* This piece originally appeared here on Food24.
Travel writers have the privilege of interviewing places, which includes the stories of the landscape but also its people. In the prevailing South African context, I think inspiring stories are needed more than ever – one of the reasons why I travel and listen to place and person. There’s no shortage of inspiring stories, they just need space to be told and be celebrated.
I recently had the privilege of joining Thokanzi to celebrate Ovation, their new wine label at an evening of food, wine, stories, and festivities. Thokozani is an empowerment company launched by well-known Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate in 2007, owned by David Sonnenberg. The number of shareholders from the staff has grown from an initial 35 to now over 115. The company includes the wine brand, an art gallery, a conferencing destination and several cottages and plots on the farm.
It all Began With a Tasting
Denise Stubbs, the Business Development Director at Thokozani, regaled us with some of her journey: “I never grew up with wine – Mr. Sonnenberg knows. When I was 37 years old, in the tasting room, I took my first sip.” She’s an impressive woman who hasn’t had the easiest of journeys in the industry but still seems as wholeheartedly committed to Thokozani as when she began twelve years ago.
“It started with a conversation. David said: “Denise, we don’t really have a plan, but how can we change the lives of our community; this Diemersfontein community.’” Over a decade later, this has certainly been achieved – and in ways I don’t think the team ever expected.
She was quick to point out: “You know; the biggest thing for us is that we are still labelled as a transformation brand. We’re here tonight to celebrate a brand that’s working! We’re here tonight to say that when Woolworths decided to make us one of their brands, they took us through the whole process like any other winery, not bypassed the process because we are black. They said: ‘You’re going to go through all of these specs to make sure your wine and the quality is perfect.’ And we’ve done that!”
Denise explained some of the difficulties that they have faced in their journey, but is quick to add, “Please don’t ever buy our wine because we’re black.” Although recognition deserves being given to the Thokozani as an empowerment or BBBEE project, the team simply want recognition for being a success story and the quality that those who enjoy their wines have come to know.
Beverley Schäfer, provincial MP at the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism, was present at the launch and had several words of affirmation: “From the Western Cape government, Thokozani and Ovation is really one of our government’s major success story, born out of a historic transformation deal, that has gone on to achieve major success locally and abroad.” She was also quick to commend Denise on being a trailblazer in the context of transformation.
The Ovation range includes a Spumante, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Merlot, Cab Sav/Merlot, and an SMV (Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and Viognier). You can find the range at Woolworths or purchase directly online here.
David’s vision was clear from the start: “The two run in parallel because you can’t build a business without building the team,” he says. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and a spontaneous request from Denise led to several of the staff briefly sharing their stories, flashes of pride humbly marking their expressions as they spoke.
Tamerin, who was a receptionist and now a hospitality manager and director. Chantelle, who has moved from a housekeeper to a dispatch controller. Cheslin, who was a general worker and now the guesthouse liaison manager. Jason, who began as a general worker and is now a senior cellar-assistant.
Hearing the staff speak first-hand, and of course tasting the wine; I can’t but add my applause to a brand that fully deserves its standing ovation.