We Talk to Kevin Swart of Black Elephant Vintners
Black Elephant Vintners have never been known for doing things conventionally. But that’s ok, because conventional is not always the best way to do things anyway.
As a boutique producer their focus is on quality over quantity – they’re in the business of creating considered wines that have been well thought out and made with passionate determination. These guys live in pursuit of the good life, with a little fun thrown in for good measure. You almost get a glimpse of that as you learn about how the wine label came about in the first place – two big city guys who packed it in to live in the country. That’s the very truncated version of the story, of course, but it does allude to the fact that these guys are about living their lives the way they want to, versus the way they “should” do and they produce wine in the same way. Kevin Swart, one third of Black Elephant Vintners, tells us a little bit more about the brand and their wines…
Kevin, we know you and your business partner Raymond were in the corporate world before getting into the wine business; how do big city guys get into the wine business in a small town in the Cape?
Kevin Swart: By complete accident. We sold our stockbroking business and I decided to change the context of my life and moved my family to Franschhoek thinking, “Lets live where we would like to be on holiday and see what happens”. Raymond saw this as too much fun and moved his family to Franschhoek 6 months later. I bought a small wine farm but didn’t see myself making wine – some fortuitous circumstances lead me to making wine from the grapes on our farm and it just went from there.
Can you tell us about the name Black Elephant Vintners and its origin?
Kevin Swart: Ndlovu, Raymond’s surname, means ‘elephant’ in Zulu, Swart means ‘black’ in Afrikaans and Vintners brings in Jacques, our winemaker partner in the business.
You have a very unique approach to wine Black Elephant Vintners which is quite refreshing, can you expand on that?
Kevin Swart: Yes, we don’t know what we are doing so anything is a possibility! Seriously, we are not traditional wine people so do not have a framework to fashion our thinking.
Your wines have great names can you tell us about the process of developing these?
Kevin Swart: Each name has a different meaning and was created before we formed the company. For example, Nicholas and Timothy are my 2 sons’ names, Amistad is the Spanish word for friendship and Amazing Grace is a tribute to my father and his favourite song.
Can you tell us a bit about the style of the wines BEV produces?
Kevin Swart: Always elegant and smooth I think – not bold and rustic in style. We see ourselves more as the flyhalf than the front row of wines, to use a rugby analogy. We try to deliver the wine that the grapes intended, not what we think is commercially correct.
They say that ‘wine is made in the vineyard’; as a wine producer that buys in grapes from various sources, does this make producing great wine more challenging, as you are not in control in the vineyard?
Kevin Swart: Yes and no. Obviously, we have the risk of sourcing grapes that other producers may also want, but it also gives us the flexibility to pick and choose the varietals that we want to produce. It also allows us to do a ‘valley blend’, as we are not confined to a particular vineyard.
There are many different pairing offerings available, but Black Elephant Vintners offers a unique experience of wine paired with music; can you tell us more about this concept and how it came about?
Kevin Swart: We are musicians at heart but unfortunately have no talent! We are not a beverage company and as such are not solely focussed on what is in the glass. We see ourselves more as an experience/relationship business that has wine as a product. The music is an attempt to create an experience between you and the wine which will linger long after your glass of wine is finished.
Winemaking is a longstanding and quite conservative industry. How does Black Elephant Vintners, which is quite young and contemporary, fit into the scene?
Kevin Swart: We hope we don’t! Our excitement and passion is in trying to change the stereotype and to create a new experience. Others do the traditional, conservative experience very well and we see no upside in competing with that.
What has surprised you most about wine culture since getting into the industry?
Kevin Swart: How it hasn’t changed in years and the acceptance of doing the same thing year after year but expecting a different outcome.
Wine drinking and tasting can be intimidating for some as there is an expectation that you recognise certain aromas and flavours; what would your advice be for those new to wine drinking?
Kevin Swart: You are the greatest wine taster in the world for yourself and don’t let anybody convince you otherwise. As we believe wine is an experience and not a beverage, how you relate to it is entirely dependent on your life and experience. Have the courage to appreciate and accept that.
First Miracle is an organisation that is aiming to provide safe water sources and sanitation to people across Africa through wine sales, effectively ‘turning wine into water’. Considering our current drought situation, this type of work could not be more important. Can you tell us about your involvement with this project?
Kevin Swart: My brother, Gary, has a long history of working with NGOs all around the world, so we are using his expertise and our wine, to try to make a difference in that field. Ironically, it is not as easy you would expect and whilst everyone is aware of the drought, I don’t think we really appreciate how scarce a commodity water is.
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