By Justin McGown - May 6, 2022
While many states granted liquor stores essential businesses status in the early days of the Covid pandemic, South Africa took the opposite approach and banned liquor sales entirely under the belief that it would eliminate social gatherings and prevent people taking up hospital beds with drinking related injuries. While it is difficult to determine how big a role this policy played in increasing the efficacy of South Africa’s response to the virus it did have an immediate and major negative impact on the country’s alcohol producers, including its wineries.
Meanwhile, in and around Westport a group of South African expatriates were meeting socially on Zoom. Eugene Havemann, an executive with a clothing manufacturing who had recently moved to the area for business, recalled how the idle chat eventually gave rise to VCLUB, a unique approach to wine distribution.
“We decided at that stage to do something for the industry, and it all evolved from there,” Havemann said at a recent tasting event held at a member’s private arboretum in Fairfield. “We were initially just going to buy a container of wine for ourselves to drink. Then that became ‘let’s make a business out of this because we’re all businessmen in this area and let’s do something more sustainable.’”
With backgrounds in a diverse set of industries they were able to put out feelers that eventually reached Vergelegen, a historic South African vineyard with a Dutch name meaning “Far Away Land.” Originally established in 1700 to furnish trading ships rounding the southern tip of Africa with provisions, the vineyard is today noted for its unique terroir. It is also the site of the historic estate that played host to Nelson Mandela’s negotiations to end apartheid.
Vergelegen is today owned by Anglo American plc, an international mining company which also owns the diamond industry’s De Beers Group.
“They are very into luxury brands,” Havemann explained, “so we pitched our business model to them and they said ‘great’ but unfortunately the current representation of South African Wines in America just wasn’t in line with where Anglo American wanted to take the brand. So from that perspective we then launched VCLUB.”
To provide Anglo American with an air of exclusivity, the Westport-based community of South Africans devised the VCLUB. Apart from a selection of restaurants and area country clubs which offer fine dining options, only VCLUB members can purchase a select range of limited release wines, including a Brut style sparkling white which until now was only offered to those who visited the Vergelegen estate in person.
The VCLUB provides more than just the ability to order bottles and cases of wine, it is also a social circle filled with appreciators of good wine and company. On April 19 a group of new potential members gathered at a greenhouse owned by one of the founders, which has been dubbed the Vergelegen Arboretum. In the brightly lit space, surrounded by plants, light, and emptied wine cases an eclectic assortment of people sampled the wines currently on offer.
Guests included a chef, a restauranter, a noted wine influencer, and a television meteorologist among several others. The space was furnished with seating, a selection of light fare that pared well with the wines decanted that night. Guests were handed welcome letters and guided through tasting four different wines.
Dylan Germishuys, a managing director at UBS during the day, talked guests through tasting five wines ranging from $39.90 to $125 per bottle in price. Though well versed in answering questions about the flavor profiles and influences on the varietals in each blend, Germishuys said he was not chiefly responsible for convincing anybody to buy a case.
“Once the bottle is open, then it does all the work,” Germishuys said as he prepared for the arrival of guests by pouring the reds so they can properly breath. “You just have to get it in front of someone. In the right situation, in the right setting, who wouldn’t enjoy it? It sells itself when it is tasted.”
The night’s samples included the MMV Brut with a soft, citrus and baked apple flavor, a Chardonnay Reserve that was noted for its relative dryness and appeal to people who don’t typically enjoy Chardonnay, and the GVB White with flavor notes highlighting tropical fruits like Lychee and Passion Fruit. The GVB Red on the other hand reflects the geology of the region with notes of graphite and spice along with berries and blackcurrant.
To highlight how well their limited run Cabernet Sauvignon known only as “V” pairs with meat owing to a complex aroma, Gemishuys prepared a steak in the South African style and presented it alongside the exclusive blend.
The VCLUB at the moment only grants access to purchases of Vergelegen wines, but Havemann said all involved in the project are very interested in providing a social atmosphere where appreciators of good wine can meet each other and appreciate wine together.
“That’s what this is about” Havemann said of plans for future gatherings. “Having people around, having a braai [barbecue], and opening a bottle of wine.”
In the future, he said there are plans to provide members with access to large format bottles including magnums of their favorite vintages and keep track of their purchases at restaurants to reward their loyalty. VCLUB members can also expect invitations to golf tournaments and even opportunities to tour the Vergelegen estate with its famous gardens, vineyards, and wildlife preserves.