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Bonnievale Winery celebrates a decade of pioneering growth

Earlier this month, Bonnievale Wines celebrated its 10th anniversary. More than just the mere marking of a date, this occasion served as a poignant reminder of the challenges and benefits that come with the choice to strike out on a new path.
The achievements of the past 10 years that have seen Bonnievale Wines become one of the country’s largest producers were lauded by Rico Basson, MD of industry body VinPro, who was the guest speaker at the event.
With a history going back over half a century, Bonnievale Wines was formally established on 1 November 2006, created through the three-way merger of the Bonnievale, Merwespont and Nordale co-operative wineries. The decision was not taken lightly, especially in the light of the merger quite possibly being a first of its kind for South African agriculture. In fact, it was 10 years in the making – the instigators had already read the writing that had been on the wall for the industry for some time.
In January of 2006, some 400 wine growers attending the VinPro information day were told that consolidation and brand-building was the only route for long-term sustainability. “Powerful companies and powerful brands are needed to keep pace with powerful retailers,” the late Tim Rands, then MD of wine distributor Vinimark, was quoted as saying. “Economies of scale are vital to long-term, profitable survival in the FMCG environment.”
 “John was not scared to add to the new Boards’ strategy directives and in so doing added to the well-being of the Bonnievale group as a whole.”
A decade later and Bonnievale Wines is stronger than ever, backed by some 100 grape producers. In a recent review, influential wine writer Neil Pendock said Bonnievale Winery is a prime example of “Next Level wine collectives transforming the South African wine scene by delivering quality consistently above expectations”.
“It’s an enterprise which makes relationship wine: wine made by real people for real people,” wrote Pendock, adding that wine competition judges were increasingly conceding that Bonnievale is “up with the Big Boys from the more fashionable side of the mountain” when it comes to quality. From an operational perspective, the merger brought about numerous benefits. John Barnardt says farmers were suddenly able to deliver grapes to the cellar closest to the farm rather than to a specific contracting winery, irrespective of its location.
“All assets and liabilities of the previous three businesses were consolidated making the winery a sizeable business that has all three premises in full use.” Furthermore, healthy competition has been established between the winemakers at the different premises. In its wake, the new enterprise gained access to diverse grape growing area across a large region, allowing for: a greater pool of excellent quality grapes and wine styles; and a larger selection and volume of wine available for the market.
“Our bigger business was now able to attract talented management and staff, which enhanced competencies and thereby attracted sound alliance partners too,” says Barnardt.
As Bonnievale Wines has demonstrated, experts are a key to success. Very often, a valuable contribution can be made by staff and producer members who’ve gained applicable experience in previous occupations outside the business. He encouraged producers to engage staff. “Start by drawing a younger generation into boards.”
Basson said Bonnievale Wines showed how performance management should be a cornerstone of every business – from the vineyard to the markets. “A culture of excellence has been created. In this way, it established what is measured and how to evaluate it constantly. The nucleus should be the performance-driven, customer-centred, development of staff while board members should be assigned portfolios and held accountable.”
Joint ventures are important for the future of the industry, Basson said, adding that collaboration need not only occur in times of crisis, but also in pursuit of opportunity. “Choose partners that bring something else to the table than what you have, as Bonnievale Wines did with its strategic partnerships in other grape producing areas.
He further highlighted the importance of these relationships. “Bonnievale Wines built relationships with potential buyers and role-players in the value chain. It may take time, but that’s how trust is achieved. Deals are closed in and with the market, which can convert to contracts prior to harvest. This in turn allows every producer to know when and how much they’ll receive, as an incentive for what is delivered to the cellar. There are no surprises.”