When it comes to diversity and inclusion there is so much we can all learn from the actions and inspiration of others. Like the steps that Chris and Andrea Mullineux have taken at their award-winning South African winery, Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines to both involve and reward all their permanent staff by sharing the profits of a new wine brand, Great Heart Wines, with them. Sumita Sarma talks to Chris Mullineux about how the scheme works and the other steps the winery is taking to help develop and support its team.
The Great Heart wine brand from Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines is now on sale in the UK with an initial exclusive partnership with Waitrose.
Strategic investment in human capital is a win-win situation for all. It amplifies the diversity of human talent, secures the future of the company which in turn, sets the wheel in motion, for production and consumption models in the industry. If one can take away any lesson from a crisis including the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that product, processes and materials are all replaceable. But take away people and you are suddenly left rudderless. Talent is unique to every human and securing the present and future of this talent, is what creates exceptional business models. Businesses that can guarantee a secure future for their people are the ones that work towards a secure and sustainable future for the entire planet.
Meeting up with Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu wines (MLF), virtually for the launch of its new company, created for and by its people, Great Heart Wines, was inspirational. It gave me an understanding into the strategic vision of a dynamic producer and how it seeks to direct its social intent into a commercial opportunity and through this process, safeguard the future of its human talent. In turn, setting off an intangible value chain that benefits the entire wine industry.
Mullineux wines of South Africa was started by husband and wife team in 2007, Andrea and Chris Mullineux. Known for their terroir driven, minimal intervention wines in Swartland they joined hands with Analjit Singh of Leeu Estates in Franschhoek in 2013 to form Mullineux & Leeu Wines. An award-winning winery, their testament to quality is further sealed through Andrea’s proficiency as their winemaker, a fastidious role that got her the title of ‘Winemaker of the year’ in 2016 from Wine Enthusiast.
Great Heart Wines is a new company that exemplifies Mullineux & Leeu’s commitment to empowering their staff while also guaranteeing them and their families a financially safe future – a well thought-out initiative that works for the well-being of the entire wine ecosystem.
Employee support and development
As an employer committed to support its employees, Mullineux & Leeu Family (MLF) has signed up to ethical auditing that is conducted by WIETA (Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association), a trade body that runs sustainable ethical trade programmes for South Africa. WIETA conducts periodic ethical audits to ensure fair labour practices, upkeep of employment contracts and employee health and safety for the companies they audit. By voluntarily signing up for this audit, MLF has shown its wholesome commitment to providing a safe and secure workplace for its staff.
In the last few years, it has introduced a Provident Fund for their employees to enrich their savings. Employees are also encouraged to sign up for regular training programs for self-development. “We have a team of hard working and loyal employees. It is our duty and our strong desire to secure their future,” says Chris.
The commitment to retaining employees is seen through opportunities in career progression and self-development that is undertaken at MLF. Chris shared some of the success stories it has had with its team: “Every employee is valuable for us. Admire in the tasting room came to us from a hospitality background and over the years he has worked hard and developed a brilliant palate and can fluently describe and talk about wines. A few years ago, he was chosen to be part of Zimbabwe team that went to France to compete at the Sommelier World Cup Competition. These are thrilling career opportunities for our people.”
Admire is one of many employees that Chris was full of praise about, at length, on our call. The underlying message being one of pride and affection for his staff.
How Great Heart Wines works
While many projects such as bestowing ownership of lands to employees are intended to correct the historical imbalance created by an unfair social system, these carry risks of collapse, if adequate support and skill sets are not imparted simultaneously. “Farming is not a profitable business and more challenging in the wine world, if you are growing grapes. How it translates into a long-term value model is not really visible. Instead, we found an impactful action through the process of producing and selling wine,” says Chris.
This value generation through production and sales of wine is the idea that led to the concept of Great Heart Wines – a company collectively owned by the winery and the staff, where the employees are shareholders. The profits from the sale of the wines are distributed to the shareholders as dividends. This will not only put their talents into creating something tangible, but will provide a stable financial income stream for the future – one that can see them through tough times.
The desire to make a meaningful impact on the lives of their employees has always been in the minds of Chris and Andrea Mullineux, even before Covid-19. As their number of employees gradually started to rise, with increased coverage of work between the two wineries across Swartland and Leeupassant, it got them thinking about how they could best boost the lives of their employees and their families in the long term, whilst providing career development support at the same time.
“We wanted to act even before the lockdown,” says Chris. “But when the lockdown came it gave us time and the impetus to act upon our thoughts.” He adds: “The tough situation in South Africa in 2020 with repeated lockdowns, closure of hospitality, ban on alcohol sales lead to temporary retrenchments. Since then, we have brought all our employees back into work. But the fear of living in this uncertainty has pushed us into an action mode”.
It was during the Covid-19 lockdown that the concept of Great Heart Wines was born. “Instead of starting a new winery, we realised the most practical way we could go about it, was to kick off through our existing infrastructure and our expertise, and create this new brand, that our employees are the owners of.”
Any employee who has been with the family for a minimum of two years automatically becomes a shareholder and can share in the dividends from the sales of the wine. At the moment 21 employees are shareholders of the new company, says Chris.
Narrowing down on wine selections
Chenin Blanc and a red blend from Swartland are the first two wines that have been bottled and released. Chris credits the curation of this range to its partnership with Waitrose. “It was looking at an accessible style of Chenin Blanc and a red blend from Swartland. This worked perfectly well for us given our existing strengths in the region,” he explains. Swartland wines of Great Heart Wines are distributed exclusively by Waitrose and are already on the shelves. In the first vintage, 5,000 cases of 2020 Swartland Chenin Blanc and 2019 Swartland Red Blend have been bottled.
The next selection from Stellenbosch are being curated for the premium sector. Made in small volumes, the first vintage has just been bottled and are planned to be released in May 2021. First production numbers for Stellenbosch are 1,000 cases of 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon and 250 cases of 2020 Chardonnay.
Vineyards and production strategy
Some of the fine print for production is already lined up ,but the family wants to remain as flexible as possible in terms of grape selection and production execution.
Grapes for Chardonnay at Great Heart Wines have been allocated from existing vineyards. For Chenin Blanc, extra vineyards have been taken up on lease while the blended reds are from a mix of existing owned and rented vineyards.
“We are not buying or using any bulk wines for any of the wines. If we feel we need to change our selections over the vintages, we will consider doing so. We have left the option of purchasing vineyards for Great Heart Wines for the future, based on how the take up of the brand will be,” says Chris.
The main production of the wines is being done at MLF, but it has had to purchase more barrels, bottles, label, corks and packaging. “Great Heart wines uses about 20% of Mullineux & Leeu’s capacity. We plan to steadily grow this, so long as quality allows,” adds Chris.
The bigger picture
Great Heart Wines is part of the winery’s wider employee sustainability model. It is a project that not only gives the employees a sense of identity, but also inculcates responsibility and ownership, towards a brand that they are all part of. All with the constant support of the infrastructure of MLF to back them. The rewards in the form of dividend pay-outs is aimed at providing financial stability. “Through such a creative empowerment venture, we aim for growth of talent and a chance to demonstrate leadership. It is also a route for safeguarding the future of our employees and their families and alleviating not just their immediate but also their long-term needs,” believes Chris.
“Although we operate as separate entities, we are in this journey together and want to make sure that the interests of Mullineux & Leeu are aligned with Great Heart Wines. Rest assured there will be no competition.” He adds: “Great Heart Wines will have the Mullineux name at the back, but apart from that, the aim is to create an independent brand presence of its own,”
Gynore Fredericks, who is the assistant winemaker for Mullineux & Leeu Passant, is also the winemaker for Great Heart wines.
Both the company’s wines will be imported by Liberty Wines and MLF will continue to be sold in the on-trade and through independent merchants such as Handford Wines, Berry Bros & Rudd or Swig. As well as being sold in Waitrose in the UK, Great Heart Wines from Swartland will also be pushed out to other export markets including Germany, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the US.
South Africa’s diversity push
While talent investment projects such as Great Heart Wines are relatively few, they have been going on in South Africa for a number of years. Diemersfontein in Wellington has been one of the leading producers in employee empowerment. It announced the launch of Thokozani, a company with employee shareholdings, way back in 2007. Initiatives towards Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) have been going up steadily in the Cape wine lands in the last few years, with Paul Cluver starting up its staff empowerment project as well.
Wade Saunders, ex winemaker at Mullineux, has now started his own winery Brunia, that is about to release its own wines.
Atleast 40 brands in South Africa are run by people from the BAME background. An enthusiastic and aspirational generation of wine leaders, who are role models for a growing number of young black students joining the wine industry. A bright future stands in the horizon for the wine industry.
Tasting notes of Great Heart wines
Swartland Great Heart, Chenin Blanc, 2020
Picked from dry farmed bush vines in Paardeberg mountain, the Chenin Blanc is crisp, dry with a bright burst of ripe mango, lemon, yellow apricots. The wine has a soft textured mouthfeel balanced by fresh acidity. Hint of wax, honeyed appeal from 15% neutral oak adds elegance to the fruit. An attractive stony finish.
Swartland Great Heart, Red Blend, 2019
Made from 50% wholecluster grapes of Syrah and Tinta Barocca, the wine is a blend of 51% Syrah, 34% Tinta Barocca and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Intensely aromatic with baked red plums with a hint of black cherries, violets, creamy vanilla notes from ageing for 11 months in a mix of 225l, 500l and 2000l oak. A harmoniously balanced medium bodied wine showing freshness of fruit, focussed and soft tannins and ending with a crisp bright finish.