Winemaker Series: Jacques Wentzel from Black Elephant Vintners

In our second installment of the Winemaker Series, Sales Manager Anna Zuck interviewed winemaker Jacques Wentzel from Black Elephant Vintners in the Franschhoek Valley.  Black Elephant Vintners produces a wide range of wines with unique personalities and packaging to match.  Meridian Prime is proud to import three wines from them: Two Dogs, a Peacock, and a Horse Sauvignon Blanc, Timothy White, and Nicholas Red.

-Sam Timberg


Anna Zuck (AZ): Where did you grow up?
Jacques Wentzel (JW): I was born on Robben Island as my parents were working for the South African Correctional Services and were stationed on the island at the time. Everyone always ask about Madiba and the political situation. To be honest, I was a kid growing up on an island, life couldn’t be better!

AZ: Where and what did you study?
JW: I studied Viticulture & Oenology at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch.

AZ: You've worked on other wine farms within South Africa as well as abroad, where has wine taken you?
JW: Wine is an awesome thing especially if you speak the language. I have been very fortunate to be able to travel, see vineyards, wineries, meet winemakers and taste their wines. I have spent most f my wine travels in France and more specifically Champagne.

AZ: How and when did you become involved with Black Elephant Vintners?
JW: At the end of 2011 I was feeling really burnt out from running wineries and making wine for “other people” I decided it was time for change and took the leap of faith. This was a really hard decision as it meant giving up permanent employment and financial security. I started playing around with ideas and a couple of wines as well as consulting to smaller producers. A chance meeting at the end of 2012, or as we like to call it “Synchronicity”, with Kevin and Raymond quickly evolved into Black Elephant Vintners and off we went in 2013.

AZ: I know you like to stick to the basics - what is your approach to winemaking, and to making wines in Franschhoek specifically?
JW: I think I am more into viticulture than winemaking. I try to find interesting parcels of fruit, grown by passionate like-minded farmers, and then just let the wine make itself. Franschhoek is a small but extremely diverse place, the more parcels you have to work with the better the end result.

AZ: What is your favorite and least favorite varietal to work with?
JW: Sjoe, difficult one to put my finger on. At the moment I am quite into co-fermentation, I love the way the different varieties takes hands to build a wine that’s so much more interesting than a single varietal. Although I love drinking Sauvy, I would say it’s my least favorite to work with, it keeps me awake at night!

AZ: Two Dogs, A Peacock and A Horse Sauvignon Blanc has absolutely taken over New York and I have yet to pour it for someone who didn't like it - what is it's (or your) secret?
JW: No secrets here, we don’t try to force the wine into a specific style. It is what it is, a Franschhoek Sauvignon Blanc.

AZ: And where oh where did the name come from?!
JW: Obviously we are having a bit of fun here, there are to many African animals on South African wine labels, so we chose a random bunch of animals. It’s awesome to do tastings and events with this wine as people come up with all sorts of names and that’s what the wine is about. Enjoy it and making up your own story. We are quite into design, so the label itself tells the Franschhoek story. Turn the bottle on its side, you will see the Cape Dutch cable (the dutch came first to the valley). In the middle of the crest you will see an “upside down” Y, which is a reference to the Eiffel tower on Franschhoek’s French heritage. Put the bottle on its side again and the Y represents the South African flag; we all live happily in South Africa, animals and humans alike.

AZ: All of the Black Elephant wines have independent labels and can stand alone, what is the purpose of this for you guys?
JW: Wine is about stories. The easy thing would have been to call all the wines Black Elephant Vintners Sauvignon Blanc etc. We chose the road less travelled as this gives us the opportunity to tell many different stories.

AZ: We hear rumors about bushvine Semillon planted in 1905, do tell!JW: Patience my dear Anna …….

AZ: We hear you just earned the title of Iroman and completed the Cape Epic, first of all, congratulations! Has this always been dream of yours?
JW: Not really but I had a bad spell of health about 3 years ago and decided to make a couple of changes to my lifestyle. I think everybody should go on an Epic adventure in their lifetime, completing the Cape Epic and Ironman this year is only the start of mine.

AZ: Lastly, if you weren't making wine, what would you be doing?
JW: I would be on my bike, travelling to world, meeting people, eating and drinking great food and wine.