Anthony Hamilton Russell, along with many other South African vintners, is facing the crisis of a lifetime as his country has banned alcohol sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Hamilton Russell Vineyards owner isn't new to uncertain times. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Hamilton Russell talked to associate tasting coordinator Aleks Zecevic about taking over the family business, challenges during the pandemic and a new wine project in Oregon.
Russell's father, Tim, started the South African winery as a passion project following a successful career in advertising, and opted for focusing on the nation's undiscovered wine regions with cooler climates. Tim started in 1975 and released his first wine in 1981, pioneering a new area for viticulture in the Hemel en Aarde wine region. Following studies in the U.S., Anthony returned to South Africa in 1991 to take over the winery. He purchased it from his father in 1994.
When Hamilton Russell took over in the early ’90s, he was able to see what was working at the family estate and what needed to be fixed. He realized that if the winery, located just one mile from the shore, were to be flipped to the northern hemisphere, it would be comparable to Santa Barbara, and it soon became clear that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would become the winery's bread and butter. "It was just really in effect listening to our terroir," Hamilton Russell explained to Zecevic.
Fast-forward to now and the winery is celebrating its 40th harvest, with wines sold in 56 countries. After a brief stoppage, South African vintners can export again despite the country having banned wine sales at home.
Hamilton Russell says that the ban has been disastrous for the wine industry, which already faced small margins. The South African government introduced the ban out of concerns that lockdowns would lead to increases in alcohol abuse and violence, along with alcohol-related hospitalizations. Hamilton Russell argues that the wine industry has been unsuccessful in showing that fine wine is not contributing to the misuse of alcohol on a large scale, and it will keep suffering until it does.
"I think it would be fair to say that under 20 percent of wine producers broke even and a much smaller percentage made profit before the pandemic," he said. "If you put onto that very fragile industry this tremendous stress and an unusual situation … it's gonna have consequences."
According to Hamilton Russell, estimates show there have been 18,000 immediate winery job losses, not including packaging, distribution and retail, and a $2 billion loss to the industry thus far. Locals say that only 10 percent of wineries will survive, but Hamilton Russell said that the country's wineries tend not to close, but change ownership behind the scenes. The main challenge will be dealing with a massive surplus from a sea of unsold wine.
In May, South Africa lifted its ban on alcohol exports, giving Hamilton Russell an opportunity to sell his surplus through the winery's growing export market. He recently added Singapore and Luxembourg to the portfolio, and America's thirst for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have made up for lost local sales.
Despite pains at home, Hamilton Russell is further defining his legacy in the family business with a new Pinot project in Oregon. The brand's 2018 vintage has just been released and will sell in 42 states. "We've been thrilled with the results," he said. "It's been a fun project, a lot of learning involved, and I'm still in awe of what Oregon has achieved over the last years and where it's going to go."
Watch the full episode with Hamilton Russell on Wine Spectator's IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. ET. Tonight, Aug. 4, executive editor Thomas Matthews will chat with Heitz Cellar CEO Carlton McCoy, the start of a month of highlighting Black voices in the wine industry.
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