I daresay there are few people who will not be happy in a month’s time to show a clean pair of heels to 2020, as they escape into the dawn of a new year. But amongst those few, ironically, are Paul and Cathy du Toit of the Wine Village. Given the off-again, on-again, limited-trading-hours gymnastics of the stern-faced guardians of the State of Disaster, one might imagine that purveyors of alcoholic beverages would be amongst the most despondent citizens in the country today. Not so, Paul and Cathy.
Astonishingly, in the 22 years since they started the Wine Village, this year (year-on-year during the winter months), has been their best ever. “It has been a year of many blessings for us and for the business,” smiles Paul, “not only as far as the bottom line is concerned. Most of all, it has been a year of gratitude for the support we have received from customers in this country and all over the world and for the opportunity it has given us to deepen the relationships shared amongst our team at the Wine Village.”
“We obviously had to close the shop during Level 5 of the lockdown,” adds Cathy, “but throughout that time, the online orders and emails of support came pouring in. We couldn’t believe it. We received messages from customers from Japan to France, telling us that they were so sorry that Covid-19 was hitting the wine industry in this country so hard.
“They said they were standing in solidarity with us by buying only South African wines during the pandemic and asked us to make up orders and ship them out as soon as we could. Others paid and asked us to set their order aside until they could visit Hermanus in the new year and collect it themselves. They couldn’t bear the thought of our having to close the business down, they said.”
“You see,” explains Paul, “these relationships have been built up over two decades. They are not just customers; they are friends, members of the family. Our approach has always been to put service above reward and these people have trusted us enough to come along on this incredible journey. Whether attached to orders or not, we received floods of personal messages enquiring about our welfare and telling us to vasbyt; the same goes for our suppliers.”
When Paul and Cathy launched the Wine Village in 1992, they had 32 suppliers; now they have over 1 000, ranging through the entire Western Cape to Upington, the Eastern Cape and beyond. And of course, during the last nine years or so, there has been a proliferation of gin and grape-based vodka producers. While brandy has always been a favourite tipple in South Africa, that industry, too, has achieved extraordinary growth. For foreigners, the added attraction is that the prices are half what they would pay anywhere else.
Because Paul and Cathy have built up such a good relationship with their suppliers over the years, they felt honour-bound to continue paying them on invoice. “Sadly, some retailers adopted the stance of ‘no sales, no pay’, but we felt that was not good enough. So, difficult as it has often been for us, we paid them promptly. It was humbling when some of them called Paul afterwards with tears of gratitude for our support,” recounts Cathy.
Equally, they were determined not to lay off any of their 17 staff members, if they could possibly help it. “We saw ourselves at the top of a pyramid of about 47 people, which included the dependants of our staff members,” explains Paul, “and if we were to close our doors permanently or start laying people off, it would have terrible consequences for all those lives, so we decided to push through, come what may.”
After the first phase of lockdown had ended, the staff asked if they could come back to work, even if it meant just tidying the shop. They got what they asked for: they cleaned, they scrubbed, they swept, they dusted, they rearranged the shop, they carried out maintenance work and they made up orders, in preparation for the ban on liquor exports to be lifted. And in the process, they got to know one another better, sharing joys and challenges. “It is what it is,” says Paul simply, “we are a family business.”
In the meantime, armed with all the clearance certificates they might need, they worked out a system, even before the prohibition on exports was lifted, to collect the stock they required directly from the producers. This went straight to Hildebrands, the freight agents in Cape Town, where the orders were collated and packed in containers to be shipped around the world.
“Of course, there was a huge backlog at Cape Town harbour and fresh produce was given priority, so the delivery time to overseas clients was longer than usual,” explains Cathy, “but of all the hundreds of orders we dispatched, we only had one complaint.”
Underlying the survival, growth and success of the Wine Village, is the du Toits’ passion for their product and their customers. Ironically, Paul, with his encyclopaedic knowledge about wines and the other brands he stocks, is a tee-totaller, while Cathy says she only drinks wine if it’s the very best available.
Indeed, it is the quality of the product, amongst the best in the world, which ignites her passion. “It’s grown from a very low base,” she points out, “but thanks to people with imagination, determination and the will to succeed, the wine industry has grown not only in volume, but in quality, to become one of the major revenue-earners for this country today.
“It’s one of the things I love about us South Africans,” she adds with a laugh. “We’re not afraid to work. We’re prepared to endure hardship to reach our goals and that’s why I know South Africa will make it – we’ve proved it at our small business in Hermanus during lockdown. When we work together, as a family, we can achieve anything.”