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Welbedacht Wine Estate

in September 2011 - Purple Circle

Welbedacht is an award-winning wine estate eight-and-a-half kilometres north of Wellington, in the Western Cape.

To truly appreciate Welbedacht however, you need to fully appreciate the resident-proprietor of Welbedacht, Schalk Burger, because the estate is the realisation of a long-held vision of the man. Welbedacht means ‘well thought out’ and there is nothing Schalk does that is not well thought out beforehand – no matter how quickly he makes up his mind.

‘Groot’ Schalk Burger is way more than a good rugby player, who became an astute businessman, created an excellent wine farm or is merely the father of one of South Africa’s greatest rugby players.

Behind the well-known persona of the rugby-player-made-good is an extremely intelligent, philosophical, creative and humble man who has worked hard for everything he has.

Born in the shadow of Table Mountain in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Schalk Burger is as Capetonian as they come and is one of the most understated, respectful, intelligent and creative people to have been born in the city.

His ‘career’ began as a 14-year-old delivering newspapers in Paarl.

“All I ever really wanted to be was a car designer,” Schalk admits candidly but surprisingly. “I’m a mechanic,” he reaffirms later, holding up his huge hands. “I can fix anything!”

This is not the last surprising thing about Schalk which creates a strong impression that, for him, success was not only inevitable but richly deserved.

All he and his brother, Johann, wanted to do was go overseas and design and build cars. Fate always intervened but did not stop Schalk from realising his creative instincts. But what has set Schalk apart from most other creative people is that he is also blessed with practical and economic ability in equal measure and has therefore been able to apply his innovative ideas in a sensible, practical manner.

There is however, so much more to Schalk Burger that will come as a surprise to all but those people who know him well.

Most people know that he was a very good rugby player who may have been great had it not been for the cultural and sporting boycott of South Africa. He then went on to co-found Megapro, South Africa’s leading sports marketing company and bought his first wine farm, Af-en-toe, in 1995 followed by the purchase of Welbedacht in 1997.

What is less well-known about Schalk Burger is that he and Johann worked on the South African Junior Lateral Thinking Project team for NASA in the formative stages of the Space Shuttle conceptualization! The brothers also consulted for the Tyrrell Formula One racing team when Jody Schecter was World Champion and Tyrrell raced their famous six-wheel car! They advised Ken Tyrrell by writing to him from Paarl.

Even though Schalk had become one of the youngest locks to play Currie Cup rugby, the brothers wanted to further their car-design aspirations at the Birmingham School of Design. While in the army, Schalk was picked for the final rugby trials and one day his Commandant told him to be at his office at 10am the following day. Not knowing what it was about he was surprised when his CO gave him the phone. Much to his surprise, Danie ‘Doc’ Craven was on the other end. The Doc asked Schalk what he was going to do after the army and when Schalk said he was off to England, Doc Craven told him he was too good a rugby player to give it up. The Doc suggested he should rather attend Stellenbosch University to get a degree and play rugby.

Schalk phoned Johann and said that they should possibly consider tertiary education before going to England and so Schalk’s destiny was fixed. Schalk sought and found a bursary to pay for his university studies and represented South Africa Under-21 the next year. He went on to become a fixture in the Western Province team in their five-Currie-Cups-on-the-trot heyday and also earned six caps for the Springboks.

After university he worked for Jan Pickard at Union Wines as a salesman and later as Marketing Director. Schalk liked the industry and absorbed everything he could about wine making which would serve him so well when he bought his own wine farm.
He tried to buy Union Wines and when it proved impossible he went on to create Megapro, which was instrumental in setting up the present sports marketing arena in South Africa

Strangely enough, rugby is not Schalk’s favoured sport. Cricket has always been his true sporting love but his father forbade him from playing it because it was an English game and his father well-remembered the Boer War.

Such was his fondness for cricket that Schalk decided when he bought his wine estate, he would build a cricket pitch complete with wooden pavilion! So when he bought Welbedacht in 1997, he visualised running his vines a certain way because it would give him space to build a cricket pitch in the adjoining marshy area.
“I moved more earth for the cricket pitch than I did for the dam,” says Schalk with obvious pride in the pitch that has a bigger playing area than Newlands in Cape Town!

Schalk’s love for cricket has been passed onto his two sons, Schalk Junior and Tiaan, who both hold records at their father’s alma mata, Paarl Gymnasium. Schalk Jnr holds the record for the youngest player to score a ton and Tiaan holds the record for the biggest ton of 142 runs.

This is not the only benefit Schalk’s children have enjoyed from having such an interesting father. Schalk and his wife Myra are very gregarious, affable people who enjoy socializing and have always had many of South Africa’s sporting, artistic and business giants dropping in to visit. Their two sons and daughter, René, have all benefitted from the exposure to such great minds.

With his creative nature and artistic eye Schalk has become a very discerning collector of art and owns a very unique collection. What is special about his art collection is that he doesn’t buy pieces based on the fame of the artist or the advice of an investment consultant. Schalk identifies young up-and-coming artists whose work pleases him and buys their paintings. Several artists owe their careers to Schalk buying their work. His ability to choose good work from relatively unknown artists has served him well as many pieces have increased in value ten-fold.

Of course the most influential person in their lives is their father whose profound intellectual depth, determination, pursuit of excellence and humility has rubbed off on them and all three are achievers with a wide range of interests and skills.

Schalk loves music and plays the guitar. This love was passed onto his children when Schalk bought them the best sound system available and told them they could play it as loud as they liked with only one condition – they listened to rock music! Consequently they all enjoy rock music and Schalk Jnr plays guitar and Tiaan the drums.

Schalk is a visual and visionary thinker and can see the end result long before most people have even grasped the concept. His creative flair for design has served him well in the planning of the estate, which he paced out and marked out with chalk. He is also extremely driven and disciplined and when, after a four-and-a-half year battle to have his farm rezoned for industrial rights, he told his architect that he would make wine at the beginning of 2005, the architect and everyone told him he was crazy and they would never complete a cellar in four months.

Schalk refused to be swayed by the architect, or anyone else, and steamed ahead creating the vision he had for his cellar. It says much of the man that they did indeed make their first wine on 25 January 2005.

The final result is not only very pleasing in its proportions, space, ‘simplicity’ and views but is also very innovative in terms of traditional wine making. He has built an extensive pre-cooling area, a large basket press and was the first wine farmer to build elevated open cement fermenters to accommodate a basket press thereunder. The ceilings are high and his cellar is also one of the few single level, fork-lift cellars in the country. This gives him more control over the process than would a multi-level cellar. The end result is a purpose-built cellar that flows functionally and logically and ameliorates the whole wine-making process.

Schalk also completely refurbished the historic Manor House on the farm over three years. While that was being done, the family lived in Bradgate Manor House in Wellington, built in 1903 by Alfred Jordan of Jordan Shoes fame and named after the English home of Lady Anne Grey. The Burgers had previously renovated the house and made it more livable and when they moved out to Welbedacht they converted Bradgate into a stately guest house, which houses a large number of Schalk’s art collection.

An entrepreneur by nature Schalk registers many trademarks that end up as names of his wines, some of which have not yet been released. He even contacted his lawyer one Christmas Day to have him check if a particular name was available. Flying on a plane from Europe one night Schalk read an article about which animals elicit the most buyer empathy. Listed at number one above even dogs and pandas were meerkatte! Sharing his Mon Pierre farm with a profusion of the cute creatures, Schalk immediately registered Meerkat and not long thereafter introduced his Meerkat range of easy-drinking wines which have become his biggest selling range, confirming the original story and rewarding Schalk’s creative thinking!

His interests do not end there though. Schalk is an historian of note and owns a large library of Boer War literature, housed on his Karoo farm, Mon Pierre. He also has a large collection of literature on the Border War, acknowledging that although the war was justifiably criticised it should be seen as one of the crucibles in which the new South Africa was forged. He is also very concerned about the future of his home language and sees this as a way of helping to preserve Afrikaans being the deputy Chairman of the ABSA Klein Karoo Festival.

His love for his language and culture should in no way be extrapolated into a view that Schalk is conservative in his political beliefs. Schalk was a participant in the unity process of sport leading up to the formative Kempton Park mutli-party negotiations in 1993 and became a close and dear friend of the late Steve Tshwete.

There is one incident that sums up the quality and stature of Schalk Burger. Our booked interview of one hour turned into a six-hour meeting. Schalk invited us to join him for lunch, which was welcomed on a freezing cold day with the first big storm of winter pouring outside. Schalk’s phone was on the table all that time, on silent and vibrate off. The face lit up every few minutes as people tried to contact Schalk but he never once even so much as moved his hand towards the phone to answer it.

Here is a man with so many powerful political, business and sporting connections he would have been fully justified to answer any one of those calls in our marathon meeting but showed us great respect by not once interrupting to pick up a call.

Power is not exhibiting your strength because you know you can. Power is in NOT exhibiting your strength when you know you can!
Schalk’s demonstration of how to respect people is a lesson for all South Africans, from the most to the least famous of us all.

So it is little wonder that under his watchful eye and caring hand Welbedacht has become the successful, award-winning wine estate it has. Schalk’s presence is everywhere, from the walls built to hold specific paintings, to the design of the labels and the writing of the back-label notes, his attention to detail and careful thought is absolute.

At the end of July Welbedacht won two national awards at the Novare Annual Terrior Awards. They have also won numerous awards for the excellence of their wines in the past. Thanks to Schalk, Welbedacht has certainly done a tremendous number of things right in a relatively short time.

The farm boasts 18 cultivars and produces 1400 tons of wine.

Welbedacht hosts dinners in the wine cellar and the cricket pitch is available for team building and corporate functions. There are plans to open as a luncheon venue and the Wine Tasting Room is the perfect place for it – and of course it was always part of Schalk’s plans.

Accommodation is available at Bradgate Manor House in Wellington.

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