KWV chief Willem Barnard is driving a clearly communicated and ethical strategy for South African wine. Sonya Hook reports

South African wine company KWV recently announced it was setting up a committee of winemakers to offer a mentoring role to newcomers. The move followed last year’s decision by chief executive Dr Willem Barnard to sack two winemakers for adding illegal flavourings to Sauvignon Blanc.
His decision caused much distress within the wine industry, but in April this year Barnard announced that KWV, the producer of the Cathedral Cellar and Roberts Rock wine labels, was setting up a committee of three internationally respected winemakers to share their expertise with a younger generation. The aim was to tackle the global challenge of creating a more ethical winemaking environment.
But how important is this ethical environment, and how might it affect the UK wine market?
Barnard says that in order to convince the consumer to buy its product and then maintain consumer loyalty, KWV is focused strongly on the issue of transparency, particularly through opening up its vineyards. It must prove to the world that, as a wine producer, it isn’t hiding anything - and that a repeat of last year’s scandal will never occur again.
He recalls the number of critical e-mails he received after he decided to sack the winemakers responsible for the contamination. But he stands firm in his belief that, although this kind of behaviour occurs across the globe, it was his responsibility to make a stand and make a global call for it to end. “The top companies in the industry need to set these kind of examples. This situation gave us the opportunity to reflect on more than just commercial drive,” he says.
And while the scandal put the company unwillingly into the limelight, it has led to a more determined focus on creating an environment where this kind of practice can be eradicated.
KWV has also offered to support the South African government’s wine and spirits board to create a system, through a wine technology institute, that will measure wine profiles and establish whether they have been tampered with. “At the moment, the method of measuring is not good enough, so the laboratory analysis will be rejected and the only way is to directly catch a person who is tampering,” says Barnard.
He says a producer has to put faith in a winemaker because it is so easy for him to get away with tampering. This is partly because a winemaker often works alone for long periods of the day and also because it only takes a teaspoonful of a substance to contaminate a huge vat of wine. It is also hard to tell if the wine has been tampered with, even by experts, says Barnard.
While KWV’s Sauvignon Blanc was questioned because it tasted “suspiciously fruity”, it had been deemed to be satisfactory by many palates and it was only the rigorous paper trail kept by the company that identified an irregularity.
“I think that others had better start using this kind of production system if they want to be sure there isn’t a problem with their wines,” says Barnard. “But a paper system can be costly, and also many are reluctant to commit to this kind of method when they have been working to traditional systems for so long.”
So with this ethical focus that extends beyond the commercial drive, Barnard is confident KWV has a successful future ahead of it.
“We will continue to put a lot of effort into the UK as we have before, and I think KWV will be better positioned in the future to serve this market,” he said.
He acknowledges the UK is a key market for South African wine producers and believes “London is the capital of the wine world”.
He notes: “London is where a lot of the opinions and trading are done within this industry.
“The British market is the yardstick for all producers. Because of the political situation in South Africa, we are still relatively new, or at least we are new again in the UK market. We are still finding our feet against New World wines, and indeed Old World ones.”
But he feels the trend of discounting wine in multiples is in danger of seriously affecting the quality of what the consumer buys. “The UK retailer is almost too good in inviting competition and it is almost without discretion, and so does not reward quality.”
Barnard is sceptical about whether the right products are reaching the consumer in the best way. “I believe that the trick there for good retailers is to expose consumers to their wine suppliers more often. I have this uncomfortable feeling that retailers throw us all in one pot and treat all the products the same.”
He certainly thinks the wine industry could do more work with retailers to raise the profile of its wines. And in terms of getting through to the consumer, there isn’t enough effort made on the supplier side. “There is a very important communications gap between the retailers, the supplier and the consumer,” he says.
But he believes there is evidence of the culture changing already. “One of the positive things to happen is the creation of a suppliers’ committee, which has helped to drive wines, including those from South Africa, over the £5 mark in the UK.”
>>p43 Focus on South Africa
What’s a typical working day like for you?
Much of my day is often taken up with meetings.
I usually start with a discussion with the chairman or I go through the appointments of the day and week with my personal assistant, as well as returning telephone calls.
I regularly hold top management meetings and I also have individual meetings with each of the managers.
I attend directors’ meetings on several boards and on a quarterly basis I travel to attend board meetings elsewhere.
I sometimes travel overseas to meet with associates of KWV or members of the press.
I also travel abroad in order to attend the various wine shows and conferences.
At the age of 30 I graduated with a doctorate in Engineering Sciences from the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
My career then spanned engineering, research and marketing and I held senior management positions in each of these sectors.
I built up 15 years’ worth of marketing experience, which held me in good stead in the role I played in repositioning KWV’s brands in the late 1990s.
I was appointed as managing director of KWV in 1995 and I spearheaded major restructurings, which resulted in the former KWV Co-operative converting to a company in 1997.
I now hold the title of chief executive officer.
What about your life outside of work?
As well as being CEO of KWV, I also hold the title of Professor Extraordinary at the University of Stellenbosch.
I am also a professional member of four organisations, including the Alumni of Pretoria University.
Naturally, I like to spend time with my wife, Rina, and my three children. And I also enjoy playing golf, rugby and cricket.
The trick is for good retailers to expose consumers to their wine suppliers more often. I feel retailers throw us all in one pot
How did you get to the top of KWV?