Written by Shana Clarke
South Africa is known for its awe-inducing, plentiful landscapes, its wildlife and its friendly locals. But come August, one weekend-long event takes place on a small beach suburb, four hours away from Cape Town. It is the Vintners Classic and it’s unlike any other wine event on the planet.
In celebration of the local wine industry, young local surf and wine enthusiasts alike come together to surf and sip on the shores of the sleepy town known as Stilbaai. The competition, now in its nineteenth year, began with a few rebels in the wine world. Like many industries, supplier-sponsored golf outings were the de facto way to network in the wine world. However, not all winemakers were interested in tee time. They actually were rather resentful their employers would be willing to grant them a day off for golfing, but they couldn’t get out of the office to participate in a sport they enjoyed.
“As a non-golfer, I suggested a winemakers surf competition,” says Anthony de Jager, a winemaker at Fairviewand one of the founders of the Vintners Classic. Although the suppliers scoffed at it, de Jager mentioned it to a couple friends and “the crazy idea stuck.” They canvassed other surfing winemaking friends to gauge interest. “Everyone loved the idea; it was game on,” de Jager says.
A gang of about 10 secured a couple of sponsors—a wine equipment company and a bottle supplier—and the inaugural competition took place in 2000. Admissions were tight, limited to winemakers and grape growers through invitation only, and almost no promotion was done around the event. “It was more about the fun than the competition; guys would be drinking all day,” remembers Miles Mossop, a winemaker at Tokara Winery and at his eponymous label (and one of the original competitors).
But word was spreading, and interest was exploding, so organizers reached out to the surf industry for sponsorships. With the community’s support and questions about event location loomed, a true turning point came. “The event was quite close to the main winemaking regions of South Africa. After a day of drinking, the guys would drive home, or sleep by the side of the road in their trucks, [which] was probably not a good idea,” Mossop calls to mind. Besides making for safer travel between the party and a bed, the move to Stilbaai turned a day at the beach turned into a full-fledged, formally organized, destination weekend.
For this group of founders, the most shocking aspect of what Vintner’s Classic has evolved into, according to Mossop, is how much of a family affair it has become. Over time, the girlfriends who used to hang out on the beach and join the after-party became wives, and many of the winemakers started families. “This weekend away now includes the rest of the family, with some of the kids starting to make wine themselves and competing with us,” says Sebastian Beaumont, winemaker at Beaumont Family Wines.
The Classic’s current format boasts three different age brackets as well as a women’s division. “We run a whole competition in one day with 50 surfers; it’s amazing we get it done,” Mossop enthuses. “As people get knocked out, they start to have a beer on the beach or open a bottle of wine and after the finals we go on to a function—everyone’s invited, families too—and we have a prize ceremony followed by a big party.”
Of course, wine is at the center of it all. Since the beginning, winemakers must submit six bottles of their best barrel-sourced juice from a spicy red variety—such as syrah, mourvedre, grenache, cinsault or pinotage (either from the current or previous vintage)—as their entry fee. Their submissions are blended, bottled in magnums, and labeled BIG RED. Every competitor receives a bottle but the rest goes to the nonprofit organization National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) to use in their fundraising auctions.
Jeremy Walker, of Granger Bay, took the BIG RED concept a step further in 2016. The winemaker requested 50 liters of wine from a specific vintage from winemakers (although not everyone is obliged to donate) and unlike its young and fresh counterpart, it’s aged in barrels (also donated) for 12 months. This cuvée, which will produce 1,500 magnums, is slated to be released at this year’s Vintners Classic. Participating winemakers will be able to sell this limited-edition wine within their portfolio, and proceeds are earmarked for the nonprofit organization Surf4Life.
“[In the beginning] I think the industry saw it as a bit of a goofing off, surfers just making up an excuse to go surfing,” Mossop remembers. “Now, I think people in the industry love it and love that it promotes South African wines in a unique way. ” While all the founders agree that what it has become has exceeded expectation, at its core its still all about competition, fun and community. “And a massive party,” Mossop adds with a laugh.
Given its success, there are now loud whispers about opening the Vintners Classic up to international competitors. “It would be fun to have the Cali, Aussie, French, and Portuguese guys joining in,” Beaumont elects.