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Ovation Wines: A story of transformation and trailblazing

How this SA wine estate has made it possible for farm workers to become shareholders.

by: Jared Ruttenberg | 28 May 2019
ovation wines

I recently had the privilege of joining Thokozani to celebrate Ovation, their new wine label, at an evening of food, wine, stories, and festivities. Thokozani is an empowerment company launched by well-known Diemersfontein Wine and Country Estate in 2007, owned by David Sonnenberg. The number of staff shareholders has grown from an initial 35 to over 115. The company comprises the wine brand, an art gallery, a conferencing destination, and several cottages and plots on the farm.

Denise Stubbs, the business development director at Thokozani, regaled us with some of her journey: “I never grew up with wine – Mr. Sonnenberg knows. When I was 37 years old, in the tasting room, I took my first sip.” She’s an impressive woman who hasn’t had the easiest journey in the industry, but still seems as wholeheartedly committed to Thokozani as when she began twelve years ago. “It started with a conversation. David said ‘Denise, we don’t really have a plan, but how can we change the lives of our community; this Diemersfontein community.’” Over a decade later, this has certainly been achieved – and in ways the team never really expected. Tamerin went from being a receptionist to a hospitality manager and director; Chantelle moved from being a housekeeper to a dispatch controller; and Cheslin went from being a general worker and now the guesthouse liaison manager. Jason, who began as a general worker, is now a senior cellar assistant.

ovation wines

Denise was quick to point out: “You know; the biggest thing for us is that we are still labelled as a transformation brand. We’re here tonight to celebrate a brand that’s working! We’re here tonight to say that when Woolworths decided to make us one of their brands, they took us through the whole process like any other winery, not bypassing the process because we are black. They said: 'You’re going to go through all of these specs to make sure your wine and the quality is perfect.’ And we’ve done that!”

Denise explained some of the difficulties that they’ve faced in their journey, but is quick to add, “Please don’t ever buy our wine because we’re black.” Although Thokozani deserves recognition for being a BBBEE project and its general empowerment, the team simply wants recognition for being a success story and producing wine of excellent quality.

ovation wines

Beverley Schäfer, provincial MP at the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism, was present at the launch and had several words of affirmation: “Thokozani and Ovation is really one of our government’s major success stories, born out of a historic transformation deal that has gone on to achieve major success locally and abroad.” She also commended Denise on being a trailblazer in the context of transformation.

As I listened to the staff speak and tasted the wine, I couldn’t help but add my applause to a brand that fully deserves its standing ovation.

The Ovation range includes a spumante, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Merlot, Cab Sav/Merlot, and an SMV (Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and Viognier). You can find the range at Woolworths or purchase directly online.

Images via Jared Ruttenberg and Thokozani Facebook

Read more on: south african wine  |  wine farms  |  drinks

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