Angelo van Dyk: One winemaker’s journey navigating Covid-19 and South Africa’s prohibition

Words by Stacey Nardozzi

(Stacey Nardozzi is a Senior Account Manager at B2B tech PR agency, Octopus Group, in London. Previously she was part of the wine team at Bedales Wine Bar & Shop in Borough Market and holds her WSET Level 2 Award in Wines. Originally from Detroit, where domestic wine takes centre stage – she moved to London in 2015 and quickly expanded her palate internationally. Now you can find her encouraging others to get curious about wine and start their own explorations, all with a glass of German riesling or red Burgundy, in her hand.)

If I could choose, I would much rather be hosting this interview with my friend and South African winemaker, Angelo van Dyk, in a wine bar in London somewhere. But as the global pandemic rages on, Zoom will have to suffice. 

Angelo, based in London works as the Trade Sales Manager at Newcomer Wines. He’s also the founder and producer behind Yo El Rey. They are a craft wine brand out of South Africa that creates small-batch bottlings.

He started the project in 2017, and it’s grown to include two wines in the portfolio with distribution across South Africa and the UK. Under normal circumstances, he would be gearing up for his annual harvest trip to South Africa right now. The pandemic has forced him to make some tough calls, choosing to entirely forego the 2021 vintage. As the pandemic worsens in many areas of the world, fellow South African winemakers face similar challenges. Most worryingly, the domestic ban on alcohol sales is the nation’s third since the pandemic started last year.

So, what’s your take on South Africa’s prohibition and its impact on the wine industry?

A: I guess the rhetoric surrounding prohibition in South Africa right now is rooted in the fact that they’re trying to take the pressure off the emergency services. Alcohol abuse in South Africa is pretty rife, and alcohol-related trauma in the area is quite high. By minimising that risk through alcohol bans, the government hopes it will free up more critical care beds. But, at this point, when you look at the impacts it’s having on the economy, especially the wine industry, is the juice really worth the squeeze? Is the economy of an entire sector able to sustain that pressure?

I’m nervous we’ll get to a point where wine businesses might fold. Or not be able to play catch up with the amount of domestic stock they could be holding. In the last twelve months, South African winemakers have only been able to sell wine for about four of those. Wine is one of the country’s biggest exports and contributes massively to its overall GDP. Thankfully, wine harvests are still able to continue, and the government is permitting alcohol export. 

Is your business feeling the impact of the ban?

A: Definitely. My domestic distributor has bought significantly less wine from me than they typically would. If it weren’t for the network that I’ve developed to get products into the UK, I would have some serious problems.

The UK market saved me.

That being said, I’m not selling the volume I anticipated. This is mostly due to the closure of bars and restaurants in the UK. Which is why I decided to pull the plug on my harvest this year. But I still have enough stock available to take me through 2022.

I’m really sorry to hear that. Given you’re not heading to South Africa this year, what was harvest like last year?

A: It was a weird one. I landed in mid-February last year. There were whispers about Covid-19, but it hadn’t dug its claws in at that stage. By the time I arrived in South Africa, things in the vineyard were pretty much business as usual. All the grapes, Grenache Gris, Grenache Noir and Syrah, came off the vine without any hassles or disruptions. But everything changed very, very quickly. 

There was a genuine fear of the virus hitting South Africa’s low-income areas, ripping through the townships and shantytowns. Naturally, a lot of people from those areas work in the vineyards and wineries. As a winemaker and producer, I tried to be very conscious of the risks, aware that many of these workers lived in multi-family dwellings. We kept the winery/cellar team pretty small to respect social distancing, avoid unnecessary physical contact with each other and stuck to the Covid-19 health guidelines as much as possible. But, within a week we went into a full-on government-mandated lockdown, where we had restricted hours of the day for exercise, bans on alcohol, and you could only leave the house for necessities. I didn’t get a chance to go back to the winery before I left a few months later.

How did you manage the rest of the harvest? 

A: Everything was barrelled down by the time I left South Africa, apart from the Syrah, which was still in tank. My guy on the ground there is Blackwater’s Francois Haasbroek, and he was able to finish off that vintage for me. There remained some significant concerns in that first lockdown, because at the time exports on wine were also banned and I didn’t know how long that would last.

I shifted focus to planning, marketing and distribution to the UK, with the glimmer of hope that I’d be able to export soon. I still had some 2018 stock, so in order to free up some cash flow, I did a discount on sale prices with delivery to people’s doors. It was definitely a stressful time.

What’s next for you, and Yo El Rey?

A: There were some big learning curves looking back at the last year. The nature of the way that I’m making wine is a bit unusual. I’m based in London, but I usually spend a couple of months out of the year in South Africa for production. I rely on my team there to get it bottled and shipped out. There are a lot of challenges doing all of this from a distance. Over the next few years, I’m focusing on two key things. The logistics, (including warehousing and general moving of the wine) and sourcing of the fruit. 

The first couple of years were all about getting my hands on some fruit to make good quality wine. Then take it to market and get people drinking and talking about the brand. However, I want to do some good for the planet. I know that sounds a bit ‘saviour complex’ of me. I don’t want to be jumping around from farmer to farmer every year, to get my hands on whatever fruit is available.

I’m eager to create long-lasting relationships with farmers that are rethinking the way they’re approaching agriculture through regenerative farming practices.

The impact that we’re having on our soils is immense. If I can start small, working with farmers who share a common goal. I believe we can bring about a positive change. 

2021 for me will be a year where there’s a lot of correspondence with my incredible team back in South Africa. There will undoubtedly be a trip back there at some point. I don’t know when, but it will be a trip focused on buying, pinpointing and earmarking vineyards that are available. Alongside establishing relationships with farmers who are willing to work and grow together.

Interested in finding out how you can support South Africa’s wine industry? Bubbles Hyland is your lady on the ground, head right on over here.

Daphne xo


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