The idyllic Stellenbosch wine farm De Morgenzon has twice been named as one of the top 100 wineries in the world by Wine and Spirits magazine. But what many people don’t know is that Wendy Appelbaum, the grande dame at the helm, is the most down to earth person in the business. And that’s saying something because among her many achievements is being included on the Forbes list of the Top 10 Female Millionaires to Watch in Africa.
As the daughter of Sir Donald Gordon, the founder of Liberty Life, Wendy served as a director at Liberty Investors Limited where she was one of the company’s largest individual shareholders before making her fortune by selling her shares and buying the wine farm in 2003. When her family decided to “go and live in nature” everyone thought they were crazy to give up on city life. But this wasn’t the first time she forged her own path – as a young woman applying to study to become a doctor, her dad was “absolutely delighted” that she didn’t get in because of the quotas on women students. “He asked me: ‘Don’t you want to be an accountant?’ I could have killed him at the time!”
After completing her BA degree in economics and the social sciences, she opted for a career in advertising. “I think when women choose to do something, they really go for it,” she says. “Sometimes there are low expectations, which makes success all the more rewarding.” Wendy is lucky to have an incredibly supportive husband Hylton and two sons, Nicholas (a surgeon) and banker Matthew, whom she encourages to follow their own passions. In fact, that is most what she would like to be remembered for: “for having given birth to two amazing sons, who will hopefully leave their own wonderful legacies. My sons make wine most years, my youngest son has done the full harvest… it’s a common passion, we all love the farm.”
Hylton is a keen gardener and was the brainchild behind playing music for the vines to make them flourish. “The big aim of making De Morgenzon different is creating a sustainable environment,” says Wendy. “Everything is encouraged to live and grow, from wildflowers between the vines which attract the bees, to mice who live and breed in the cover crops which the birds-of-prey feed on.”
Shortly after buying the farm, wine fundi Michael Fridjohn suggested they should keep the vines for the chenin blanc and pull out the rest. It was risky business but it was the right move – the DMZ reserve chenin blanc was the first maiden vintage ever to be awarded 5 stars in the John Platter Guide. “Something magical happened in that vineyard,” says Wendy with an extra note of warmth in her voice. “the vines are low yielding with few tonnes of grapes per hectare, but the quality of that juice is exceptional. I believe wine is grown, not made, because you can make bad wine from good grapes but you never make good wine with bad grapes.”
As a business woman and philanthropist of note, at one time Wendy served on 15 different boards. Now she is actively involved in, inter alia, raising funds through the Cape Wine Auction (an impressive R80 million over the last five years) and the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. For her it’s all about “working with everyone, not only fellow board members, to implement change on all levels”.
“Basically I am a social activist; I am a fighter. I love to fight, but I love to fight for good even more. I fight for people who have no power or access to justice, I fight for what is right. As a long-term philanthropist, I believe in positively impacting on those most vulnerable in our society.”
If she were to look back on her younger self, what does she know that she wishes she had known then? “Everything takes twice a long and everything is twice as expensive. Be a jack of all trades and hopefully master of some,” she quips. And if you were to ask her which wine is her favourite, “it would be like asking to choose which is my favourite child – every day I have a different favourite!”
There are many ways that Wendy is trailblazer for women in the wine industry but one in particular stands out; her role as founder of Women in Wine. Founded along with Norma Ratcliffe and other doyennes of the industry, every woman in the industry is invited to be a member and benefit from interacting, tasting wonderful wines and benefitting from mentorship. “Up until recently I have always had a women assistant winemaker and female protégés, I believe it brings sensitivity to the creative and precise process of making wine. What you see today, compared to what the industry was like 15 years ago is a very different world, some of the top wine makers in the country are women now.”
In giving advice to female entrepreneurs she says: “We’ve got to drop the ‘female’ part of entrepreneurs – I think everyone, regardless of gender, need to become winners. You need to work hard, believe in the impossible and make it happen.”
“I would like to be remembered for being a fearless fighter and activist. I hope to have been an inspiration to be brave, to be bold and to be heard.” Wendy usually spends Women’s Day presenting a talk. “I always take the time, even if I make some people cross!” – she interjects with her signature husky laugh – “as long as I make them think.” And of course, the perfect finish to a busy day? There’s nothing better than a glass of De Morgenzon wine.
This article first appeared in Food and Home Entertaining magazine in honour of Women’s Day 2019.