Samantha O’Keefe is Erin Brokovich
A story about a woman who literally
changed the landscape of SA wine
Legend or Lunatic?
Sam O’Keefe is a modern day hero for both men and women alike. But I imagine her story would appeal to almost every woman I know – A single mom to two very young boys, stranded in desolate foreign land, on the brink of financial ruin, trying desperately to make wine in an area where everyone said it was impossible. It’s either the stuff of lunacy, or the makings of a silver screen Erin Brokovich-style epic.
There she was, in the classic battle of wo(man) against the elements, ploughing onwards (yes, that was a farming joke), despite reaping only very low yields (and a few votes of no confidence from her neighbours). Heck, Eastwood himself could not have cut so stark a silhouette against the harsh frontier skyline.
“At this point it seems only right to tell you that I’ll be casting Dolph Lundgren in the role of Sam, with Vin Diesel in the director’s chair”Han, while drinking solo.
And, as every character must do on their path to hero status, O’Keefe faced what seemed like insurmountable challenges. Financial pressure was building significantly, and Lismore Wines was in a race against time to start turning profits (Forget Erin Brokovich. I just cast Dolph Lundgren in the role of Sam, with Vin Diesel in the director’s chair).
Keeping with the cliche, O’Keefe was on the verge of giving up, and heading back to her homeland (California, USA) to lick her wounds. If only she could sell that damn wine farm… but for whatever reason, no one seemed to want to buy a doomed vineyard in a region where no one else seemed able to grow anything of any worth…
Hollywood Endings & Beverly Hills price tags
But then (all of a sudden, Dolph), one by one, globally renowned wine critics began writing the most incredible things about her wines. Robert Parker first – giving an accolade that only one other SA winemaker had achieved at the time. Then Tim Atkin praising her Viogniers. And then the international demand began to soar. Very shortly, it became almost impossible keep any wine for her South African fans. Most recently, she started buying extra grapes from Elgin to produce her latest Age of Grace Viognier (it’s superb, BTW).
Now the fact that none of her white wines can be purchased for less than R200 per bottle has left a few disgruntled wine lovers accusing Sam of being greedy. Of tearing the ring out of things. Of destroying the concept of good value.
But anyone who cares to take a closer look at the situation will see that this is nothing more than good old capitalism at work, and the simple result of supply and demand.
When her vineyards produced dramatically lower yields per hectare than she had predicted, her business plan was all of a sudden in drastic need of revision. Instead of eight tonnes per hectare, she was lucky if she got four tonnes per hectare. This puts a gargantuan nigh-on Tarrantino-esque kibosh on her plans for profit, and a responsibly funded education for her kids.
But what her vineyards withheld in quantity, they made up for with quality, to the extent that wine buyers in the US, Europe, and Asia were knocking on her door daily (sometimes literally, and sometimes figuratively) for more of what the O’Keefe vs Greyton terroir combination could deliver. It is now at the point where she spends a large amount of her admin time simply telling wine lovers that she has nothing left to sell, because everything has been reserved for markets ranging from New York to Beijing.
So…to buy? Or not to buy?
And so here we are, with Lismore Chardonnays at almost R250 per bottle, and her viogniers no longer available in South Africa – purely due to International demand. Do we curse O’Keefe for her ability to garner foreign currency, or do we acknowledge that, by and large, South African wine lovers are simply short-stacked when bidding against the world’s most passionate (and better funded) wine buyers?
Do we rebel against world-class winemakers who start to demand world-class prices? Or do we simply fess up to the fact that, up until now, we have had some of the cheapest international gold medal winning wines anywhere in the world – and that this fortuitous situation can’t possibly last forever.
Either way, the fact that our local talent is being celebrated across the globe should be a cause for mirth around these parts. Because where one winemaker excels, the competitive spirit in human nature will see others follow, and the end result will be the South African wine scene growing rapidly in both quality and reputation.