Sunday Times STLive By Margaret Harris, 2011-12-04

My Brilliant Career: Wade Bales: Up close and personal with grapes

Wade Bales is a wine merchant who scours the Cape Winelands for quality wines for his clients; he told Margaret Harris about how the personal service he gives his customers makes him a little like a private banker for wine lovers.

What do you do?

I oversee and work with my team to supply discerning wine lovers with top-quality wines. We focus on the premium sector of the lifestyle market and part of my job also includes criss crossing the Cape Winelands - from Constantia in the south to the far reaches of the West Coast - to source these wines. I taste hundreds of wines a year to select "the best of the best", sourcing the classic award-winning wines and making them available to our 10000 regular clients.

I wear many hats in my job, like hosting wine events such as a wine festival at the Knysna Oyster Festival and, more recently, a wine and whisky affair at Montecasino.

Your job has been described as a private banker for wine lovers; do you agree?

Our business model closely resembles that of private banking: offering a highly personalised service to a specific target market. Relationships with winemakers, our clients and partners are the pillars of the company and, combined with our intimate industry knowledge and ability to source limited-release wines, give us the ability to deliver product of the highest quality to our customers.

You have introduced an en primeur wine-purchasing system; how does this work as an alternative investment?

The concept of buying wines en primeur is a centuries-old European tradition, whereby the wine is purchased by the consumer while it is still maturing in the cellar. The advantage to the buyer is that the price of a pre-release wine is invariably lower than the future price of the wine when released into the market. The success of buying en primeur, however, depends on the art of selecting investment grade wines - blue-chip wines, widely regarded as possessing sound investment credentials.

Determining factors include the ability of the wine to mature and improve over a long period, a strong, consistent global demand for previous vintages, and high ratings by leading wine critics.

To realise the best return, we advise potential buyers to hold on to their wine for at least five years. As is the case with most sought-after wines, the scarcer they become, the more desirable.

If wine can be cellared for 10 years, not only will buyers receive the maximum return on their investment but, by this stage in most instances, the wines would have entered their optimal drinking age.

Robert Parker jnr, the wine world's pre-eminent critic said: "Competition for the world's greatest wines will increase exponentially and the most limited production wines will become even more expensive and more difficult to obtain. "No matter how high prices appear today for wines from the most hallowed vineyards, they represent only a fraction of what these wines will fetch in a decade."

Based on the current turmoil in the financial markets, the safe-haven asset class of fine wine will be even more attractive, given Parker's prediction that demand for the top wines will continue to soar over the next 10 years.

What is a wine negociant?

A wine negociant is a French term for a wine merchant who purchases grapes, grape juice or finished wine from grape growers, which they then bottle and market under the negociant's label. In our case, these wines are made in limited quantities and are available exclusively from the wine society.

In my role as negociant, estates also appoint me to facilitate the sale of the wines en premier. For example, in 2010 I brokered the sale of Kanonkop's Black Label Pinotage 2007, a limited-release wine made from vines planted on the Kanonkop Estate in 1953 and aimed primarily at the premium, exclusive wine market.

Of a total production of 1085 bottles, only 1000 were put on the market at a price of R1100 per bottle. Our allocation of wines was sold out to wine collectors within a few hours.

What is your favourite wine?

With so many great wines available, it's probably not possible to pick one particular wine. However, I have no problem in choosing bubbly as my favourite category.

French champagne is the ultimate, but South African Cap Classiques [South African bubbly made by the French Méthode Champenoise] offer unbelievable value for money.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My family. With twin boys, John and Adam, having just turned four and my daughter Madison, 18 months, quite honestly I don't need any more motivation to get up and get going ... they are so precious!!

What is your favourite time of day?

I'm an early bird, so between 5 and 7 in the morning is the best part of the day.

It just feels like the world is calmer, the hustle and bustle of the day has yet to begin, and my mind is at its freshest and sharpest! I use this time to run and at the same time to plan my day.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

The wonderful relationships I have developed with the winemakers, and being able to share the stories and wines of these great characters with my friends and enthusiastic wine consumers.

Also, to have built a successful company: we have a great team who continually bring pleasure to people who love sharing wine with food, friends and family.

What do you find most challenging?

Maintaining the balance between work and family. When you are so passionate about what you do, you need to ensure that enough of your energy is available to the most important people in your life - your family.