Fairview Wine and Cheese Farm: Charles Back

Fairview Wine and Cheese Farm: Charles Back

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At the entrance to the Fairview Wine Estate stands an iconic goat tower, the home of two resident goats that have become so closely associated with the Fairview brand. It’s a playful, whimsical touch, added by Fairview owner, Charles Back 30 years ago, but it shouldn’t for a moment deceive the visitor into thinking that this isn’t a serious wine company. Fairview has a string of ‘firsts’ under its belt and Back is recognised as a pioneering force in the South African wine industry.

He’s built Fairview up from a family farm to a brand recognised globally for its wine, cheese and tourism. Fairview’s wine labels — Fairview, the Spice Route Wine Company and newly-introduced La Capra — along with the The Goats Do Roam Wine Company, have won countless local and international awards, as have Fairview Vineyard Cheeses. The Goatshed Restaurant on the Paarl premises is packed to capacity most days and the farm attracts over 250 000 visitors a year, making it one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Western Cape.

When it comes to wine, Back is known for experimenting with unusual grape varietals (Tannat and Petite Sirah among them) and was the first wine producer to introduce Viognier to South Africa. He’s taken on the force of the protectionist French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée when they moved to prohibit the registration of the irreverent Goats Do Roam wine label (a cheeky nose-thumbing at Côtes du Rhône), and come away laughing. Internationally he’s conquered the US wine market, while locally he’s pioneered wine brands that represent a refreshing break from the conservative traditional image. He’s even convinced South Africans that eating goats cheese is de rigeur.

The Goatfather

Back believes in taking gambles and while he’s delighted when they pay off, he isn’t too perturbed when they don’t. “Risk is part of business — you don’t take risks, you don’t move forward,” he says philosophically. It’s an attitude that informs his willingness to try new things. One of these is the production of goats cheese. “It was actually my father’s idea to get me involved in cheese making before doing the wine every day. My training was a French book, badly translated, on how to make goats cheese. I’ll never forget that there was a chapter on all that could go wrong and my cheeses ticked every box. They were appalling.” He persevered, even though the South African market initially expressed no interest in eating goats cheese, and he finally knew he’d hit on something when a group of visiting Frenchmen raved about his crottin. Since then, Fairview cheeses have grown from a single-room cottage industry to a market leader.

In many ways this foray into cheese making was the catalyst for so much of what people associate with the Fairview brand today. While in Portugal on a family holiday, Back came across a goat tower and was so enamoured with it that he sketched it on the back of a cigarette box to take back home and build. “My father thought I was mad but at the time I was looking for something to tie our brand together, something iconic.”

The goat tower ended up on the Fairview label at a time when the conservative South African wine industry was still very much tied to the image of Cape gables. It set the farm apart and established it as something of an attraction. “The public found it endearing, I think, and people started coming to visit to see the goat tower that was featured on the label,” says Back. The tourist attraction gave rise to the successful Goatshed restaurant, a must-stop for lunch among winelands tour operators.

Ultimately, the goat tower gave Fairview a brand DNA. “It showed people we didn’t take ourselves so seriously at a time when many people found the wine industry pretentious and inaccessible,” he adds. But a playful brand has its downsides too, and Back explains that it put even greater pressure on the estate to produce wines of the highest quality. Because while the brand might not be serious, the wines certainly are. “Our wines needed to stand on their own, they needed to be outstanding to convince serious wine buyers to purchase them,” he explains.

Goats do roam…

The Fairview goats were to add to the DNA of a new company and wine label too, and open doors to the lucrative US market. “I wanted to make a Rhône-style blend but I needed a brand that had a story, something special that would help us get into the US market where South African wines had not previously done all that well,” he said. Back toyed with the idea for the Goats Do Roam Wine Company for two years before eventually implementing it. “I was initially uncomfortable with it as I didn’t want the wine to be thought to be mimicking Côtes du Rhône — we had always been unique and I wanted to retain that. Eventually we came up with the story of a family of goats that get out into the vineyard and eat from a variety of vines, which are then used to make a Rhône-style blend. This made it uniquely ours and I was happy to go with it,” he adds. The result was South Africa’s first so-called ‘critter label’, a separate company from Fairview. Goats Do Roam added Bored Doe (Bordeaux), Goats in Villages (Côtes du Rhône-Villages), Goat Roti (Côte Rotie) and The Goatfather.

It came at just the right time, coinciding with a wave of anti-French sentiment in the US. “The US market really took to it — they loved the fact that it was so irreverent about the rules of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée,” says Back, referring to the French practice of controlling which names and areas of origin different types of produce can use. (The attempt to prevent Americans from using the word ‘champagne’ has consistently been ignored and fallen on willfully deaf ears).

The French attempted to block the registration of the Goats Do Roam label but Back only responded with more humour, organising a ‘protest march’ with his workers to the French Consulate in Cape Town to deliver a magnum of Goats Do Roam. (“The gentleman there received it very graciously,” he quips). The ‘protest’ was featured on CNN. “It gave us great exposure,” says Back, smiling.

He continues to pioneer new horizons in wine, and sustainable viticulture is his most recent passion. “We can’t just offset our footprint, we need to reduce it, and at Fairview we’re working hard to do that. We might be a big wine company but we’re still very much a family business with family values,” he concludes.

Spreading the risk

Incorporating complementary goods and services to the wine business has helped Fairview to offset its exposure to the exchange rate. The company exports around 70% of its wine so a strong rand can wreak havoc with its profit margins. Fairview cheeses are only sold domestically and the tourism trade, centred on the tasting room and the Goatshed restaurant, bring in additional sources of independent revenue. Because wine, cheese and tourism are happy bedfellows, it’s possible to leverage them off each other for additional profit.

Stats

The Numbers

  • 1937
    Back’s grandfather, Charles Back I, buys the property from the Hugo family for £6 500
  • 1978
    Charles Back II starts farming with his father, Cyril Back
  • 500
    Number of cases each of Cabernet, Shiraz and Pinotage bottled for the first time by Cyril Back
  • R3 a bottle
    Top price for wine at the first SA wine auction held at Fairview in 1974
  • 70%
    Percentage of export wine from Fairview
  • 7
    Number of farms owned by Fairview (two in Darling, one in Malmesbury, four in Paarl)
  • 250 000
    Number of tourists who visit Fairview each year
  • 3 500
    Tonnes of grapes grown annually
  • 500 000
    Cases produced by Charles Back annually
Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.