Bruce Jack appears to have the perfect job. On the one hand steer the winemaking strategy for global off-trade brands at Accolade Wines, but also have the freedom to make his own wines outside the group. His Accolade role is now allowing him to make real stars of its winemaking talent and bring some ultra premium wines to the on-trade.
South Africa has got its fair share of pioneering winemakers. Which is saying something considering it has only been making wine on the international stage for the last 30 years.
But arguably none have had the influence of Bruce Jack when it comes to bringing both mainstream and prestigious wines to the global wine consumer.
There are certainly higher profile and more outspoken winemakers in South Africa, but there are few who have consistently been at the forefront of anything new, exciting and attention grabbing coming out of the Cape.
Jack of all trades
In short Bruce Jack has had three very distinct careers. First building his own winemaking reputation and creating the Flagstone Wine business that grew to such a level that it attracted Constellation, now Accolade Wines, to give him an offer he could not refuse to bring it in to their fold.
Then secondly helping Constellation and Accolade build its wine portfolio on both its major brand and premium winemaking sides of the business.
And thirdly continue to work outside Accolade on developing separate wine businesses, largely through his Drift Farm business, which sees him make a number of high premium wines around the world which could find their place on to any restaurant list.
But first things first. It is testimony to both the long term strategy of such a major wine multinational, and Jack’s passion to remain very much at the heart of what Accolade can do with its growing wine portfolio that the partnership has become one of the most formidable and important in the wine industry.
His approach to both brand building and making premium wines is largely the same.
“You have to look back to be able to look in to the future. You have to understand the complexities of the Old World and then take on board what the New World has done in terms of opening up people to literally a new world of wine,” he explains.
Crucially we can’t look at wine in isolation, stresses Jack.
“You have to understand the whole drinks category rather than look at wine as being in its own category. We have to think of wine as a drink, it is an option just like an RTD, a pint of cider, a vodka tonic,” he adds.
“You can’t be so arrogant to make a wine and say that is the style. You have to make it drinkable. You have got to adapt it so that consumers are going to like it,” he explains.
Such an approach has helped Jack, and Accolade, build hugely on the reputation and distribution of its core power brands such as Hardy’s from Australia, South Africa’s pivotal Kumala brand, and most recently Mud House from New Zealand.
“We are a wine business and the focus is very much on allowing the winemakers to take it to the next level. As a result we are doing so much exciting stuff.”
It is an approach that clearly resonates not only with Jack but its other key winemakers. “Winemakers need to be part of the strategy of any big wine business, otherwise it lacks soul and is unsustainable,” he stresses.
But he is also quick to point out that clearly there are some wines in the Accolade portfolio which have to hit certain price points and absorb costs. But never at the expense of the overall quality of the wine, he stresses.
He also fully appreciates how lucky he is to have the flexibility and freedom to be able to go out and make his own wines outside of Accolade. Not all private equity backed businesses might be so accommodating.
It is also now seeing a new strategy that should make key buyers in the on-trade also look up and take notice of what Accolade are doing. It is all, explains Jack, “about putting wine back at the heart of the company”.
Jack has now been given the freedom to develop wines with Accolade winemakers that may only result in small parcels of wines that could be anything from just 100 cases, but which truly demonstrate their skills and the quality of wine that can be made from their vineyards. It is what he describes as its cellar door strategy. Creating wines that winemakers would normally only sell direct from their own cellar door.
“These are going to be very specific parcels of wine that are good enough to go in to select on-trade outlets,” he explains.
“It is going to bring the passion back in to what we do and allow us to really do some fun and different things, like create a skin contact Vermintino in Australia.”
Talking to The Buyer at this year’s ProWein Jack was up out of his seat with excitement just talking about the opportunities and possibilities that this new approach and freedom to really push the boundaries to do something very different, yet with all the support and assurances working with a big company gives you.
It will also give Accolade the opportunity to really showcase the winemaking talent it has, stresses Jack. A talent that can sometimes be overlooked because they are largely in charge of developing and managing such major volume wine brands.
But producing wine on such a scale needs very talented winemakers and Jack is just so excited about giving them the freedom to really express themselves by developing these new cellar door wines, that could well be making their way to a restaurant list near you.
Going it alone
It is also very much in keeping with Jack’s own winemaking interests that Accolade allow him to continue with. But how does it work, never mind find the time to do it? He explains: “It’s all about ensuring there is no conflict with Flagstone, in particular, and that suits me fine, as I am like one of those really irritating, over-protective parents, who can’t quite let go, even though your child has grown up!”
It essentially means that for most of the year 70% of his time is spent with Accolade, which can stretch to 100% during key periods, and the rest he is free to explore his own projects.
A good corporate, life work balance.
His personal work covers his South African project, The Drift Farm in Overberg in the Western Cape and Bonfire Hill where he is producing a whole range of exciting, experimental and classic wines.
Then there are all the projects outside of South Africa.
Projects like Le Weekend wine which he is making in the South of France at Domaine Turner Pageot, with Australian winemaker Karen Turner, one of his graduates from Adelaide University.
A wine Jack hopes might make a little crack in the US wine market with labelling evocative of the old travel posters of the 1920s and 1930s.
Here they make around eight different styles of wine, including the No Stone Unturned, Catalan Eagle, The Charge and Heights of the Charge.
A wider perspective
Having so many interests outside of South Africa, and Accolade Wines, might, on paper, look a little overwhelming, but for Jack it is vitally important to help him see the wine trade from all sides.
It also means he gets the chance to see how other big corporate wine distributors and companies work compared to Accolade Wines.
All his Spanish wines, for example, are handled and distributed by Boutinot in the UK, whilst Matthew Clark and Tesco online have some of his other wines including its Dragon Tree label and his Drift Farm wines are mainly handled by Alliance Wine.
It is not surprising, therefore that the UK is very close to Jack’s thoughts. “It is the market I understand the most,” he admits. “But it is also still the most important wine market in the world. If you can sell wine in the UK you can sell it anywhere.”
But, he believes, it is vital for any winemaker to be out in the field where their wines are being sold.
“It is important you are in the market as much as possible. Talking and listening to people. It is not just about Nielsen data. The best thing to do is to walk down a supermarket aisle or stand at a bar and watch people how they buy wine. That will show you what is really going on. You have to get out of the winery,” he adds.
“It is all pretty much about staying in control. I come over to Spain, for example, a couple of times a year to do the blending and see how the harvest and vintage is doing,” he explains.
“The only danger comes if you lose focus that your job is to make really good wine,” he stresses.