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The (natural) taste of success

Mar 14 2017 15:05
Jana Jacobs

Mphumi Ndlangisa used to be an investment banker with Barclays Capital. That was until he founded Magna Carta Wines. Since 2014, this entrepreneur has cultivated a culture of natural winemaking, producing wines without using chemicals or additives, and with minimum technological intervention. He plans to bring his own appreciation and passion for wine to South Africa and the rest of the continent – a vision has been working hard towards over the past three years. 

Why did you decide to go from investment banking to winemaking?

It was a natural transition, I’ve always loved tasting wine – even as a student I was always trying out new wines in order to train my palate. The only limiting factor was being on a student budget. 

I left banking because I wanted to build something for myself outside of the imposing brand and social status of being an investment banker. 

I also wanted to return to farming and nature, which are familiar surroundings to me as both my parents, due to their places of birth, exposed us to the beautiful rurals of Bulwer, Bergville and Uvongo. My father in his younger years was a passionate farmer. I think those genes may have carried through. 

How difficult was it to make the transition?

Extremely difficult. It’s not only a paradigm shift, but a complete lifestyle change. Most difficult was having to survive with less. I soon came to understand that the wine business is not for quick wealth creation; it’s a legacy business. Progress takes time. In banking I was being paid enough straight out of university to afford all the niceties appealing to someone in their early 20s. 

The thought of being dependent on wine sales and people liking your wine is quite scary. Wine drinkers are quite fickle due to the vast amounts of wine on offer globally. 

Magna Carta Wines specialises in natural winemaking. Why?

The globalisation of winemaking methods and the rising influence of wine ratings from powerful wine critics have led to the flavour profiles of wines becoming standardised and quite boring. Essentially, if you were to taste a Syrah produced in Napa Valley and one produced in Stellenbosch, there would be glaring similarities. This shouldn’t be the case as the terroirs of the US and South Africa are vastly different, despite both being New World producers of wine. 

Making natural wine means returning to nature and the true expression of terroir. The vineyard and the conditions where the grapes are grown should be the only determinant of a wine’s taste. It should never be about making wines that vie for the approval of wine critics, who often give skewed ratings due to their preferential tastes. Through natural winemaking we not only improve the purity and quality of wines that consumers drink, but also educate consumers that nature is the best producer of wine. This method makes our wine very different to what is currently available on supermarket shelves. 

When did you officially start operating?

The company was registered in 2014, but prior to that we had already been experimenting with small-batch natural ferments, garagiste-style. A lot of thanks must go out to Pieter de Waal of Hermit on the Hill wines for sparking this interest in garagiste-style natural wines and for the knowledge he imparted. 

How did you get start-up funding?

Until now Magna Carta has been funded from my savings. I didn’t save millions, but I have been fortunate to have networked well, and in so doing haven’t had to obtain machinery to make wine. As our wines have been selling out quite rapidly in the past two years, I am increasing production to meet demand – so I’m currently looking for investors to grow the business with. 

How did you make the first sale?

At the first official bottling as Magna Carta Wines in 2014, where friends I had invited to share the moment pre-ordered cases and also spread the word. Two months later we launched the wines at 99 Loop Art Gallery in Cape Town. We sold over 200 bottles on the day and received a Sunday Times feature that same weekend. The wine that blew people away was our Elgin Pinot Noir. 

How many bottles do you produce annually?

We produce 12 000 bottles across our range of six wines. We are very small, but in the process of expanding rapidly. As we are currently in the harvest period, based on the grapes we’ve brought in, the 2017 vintage should see our production rise to 50?000 bottles. Future growth is dependent on bringing in the right partner who understands high-end consumers and has business operations in the rest of Africa – our primary target market. 

Where do you currently operate?

We rent space in two cellars – one in Franschhoek and one in Aprilskloof, Swartland. From a marketing and sales perspective, we operate mostly in Johannesburg, Maseru, Harare and are looking to make more of a footprint in Kigali and Nairobi.

What has been most challenging about entering the competitive South African wine industry? 

Costs to enter the industry are astronomically high. As a result you get market entrants such as myself who still do not own vineyards or a cellar. Luckily you can still produce wine through renting these. The industry is predominantly run by a few big players, both from a production and distribution point of view. New entrants have to set themselves apart in order to get close to the ever-evasive “equal footing”.

I’m currently learning Afrikaans, as success in the industry depends on this. I am also working with other smaller producers to leverage resources as we are stronger united than apart. 

Biggest lesson learnt?

That wine consumers are currently in a re-awakening period and are starting to realise that big wine brands, which previously cornered the market by selling more social status than honest wine, are not what they’re going to be drinking anymore. 

By staying true to the quality and intrinsic nature of the wine, we have learnt that consumers now seek us out, as they value a great drinking wine as opposed to being sold a lifestyle. 

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

My lawyer friend with a conscience, Yamkela Ntola, told me: “Never give up, even if it kills you.” In the tough times these words have helped get me through. 

What was unexpected?

The positive response of all the people whom I have taken to calling the “Magna Carta Family” – avid consumers, distributors and attendees of our Magna Carta Wine Day events around Africa. Their passion for our wines equals ours and this is unexpected, but overwhelmingly humbling. 

How do you stay motivated?

My driving motivational force is to continually learn, by tasting new wines constantly and by engaging with other producers who share the natural wine philosophy. The wine industry is about having passion for the art of winemaking and producing wine that keeps consumers engaged and intrigued. For instance, I recently tasted the La Chaumiére Pinot Noir from Franschhoek and it gave me a new perspective on the varietal, which I will be considering in the cellar. 

What are your non-work habits that help you with your work/life balance?

I hardly have time to enjoy personal time, but when I do, I like to read African literature and shop for jazz vinyl records as I collect these and listen to a lot of South African jazz from the 1970s and 1980s. 

What is your ultimate vision for Magna Carta Wines?

I want Magna Carta to be the leading wine sold on the African continent, both from the perspective of high quality and in terms of value for frequent wine drinkers who are always seeking to grow and challenge their palates. 

Short term I want to partner with an investor who wants to take the journey with us as we grow into Africa. In the medium term we want to grow our market share and overturn more conventional wine drinkers into natural wine drinkers – we’ve seen a large uptake especially in the black wine market. 

In the long term, I aim to build a cellar with a tasting room such that our supporters can share a glass with us anytime they want to and get to know the wines and us better. 

This article originally appeared in the 9 March edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

wine industry  |  entrepreneurs