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Anton Rupert, Who Helped Shape South Africa's Wine Industry, Dies

Luxury-goods tycoon built his empire starting with grapes and tobacco

James Molesworth
Posted: January 23, 2006

Anton Rupert, the South African billionaire who built an empire on tobacco, luxury goods and wine, died of natural causes on Jan. 18. He was 89.

The self-made tycoon, who was profiled as the cover story of Wine Spectator's Feb. 28, 1999 issue, was most prominent in the luxury goods industry with his brands Cartier, Alfred Dunhill, Piaget and Mont Blanc. But he was also a substantial investor in South Africa's wine industry, helping to shape its future and improve its quality.

He first became involved in wine in the 1940s, when he convinced a bunch of Cape area grapegrowers to invest in and provide grapes for a company that eventually evolved into Distillers Corporation. That became one of the country's largest producers and négociants. Rupert's publicly traded Rembrandt Group was a major shareholder in Distillers Corp. and the country's other large wine producer, the Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery; the two merged few years ago to form Distell. The company owns brands such as Fleur du Cap, Nederburg and Zonnebloem.

Rupert helped modernize South Africa's wine industry in the 1940s and '50s, pioneering the use of the term "Estate Wine" on some labels, which was common elsewhere but new to the country. He also replaced old wooden vats with new oak barrels and invested in new technology at the time, such as cold fermentation.

Over the decades he built international and domestic conglomerates that spanned many industries. Preferring to stay out of the spotlight, Rupert also spent much of his time on philanthropy and was known for both his environmental work and his opposition to apartheid.

In 1997, Rupert partnered with his friend Baron Edmond de Rothschild (who died soon after) and Edmond's son Benjamin to create Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons. The wines—a Chardonnay and two Merlot-Cabernet blends—are made from Rupert's Frederickburg estate, located on the slopes of the Simonsberg Mountains, between the Paarl and Franschhoek areas. Internationally renowned enologist Michel Rolland was brought on as a consultant, and the venture released its first wines in 2000.

Rupert owned two other small wineries in Franschhoek: L'Ormarins, which makes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and La Motte, which produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and red blends.

Rupert is survived by his only remaining son, Johann, and his daughter Hanneli. Rupert's other son, Anthonij, was killed in a car accident in late 2001; his wife Huberte died in October 2005.

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