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AntonUnity for excellence

By Jana Loots

When VinPro’s new chairman, Anton Smuts, talks about the industry, it is clear that the South African wine industry cannot function as an island. Now is the time to stand together and take the industry forward as a unit.
Anton was elected as chairman during a special board meeting in November 2016, replacing Abrie Botha, who held the position for 13 years.
Tell us about your life journey up to now…
I grew up on our family farm in the Robertson area and completed my school career at Rondebosch Boys High School. After obtaining a BSc Agric in Viticulture and Oenology at Stellenbosch University and military service, I wanted to go study at Geisenheim University in Germany. My father passed away however, and my brother and I went on to expand the farm to a diverse farming business.
In 1997 I was elected to the board of Bonnievale Cellar, where I am currently serving as chairman. In 2004 I was elected VinPro director for the Robertson region, and I serve on the boards of Winetech and the Institute for Grape and Wine Sciences (IGWS), and also as chairman of the financial committee of the latter. I was privileged to be part of the Wine Industry Strategic Exercise (Wise) task team.
What are the SA wine industry’s biggest challenges at present?
Firstly, to increase producers’ net farming income to such an extent that the financial pressure they are currently experiencing is at least relieved. This will enable them to manage their businesses sustainably, while also striving toward affordable community upliftment and transformation.
At the same time it is a challenge to convert fragmentation in the industry to a more suitable unit structure(s) with regard to functionality, control and purposeful outcomes. It remains important that we consult with the government about issues of common interest that have an impact on the wine industry, and specifically on socio-economic prosperity.
Lastly we have to make use of forums like the Laborie Dialogue and the Wine Industry Value Chain Roundtable (WIVCRT), where interaction between all interest groups take place.
A lot has been said about unlocking value in the wine industry chain. How will the industry be able to achieve higher prices for its products?
Producers must be empowered to get access to the value chain through market-oriented business models, alliances, business intelligence and innovation. Management teams also have to continuously measure the performance of their value unlocking actions.
The prosperity of the entire industry is dependent on the availability of quality grapes, which are supplied by producers that find themselves in a cost squeeze and are already cutting savings to the bone. Any cost implications higher up in the value chain are indirectly rolled down to the primary producer. According to VinPro figures only a third of all producers are currently sustainable; they cannot continue to exist as price takers on an investment return of 2%.
Research and technology are close to your heart. How good are we at distributing and applying new research and technology?
South Africa has a much smaller budget than other countries, but the commitment of our researchers, academics and others ensure that the research, progress and technology transfer remain on track. The government’s contribution to Winetech has been drastically reduced, but research and development are going ahead according to prioritisation thanks to statutory levies by the industry. Dr Johann Rupert and other industry role players had the vision to establish the IGWS, and we hope to involve more donors so that this institute will really be of great benefit of the industry.
The South African wine industry was recently in the spotlight due to alleged unethical practices. What is your view on this?
It is absolutely unacceptable that a handful of wine grape farms and cellars make themselves guilty of unethical practices that reflect poorly on the rest of the industry. Action must be taken against those who make themselves guilty of this, with the necessary evidence of course. If farms and cellars are falsely accused of malpractices however, those who make the accusations must also bear the full brunt of the law.
How do you see VinPro’s role in the SA wine industry?
VinPro is a very important link in the wine industry chain, and we must create a formidable unity organisation. Wise pointed out certain needs, and it is now time for everyone to collectively convert these shortcomings and challenges into opportunities and take the industry to new heights.
What is your dream for the industry?
To provide opportunities for everyone in the industry through mutual respect and understanding, and to become one of the most dynamic wine industries in the world through innovation and commitment.
If you are not busy with wine industry matters, where will we find you?
On the golf course or at a game farm.
What is in your glass?
In the summer a good Chardonnay, in winter a good Bordeaux blend.