Tim Hamilton Russell, South African Wine Pioneer, Dies at 79

Advertising executive founded cool-climate winery, campaigned to improve country's wines
Aug 6, 2013

Tim Hamilton Russell, an advertising executive who founded the first winery in Hemel-en-Aarde Valley near Cape Town, died July 17 in Hermanus, South Africa, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 79. 

While highly successful in advertising, Hamilton Russell had a passion for growing and making wine and was the first to see the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley’s potential for producing quality wines. He also believed South Africa's wine industry could prosper if outdated laws and regulations were struck down. He stuck his neck out, purchasing a piece of land in the Walker Bay area in 1975 and planting the first vines in the valley. Over the years, Hamilton Russell Vineyards gained a global reputation for producing some of the finest examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in South Africa. 

"Tim’s stubborn nature drove him to plant vines where they were not meant to be planted," said Peter Finlayson, winemaker at Hamilton Russell Vineyards from 1979 to 1990. "When word got out that he was looking for a winemaker, most were reluctant to tackle something with no track record. I’ll always be grateful to Tim for bringing me to Hermanus."

Hamilton Russell was chairman of J. Walter Thompson, an advertising agency, when he invested in nearly 400 acres of undeveloped land close to the coastal town of Hermanus, down the coast from Cape Town. Located less than 2 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Hamilton Russell Vineyards was the most southerly vineyard and cellar in Africa and also had some of the very first plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the continent. Hamilton Russell firmly believed that great wines are produced in a cool climate and he laid the foundation for what has subsequently developed in the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, a region that now boasts numerous top wineries. The first Hamilton Russell Vineyards wine, a 1981 Pinot Noir, was released in 1982.

Hamilton Russell was also a powerful advocate for the South Africa wine industry transitioning from quantity to quality. He lobbied for the termination of the production quota system, minimum pricing and the "dop" system, an illegal but still present practice of paying farm workers partially in wine. In 1989, Hamilton Russell and four other Cape winemakers formed the Cape Winelands Commitment, which rejected apartheid and outlined improved farm employment practices. A London newspaper quoted Hamilton Russell that year describing many of the South African wine industry's labor practices at that time as “morally indefensible.”

In 1991, Hamilton Russell retired and moved to Hermanus to a house his parents originally bought in 1952 as a vacation home. His son Anthony took over management, and later ownership, of Hamilton Russell Vineyards. The wines continue to regularly receive outstanding scores.

Hamilton Russell is remembered by friends as a consummate gentleman who was widely read and always interested in the opinions of others. He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Athene, their four children and nine grandchildren. 

Obituaries South Africa News

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