Obituary: From coal to Cap Classique

01 August 2010 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

His sparkling wines were considered good enough to mark the inaugurations of Mandela and Obama, writes Chris Barron

Graham Beck, who has died in London at the age of 80, decided to take on the French at their own game and, if not exactly beat them, at least offer some fairly stiff competition.

This was the sparkling wine industry which the French, with their champagne, pretty much monopolised. They had a firm grip on the international market and there seemed little chance of an outsider making much of an impression, particularly without using the name "champagne", which the French regarded as their intellectual property.

In SA there was no evidence, when he started out in the early '80s, that sparkling wine would be an industry of any significance. But Beck had the remarkable prescience to see that there would be a market, domestically and internationally, for his sparkling wine. Not even he, though, could have imagined that a future president of the US would one day choose his bubbly to toast his inauguration - as Barack Obama did with a glass of Graham Beck Brut Non Vintage in late 2008.

Beck was born on December 5 1929 in Firgrove, outside Somerset West. After matriculating at Kingswood College in Grahamstown, he completed a BCom at the University of Cape Town. His stockbroker father advised him to go into the ailing coal mining industry, which he thought was ripe for exploitation by someone with the right skills and entrepreneurial flair.

Beck learned about mining from the bottom up: he got his blasting certificate and mine manager certificate and then began buying small mines which the big companies were not interested in, and made them profitable. Eventually he had some of the biggest private coal mining interests in the country.

Just as sparkling wine belonged to the French, the local coal industry was dominated by Anglo American. But Beck learned enough about the Anglo system to become more than a minor thorn in its side. After some years he was running circles around its coal division and its management looked plodding by comparison.

They didn't like each other much.

In 2002 he chose Cyril Ramaphosa - who as leader of the National Union of Mineworkers knew all about going head to head with Anglo - to be his empowerment partner. In 2006 he sold his coal interests to Spanish power utility Fenosa for R1-billion.

By the mid-'70s, coal had made him enough money to venture where only the extremely rich dare, or can afford, to go. He bought three stud farms in Robertson. Over the years he produced two Durban July winners, Bush Telegraph and Dancer's Daughter.

In a way it was the horses that got him into wine farming. The Laingsburg floods of 1981 wrought havoc on a farm adjacent to his stud farms. When the owners realised they couldn't afford to restore it, Beck agreed to buy it and in 1983 the farm Madeba ("place of running water"), which bordered the Breede River, became his.

With the aid of a coffee-table book by wine experts Dave Hughes and Phyllis Hands, wine consultant and former Springbok rugby hero Jan "Boland" Coetzee and tobacco magnate and multiple wine farm owner Anton Rupert - who told him to plant chardonnay - Beck redeveloped the farm by planting 19 varieties.

It was happy coincidence that inspired his decision to specialise in sparkling wine - the calcium-rich soil in Robertson which is so good for breeding horses is also good for making fizz.

On the advice of Coetzee he brought in Pretoria university microbiology graduate Pieter Ferreira, who was the understudy of Achim von Arnim, SA's leading specialist in Cap Classique, the champagne method of producing sparkling wine.

Beck understood that in wine farming, route to market is everything. In 1989 he bought Douglas Green Bellingham from Union Wine for R12-million - the price of a boatload of coal, he said with a flippancy that hid his serious intentions from would-be competitors. The purchase gave him 50% of the Douglas Green distribution arm. The other half was owned by Sol Kerzner's Kersaf.

In 1990, he ended his dependence on the inefficient and costly local co-op and built his own cellar at Madeba to produce sparkling wine, one red, one white, with his maiden vintage in 1991. Three years later, his Graham Beck Brut 1994 was selected for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela.

In 1996, he bought out Kersaf, which left him with all of the Douglas Green Bellingham business, a bunch of international brands and an efficient structure which made it much easier for him to take his wines to market than it was for other millionaires who set up smart wine farms but then couldn't sell the stuff.

In 2006, he sold Douglas Green Bellingham back to management, keeping 20% and the Bellingham farm, which became the Graham Beck Estate in Franschhoek. He built a red-wine cellar there in 1998. In 2005, he acquired the Steenberg estate in the Constantia valley.

Wine farming was never a snob thing for Beck - who was more of a whisky man (Chivas) and only developed a taste for wine when he began making it - or about his ego. He had an ego, of course, but never let it get in the way of his financial sense. This was key to his success.

He picked the best people, made sure they knew exactly what he wanted from them and then left them to get on with it.

He demanded regular reviews, which were never allowed to be more than one page. He never interfered with their professional judgment, but watched the financials like a hawk. He joked that he used his "Jewish arithmetic" - he worked from the bottom up.

In addition to wine and horses, Beck had many shifting business interests around the world, including a caravan company and luxury yacht manufacturer. He was always on the move and up to date with the detail of every business. He used to say that wherever he went his office was in his hand - an old, gadget-free Nokia cellphone which he called his "salesman". He even sold his coal on it. He never kept a diary, and he never missed an appointment.

Beck was a bit of a rough diamond. He called a spade a shovel and he admitted once that he had done time for drunk driving. This made him accessible; people felt they could talk to him about anything.

Beck was a philanthropist. He gave money where he saw a need, from hospices to a school bus which he replaced after it was hijacked. He never advertised his giving. The school never knew who paid for the new bus.

Beck, who had lung cancer, is survived by Rhona, his wife of more than 50 years, and a son. Another son, Clive, died in 1995 in his mid-30s after choking on a sandwich.