KWV commits to clean future

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The flavouring scandal that hit KWV at the end of last year has been the trigger for an upheaval in the way the South African leader will approach winemaking in the future. Chris Brook-Carter spoke to CEO Dr Willem Barnard about this industry-first.

"I needed it like a hole in the head. It was something I never expected," says Dr Willem Barnard the CEO of South African winemaker KWV of the flavouring scandal that rocked his company last year.

In December, KWV fired two senior winemakers who were found to have been putting flavourants into two of its most prized wines - the 2004 KWV Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and the 2004 Laborie Estate Sauvignon Blanc. The discovery followed a nationwide investigation into the use of illegal additives in South African wines, which drew international press coverage.

Tens of thousands of litres of KWV wine had to be destroyed by the company under the supervision of the South African Wine & Spirits Board (WSB). And, quite apart from the damage in terms of reputation, it was estimated that it would cost the company some R1m.

"Once we had established the winemakers were guilty it took me two days to go through the disciplinary process," says Barnard of the sackings, a rapid decision that he said at the time helped the company avoid any legal recriminations.

As we sit in the bar at a London hotel to discuss how he intends to repair the damage done and avoid any repeat of what he terms "the monkey business", he reveals he was inundated with calls following the event, saying the company was too harsh on its dismissed winemakers. After all, the use of flavourants is widely suspected to be neither confined to KWV nor to South Africa itself.

"I was not deliberating the merits of the law. I was acting on a transgression of the law," he says. "I consider my decision and the actions of the decisions to have been the correct ones."

Despite his insistence that his decision to fire two of his top winemakers was a legal one, the issue of morality, as winemakers try to produce award-winning wines at ever-reduced margins, has played an important role in the subsequent solution KWV has put in place.

In what it has described as a "corporate approach to winemaking", KWV has set up a special committee at board level that will lead the company's winemaking team. The committee will offer "a mentoring role to the younger team at the company's different wineries," says Barnard.

Barnard hopes the arrival of his winemaking committee will act to "add to the moral base in the cellars" by acting as role models in a world where the development of technology can blur the lines between right and wrong in winemaking.

The committee will be led by well-known South African winemaker Neil Ellis who has also accepted a position on the board. He will be joined by Charles Back and a so far unnamed Australian winemaker.

It is expected that the three will work some 20-25 days a year across three or four occasions. Ellis will report back to the board at a bi-monthly board meeting and the team will also attend KWV's yearly marketing conference. There they will be used, Barnard explains, to receive feedback from the market and make accurate interpretations of market conditions and demands.

The committee will also help run two schools over winter and summer where final year wine students from the country's universities will be invited, "with a view to create transparency and establish a level of ethical account for winemakers," Barnard says.

He adds: "This is the first time where such an initiative has been employed. We have had wine consultants before but this is an institution on our own board now. It will specifically look at integrating the winemaking process, with an impact at board level that will guide business decisions."

On first impressions the move all seems very admirable, but it has not met with universal approval within the industry yet. The first concern is the reaction of KWV's existing winemaking team - some of which have been successfully with the company for a number of years - to the arrival of a supervisory board to monitor their actions.

But Barnard argues that the move has been well received by the company's employees who having been equally shocked by the findings of the investigation which "created within those that remain a feeling of the need to interact more.

"They don't feel threatened by it, but see it as an opportunity to develop their own capabilities," Barnard explains.

Of more concern, however, is the idea of "winemaking by committee" an approach critics will argue will blunt the individual talents of winemakers and contribute to the continued homogenisation of the global market.

Here Barnard is determined put right any wrong impressions of the committee's responsibilities.

"The committee is not going to produce wine," he states. "The winemakers only have the benefit of experienced people close by to give advise where it is needed."

In fact, in many ways this is not about the day-to-day running of the company's wineries at all. The word that comes up most as we talk through the new system is "transparency".

Like a drugs scandal in athletics, last year's events could haunt KWV every time it produces a good wine that wins over consumers or judges at a competition.

KWV, in firing its winemakers, made it clear it did not condone those illegal practices. By establishing the winemaking committee it is attempting to make it clear the management will not tolerate them again.

Sectors: Wine

Companies: KWV Ltd

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