A sit-down with Charles Back is like attending a State of the Wine Industry speech. Back, 57, is one of the South Africa wine industry's elder statesmen, though he still has plenty of pep in his step. He's one of its most respected leaders and one of its craftiest marketers as well. He combines quality in his Fairview wines with business smarts and a genial hands-on approach. Back has been and will continue to be critical to the success of South African wine.
Back recently bought the neighboring Seidelberg estate in the Paarl Valley, and has converted the winery into a beer brewery, chocolatier, grappa distillery and biltong (the local dried beef and game) bistro. A glass-blowing operation is slated too.
"Shows you how bad the wine business is," said Back laughing. "But actually, I set up the operations and then lease them out to individual owner operators, so it's their show. The key requirement is, they have to be passionate about agriculture."
"My passion is wine," said Back. "But it is difficult to sell value-added products out of South Africa. We're still breaking down the barriers of being a source of cheap and cheerful stuff while dealing with rising production costs in energy and labor."
Back is the man behind one of the Cape's success stories, the Goats do Roam label, which grew rapidly in the U.S. in the earlier part of the 2000s. But with growth came the inevitable downturn of the trend, and Back has been forced to regroup.
"The success of Goats was great. It pried the door open for us and others. But it both did and undid me at the same time," he said. "The growth went too fast. I had to slow it down and get control of the vineyards and lock in quality. I'm not a wine broker, I'm a farmer, and I had to get back to that."
To that end, Back also purchased the Diamante estate on the other side of Fairview, giving him four large farms all in a row now along the Suid Agter Paarl road. He's pulled out higher-yielding, lower quality vineyards on the flatter, lower parts, and has planted on the high portions. Back now owns 1,200 acres of vines, including 520 in Paarl, 300 in the Swartland, 250 acres in Darling and 170 in Stellenbosch. Back's wineries now currently produce 50,000 cases annually at Fairview; 15,000 cases at Spice Route; 240,000 cases at Goats do Roam; 50,000 cases at La Capra and an eye-opening 150,000 cases at Six Hats, a fair trade blend that hasn't taken off like Back hoped.
"You'd think with the emphasis on being green and fair trade, that a socially responsible wine label, with good quality, would be doing better. Clearly I haven't explained that story well and I need to do better on that," he said.
Back has long been one of the most progressive owners in the business. Keeping in that vein, he's recently transferred 10 percent of his company's ownership into a trust for his management employees. Another 10 percent will be set aside in the same way for factory floor employees.
"I'd rather own 80 percent of an efficient company where the employees are happy than 100 percent of a company with constant turnover," he said matter-of-factly. It shows in the faces of his employees, who always look up with bright smiles, saying hello to either Back or the flood of customers that comes through the door. Fairview winery and The Goat Shed, the casual onsite bistro located in the old Fairview winery building (the outlines of cement vats are still on the walls), brings in 300,000 visitors a year, making it one of the Cape's biggest tourist attractions.
"Wine is an opportunity to drive change," said Back, who started at Fairview alongside his father in 1978 on the wine side of things. By 1981 he had started working on the cheese side of the business (Fairview cheese is the country's biggest artisanal cheese producer). After his father passed away in 1995, Back took over, and he hasn't stopped growing since.
"When I started here, there were 18 employees. Today there are 500. But it's important to remember that people don't work for me—they work with me," he said.
In 1999, Back hired a young Eben Sadie as his winemaker at Spice Route, setting up an outpost in the Swartland for Rhône varieties well before the area caught fire with the current generation of winemakers. That project is still going strong with winemaker Charl du Plessis at the helm since 2001.
As we headed out into the vineyards, Back's pioneering spirit was still on full display. "There's Tannat. There's Tempranillo," he said, pointing to different vineyard blocks. "And there's Petite Sirah, which I'm really happy with so far. At this scale I can still afford to play around with a few hectares here and there."
Stopping at a recently cleared parcel, where the soil is being prepped for new plantings, Back pointed out just why South Africa has had a difficult time producing a large-volume brand like Yellow Tail that can bring some recognition to the country as a whole (though the merits of this approach are still hotly debated within the South African wine industry).
"See at the top of the parcel how light the soil is, and then there—bang!—it changes," he said, pointing to the mid-slope where the soil turns starkly redder. There's no blurring or gradation. The contrast in soils within the block is startling.
"That soil change means different trellising, vine spacing, irrigation and varieties—totally different viticulture being practiced within the same vineyard block. And we have that variation all through our winelands. You have to micromanage vineyards here in the Western Cape. That diversity might seem like a hurdle now, [but] it will be our strength down the road."
A tasting here is a casual, more experimental-styled affair, as Back and his two winemakers, du Plessis (from Spice Route) and Anthony de Jager (from Fairview), like to show some of the new wines they have in the works. The trio have a long history together: du Plessis, 44, has been with Back since '01, while de Jager, 47, has been at Fairview since 1997. Both du Plessis and de Jager are avid bicyclists. The fit, wiry duo is also loaded with their respective styles of dry wit—du Plessis picks his spots carefully, de Jager is a bit more free-wheeling—and they bounce off each other and Back, who gives as good as he takes. It's a unique relationship, and one that seems solidly set for the foreseeable future.
The 2012 Spice Route Chenin Blanc Swartland delivers textbook yellow apple, melon rind and quinine notes while the new 2011 Fairview Narok Paarl, made from a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc is lightly toasted, with nimble yellow apple and brioche notes and a fresh, pretty finish. Both are set to retail for well under $20 a bottle in the U.S.—value has always been one of Fairview's and Spice Route's strengths.
The Grenache portion has increased in the 2012 Fairview Goats do Roam Coastal Region 2012, now accounting for more than a quarter of the blend, along with 42 percent Syrah, 17 percent Mourvèdre, 11 percent Cinsault and 3 percent Durif (Petite Sirah), Back's new favorite grape. The wine is polished, with flashes of fynbos (the local wild scrub bush that is the equivalent of Provençal garrigue) and spice in the supple red cherry and plum fruit.
The 2011 Spice Route Pinotage-Grenache Swartland offers interesting mint, blueberry, loganberry, spice and licorice notes with a dusty edge on the finish. The 2010 Fairview Extraño Coastal Region is a new bottling highlighting Tempranillo, along with Grenache and Carignane. It shows cherry preserve, singed vanilla and a supple, cocoa-tinged finish. The 2010 Spice Route Chakalaka Swartland blends Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Tannat, Durif and Grenache together to produce a deliciously full-bodied, mouthfilling wine that sports plum, ganache, linzer and toasted spice notes, all for just $20, and with an ample 7,000 cases made.
Showcasing Back's new love for Durif, the 2010 Fairview Durif Coastal Region has lots of bold blackberry, anise, charcoal and mulled blueberry notes, along with singed spice and an extroverted, brambly finish. Back feels there's a bit too much grip vis à vis the midpalate and de Jager admits the wine needs some refining going forward, but the grape clearly shows promise.
"Promise" is apropos. Back takes care of his people, puts out a consistent, quality product line and is an example for his industry.