In a former life, Jean-Philippe Colmant cut tombstones from granite slabs in what was a thriving business in Belgium. It was a business that made him a good living. And while it’s not uncommon to hear of people leaving their jobs to embark on a new entrepreneurial venture, it’s not so often that one hears of someone leaving such a successful enterprise and moving their wife and five children halfway across the world to pursue a career in an industry of which they know nothing and in which they have absolutely no experience. Yet that’s precisely what Jean-Philippe did. The Belgian says: “I had never visited South Africa and did not even know Table Mountain existed. And while I was a good consumer of wine and bubbly, I knew nothing about how it was made. I was a businessman – not a farmer or a winemaker.”
Having the vision
Today, however, JP runs a successful business importing champagne and this month will release his first bottle of Colmant Cap Classique on the South African market, made in his own custom-built Franschhoek cellar. The story of how he got there is testament to the fact that business success is the result of a combination of vision, passion, capital and having the wisdom to surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. “With these things in place, entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to have all the technical skills. Technical know-how can be learned. It’s the other ingredients of business that you need to have to begin with that are important,” he says.
But when he moved to South Africa in 2002, he had no idea what business he wanted to pursue. “It was a lifestyle change that we wanted and when we visited Cape Town, we fell in love with it,” he says. Having sold his business in Belgium, he knew he’d quickly have to find some way of earning a living, and as he explains, “Once the decision to live in Franschhoek was made, it was a natural progression to think about making wine, although at that time we hadn’t yet decided to focus on bubbly.” He purchased a 5-hectare plot, financed from the sale of his Belgian tombstone-making business, and on the advice of a nursery, planted Chardonnay grapes. “Nothing existed on the plot except for the main building – there was no vineyard or cellar or anything,” he says, “We had some books on winemaking and it was our intention to look around at the market and see what would be appropriate.”
Seeing the Gap
It didn’t take long for the champagne-lover to realise that South Africa did not have a single commercial winery dedicated exclusively to the production of Cap Classique sparkling wine. “It was also clear that, while the ‘still wine’ market was stagnating somewhat, there was a growing market for bubbly,” he says, adding, “I believed we could fill a gap for a high quality Cap Classique bubbly that was priced slightly above the other local quality Cap Classique brands, and that we could target a market that was looking for quality and was slightly less price sensitive.”
Drawing on expert knowledge
Decision made, there was still an enormous amount to learn and in this regard JP points to the importance of surrounding himself with the experts. “I received a great deal of help and advice from other winemakers in Franschhoek. Nigel McNaught from Stony Brook Winery showed me the ropes and allowed me to work with him. And although he doesn’t specialise in Cap Classique, he and I made a first experimental production batch at his winery so that at least I would have done it once before, prior to making the first bottle of Colmant Cap Classique,” he says. He also received advice from local bubbly expert, Pieter Ferreira, from Graham Beck Winery. “He has been enormously influential in our story and gave me advice on how to build the ideal bubbly production cellar,” says JP.
He invested a great deal of time in research before building the cellar or starting production. “I visited Champagne on a number of occasions to look at cellars and see what worked best, and it was there that I met Nicolas Follet,” says JP. The 23-year-old student was a few months away from completing his oenology degree and jumped at the opportunity to help JP in the first season’s production. His input was critical, as JP explains, “Not only was he born and brought up on a wine farm in Champagne but he also has all the technical and practical knowledge that you just can’t get by reading books.” The relationship worked so well that Nicolas is now a regular consultant to Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne.
Reaching critical mass
On his research visits overseas and during the information gathering process, JP learned another important aspect of sparkling wine production: critical mass. “For production and technical reasons, there is a minimum threshold of 40 000 bottles a year at which you can make bubbly and still have a sustainable business,” he explains. The Colmant cellar is built for precisely this output quantity.
JP is at pains to emphasise that sustainability is critically important. “Some people look at me as a foreigner who bought a wine farm and now does it as his hobby, but this is simply not the case. Yes, I had capital that allowed me to set up the farm and the production facility, but I worked very hard for that money in my previous business and have invested everything I have into this venture. The production cellar is function-built but has no extravagant frills – we didn’t have the money for such things.
It’s run as a business and from the beginning I knew it absolutely had to work and be sustainable.”
Seeking a solution
Wine production takes years before it yields a profit and wine makers talk of their money ‘sleeping in the cellar.’ But a fellow wine producer from Franschhoek had advised JP that newcomers to the market should start marketing their name at least two years before they released their first production. This is even more important if the producer is small. Colmant’s first bottle would only be released in 2008 and it was partly the need to market himself that lead JP to hit on an innovative marketing solution that also generated a new income stream. “A number of these things that I had been pondering came together one night when I couldn’t sleep and provided me with the solution I had been looking for,” explains JP. He and his wife, both avid champagne-lovers, were surprised by the shortage of good quality French champagne at a reasonable price in South Africa.“Here, you only really get the big expensive brands, so we got some friends from Franschhoek together and imported a couple of palettes from a producer called Tribaut in Champagne. At about the same time I looked at our new tasting room and thought it was such a waste to leave it empty till we had our own bottles. And then it came to me – we would call ourselves Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne and I would import and sell affordable, good quality bubbly from Champagne to fill the gap that we knew existed in South Africa,” he explains.
It was a stroke of genius. JP’s plan was to import two or three thousand bottles a year but he sold 1 500 bottles of Tribaut in the first few weeks and was soon importing a full container of 8 000. The champagne is sold in top restaurants around the country and fills the gap perfectly between the expensive big brand champagne names and the locally produced Cap Classique varieties. This market presence, together with the tastings JP conducts both at the farm and for corporate clients, has enabled him to market the Colmant brand and build up a large database of loyal customers. The farm delivers bottles to customers’ homes all over the country. “We send out a newsletter to all our customers and it is through this platform that we have been able to build excitement and inform people about the launch of our own locally-produced bubbly, which has been our goal from day one,” he says.
Importing and selling Tribaut has also enabled Colmant to build personal relationships with these customers, and as JP points out, “It’s so important to develop personal relationships with customers in this business. Many of my customers have become friends and they are not only loyal, but they become ambassadors for your brand. When they open a bottle of your wine, they tell their guests about meeting the owner of the wine farm, and this kind of story-telling is so powerful. It gives you something that simply cannot be duplicated when people buy your bottle off the shelf of a supermarket.”
For these reasons, he says Colmant will always remain small. “In ten year’s time, the only difference you might see is an improvement in quality, which we always strive for, but never in quantity. I never want to go into mass production and have to tell my loyal customers that I’ve sold out of their bubbly because I had to ship it all to a large wholesaler,” says JP. And although he’s already been approached, he’s not interested in exporting either. “There are enough good brands that leave South Africa. We need to keep some good things here to spoil the locals,” he smiles.
A unique launch
The relationships Colmant has built with its customer base have paid off in bottom-line terms, most recently in the form of a unique sponsorship from Investec Capital Markets. “I have been so lucky to run into them, as they offered to sponsor the launch of Colmant Cap Classique. This has enabled us to have a prestigious event at Summer Place in Johannesburg, in addition to the less formal launch at our own premises in Franschhoek. I personally am not aware of another winery that has launched a wine for the first time and been offered a sponsorship to do so,” says JP. There is strong synergy between Investec Capital Markets’ clients, and Colmant’s niched target market. In addition, the Colmant story is unique because the winery is the only commercial one of its kind in South Africa to focus exclusively on the production of Cap Classique. “This, together with the Investec Capital Markets sponsorship is going to make a big difference to our ability to penetrate the market and get our name out there,” he adds.
Looking to the future, Colmant has big plans to entrench Cap Classique as a quality standard in South Africa. JP is a member of the Method Cap Classique Association of South Africa, whose interests are in the promotion of quality South African bubbly. “In 200 years, we’d like to see Cap Classique have the same status as Champagne – and we hope Colmant Cap Classique will be there as well,” he concludes.
Colmant’s ingredients for success in the wine industry
- This is a capital intensive business that takes time to yield returns. You need to be able to cover yourself for the period that your wine is in production
- Get your name out there as soon as possible. You cannot wait until you are ready to release your first bottle to start marketing – this is especially true if you are small
- You don’t need to go for large volumes – small businesses are able to fill the gaps that the larger companies can’t
- Surround yourself with experts, do as much research as you can and aim to follow industry best-practices
- Look after your customers and develop strong personal relationships with them
- Don’t expect to make a fortune out of wine – it can provide you with a good living and a great lifestyle but it’s difficult and
- demanding work that requires 100% attention and passion.
- May 2001 Jean-Philippe Colmant starts investigating the possibility of relocating to South Africa from Belgium to start a business
- 2001/2002 Concludes the sale of Belgian tombstone business
- December 2002 Moves to South Africa and purchases 5-hectare farm which will become Colmant Cap Classique & Champagne
- Summer 2003 Starts planting chardonnay grapes in the new vineyard
- 2003 Conducts market research and identifies a gap in the local market for Cap Classique bubbly
- End-2003 Decision is made to focus exclusively on Cap Classique sparkling wine
- 2004 Conducts research on ideal cellar design
- End-2004 Work begins on building the cellar
- 2005 Building of the cellar continues; makes an experimental batch of Cap Classique with the help of Nigel McNaught from Stony Brook Winery
- 2005 Hits on the idea to import French Champagne brand Tribaut and sell locally to build customer database and market the Colmant name
- January 2006 Meets Nicolas Follet while travelling in France; contracts him to help out with production of the first season
- April 2006 Starts importing and re-selling Tribaut. Gets listings in top restaurants around South Africa
- 2006 Harvests and bottles first Colmant Cap Classique
- 2008 Launch of first production with sponsorship from Investec Capital Market