker? Seems an easy enough question, but it’s not so in all contexts, and the Cape Winemaker’s Guild is grappling with the definition (about time too). It’s an issue given some publicity by the recent resignation from the Guild of veteran Neil Ellis, acknowledging that (though he remains significantly involved in the wine-business he built up so well) he has handed over the winemaking portfolio to his son Warren – and hoping that Warren, fully recognised as a winemaker, will one day be invited to join this elite group. In resigning, Neil has added to his established reputation for integrity.
For many years now – especially as the senior generation of winemakers gets, er, more senior – there have been some murmurings as the Auction offers wines from members who, like Neil, have in fact handed over winemaking responsibility to others (often, but not always, their sons). Occasionally such members are still listed officially (in Platter, for instance) in some capacity – even as “cellarmaster”, a term whose meaning is somewhat flexible. And, of course, there’s nothing to prevent such a member from having a major involvement in the auction wine that goes out under his name, whether or not he is responsible for the larger range of wines. But enough doubt continues in many cases to raise a few eyebrows.
The CWG website says that membership is open to those “who have been responsible for producing outstanding wines for a minimum of five years and are actively involved in operations in the cellar from harvest to bottling”. Undoubtedly these criteria don’t apply to all current members. I asked Miles Mossop, CWG chair, about this, and he told me that this definition applies to new “producing members”, as defined in the constitution. After joining, he says, “continued membership in this category depends on the member remaining an active winemaker who produces auction wine.”
Apparently, as well as “Producing Members” (and the few Honorary Members) there are also “Members”. These are, says Miles, “previous Producing Members who no longer make an auction wine”. They “are not eligible for putting a wine up on auction but may remain paid members and attend all our tastings.” I didn’t know about these different categories, so I’m glad I raised the subject. My ignorance is unsurprising, perhaps, as no-one is as yet categorised as a mere member in this sense.
Presumably, if he chooses to, Neil Ellis could stay on in this latter category. And, I’d suggest, at least a few others should be joining him there. Though perhaps they’ll need to be dragged or pushed.
Of course, the CWG is very aware of the problem – there must be quite a few disgruntled mutterings within the organisation itself. Miles tells me that the definition of membership “is currently being discussed within the CWG committee in the build up to the AGM in December”. It might not be easy. What, as I initially asked, is a winemaker? If a “cellarmaster”, for example, blends an Auction wine from a range of wine samples with which he’s previously had nothing to do, is that admittedly crucial decision enough to qualify him as the winemaker?
This is just one tricky aspect of the CWG’s practices and definitions, as has become clear as the CWG evolved from its small beginnings in the 1980s, when the Auction was really a subsidiary part of the organisation’s raison d’être, a place to offer experimental wines. The factor of the home estate in an organisation that is about winemakers has sometimes proved difficult to disentangle (witness not only the prominence of the estate name on the Auction wine label, but, perhaps as an example of the issue, the continuous presence of Kanonkop Paul Sauer as an Auction wine, allowed for by the seamless continuity of the estate’s winemaker being a CWG member, when Abri Beeslaar quickly acquired membership after Beyers Truter left the estate). There have arguably been a few members who might not have been elected if they hadn’t happened to be winemakers at very good estates. There have also been a couple of very swift (and possibly justifiable) appointments of “heirs” when a member died or resigned.
So, various problems of definition that are maybe also being sorted out at last. Meanwhile, for the sake of the CWG’s integrity as well as their own, it would be best if some more members followed Neil Ellis’s lead.