In 1997, Willem Rossouw was a South African farmer of table grapes in Vanrhynsdorp, a rural town situated three hours outside of Cape Town city centre. Immersed in farmland, he had spent five years building a blossoming business and exporting his grapes nationwide, only for disaster to strike when a hailstorm rendered his carefully grown fruit inedible.
Faced with the prospect of financial ruin, Rossouw wasted no time salvaging the grapes and turning them into wine, and so Stellar Wines was born, a passion project Rossouw could invest in come rain or shine.
Twenty years on, Stellar Wines is South Africa’s largest producer of fair trade organic wines and bottles are shipped in containers to Europe, Asia, North America and parts of Africa. Stellar’s home is Kys Halte on the West Coast of South Africa, a region of the country famous for its semi-arid biosphere.
It is these climatic conditions, coupled with a desire to stand out, that has prompted Rossouw to channel all his energy into not just creating another wine brand, but a wine label that is 100% organic and fair trade.
“Every winemaker is faced with two choices,” Rossouw says. “What wine to make, and how to make it. This second question interested me in particular. South Africa produces less than 3% of the world’s wine, and early on I decided I needed a niche to call my own.”
Rossouw realised that organically grown grapes harvested by a workforce supported by a fair trade initiative would help the brand stand out from the mass-produced fare littering store shelves.
The move, it turned out, was a masterstroke. Stellar today is a brand of international renown that firmly owns its niche. Tackling organic farming has formed every aspect of the business ever since, from the way the grapes are grown, treated and cultivated, to the attention the workers receive.
And it all begins on the farms, the “lifeblood” of the winemaking process.
From the outset, Rossouw favours natural fertilisers like compost over the traditional synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. Compost conditions the soil to a state that is beneficial to quality winemaking.
Rossouw’s team strives to create biodiversity by planting trees, shrubs and cover crops in and around the vineyards. This biodiversity creates a home for predatory insects that feed on harmful pests that attack the vines. That eliminates the need for harmful pesticides. In turn, farmworkers are freed from daily exposure to pesticides and factory chemicals.
The semi-arid biosphere of the West Coast region has its own benefits. The low rainfall content means Rossouw and his team use drip irrigation under the vines without worrying about weeds growing in the rows.
Irrespective of location, Rossouw believes organic farming is best-practice in a day and age where societies across the world are becoming more health conscious – and it’s also the better business decision. “Organic farming is more sustainable because it creates an ecosystem in the vineyard which is self-sufficient and self-regulating. It doesn’t just produce wine that’s better for the environment – it has a real benefit to your business.”
Of course, one does not simply go organic. Stellar is organically certified by Ecocert for the United States and Europe and meets stringent demands that stipulate a specific set of farming practices. The farms are also organically and fair trade certified.
Rossouw sources organic grapes from 11 independent, organic farms which are part of the Stellar Winery Multi-Estate, a fair trade initiative.
The grapes are picked and transported to the cellar by workers who have an active stake in the business courtesy of shares handled by the Stellar Winery Empowerment Trust.
This is overseen by the Stellar Foundation, a non-profit that cares for the workers in a traditionally impoverished part of the country, and includes a free mobile clinic Rossouw has founded to care for more than 200 workers.
The entire operation, Rossouw says, is designed to put impetus in the hands of the farmers and give them an active stake in the operation. “From a business perspective, incentivising people is a surefire way of getting the best out of them.”
Though Rossouw’s methods are novel, they’re not without success. In 2004, Stellar started a no-added-sulphur range and remains the largest producer of this niche wine the world over.
The brand is shipped to all corners of the globe, including countries as diverse as Sweden, Japan, Canada and Madagascar, and in Rossouw’s native South Africa, the wine is supplied at health-conscious supermarkets like Woolworths, where customers are in search of a healthy living promise.
Deservingly, in 2016 Stellar Winery nabbed awards like the Old Mutual Best Shiraz Trophy for their 2015 Shiraz and a Veritas Award for their 2015 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon. A highlight was winning the Michelangelo International Wine & Spirits Awards trophy for best organic wine for their 2016 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon.
Stellar Winery is organic, fair-for-life certified and vegan-friendly. See their story and view their range at http://stellarorganics.co.za/.