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Bruce Jack interview: Flagstone joins Constellation, Jack to run Kumala 

Bruce Jack’s Flagstone operation is one of South Africa’s most innovative wineries. Initially established in Cape Town’s trendy Waterfront area, it represented a new way of doing wine: rather than follow the usual South African ‘Estate’ model, Bruce took the virtual winery approach, without owning any vineyards. Instead of just buying grapes, though, he rented land, entering into a close relationship with growers. In 2002, the winery relocated from the Waterfront to an ex-dynamite factory in an industrial estate in Somerset West. Inside this historical building, which dates back to 1901, there’s a crane so that all operations can be managed by gravity rather than pumping, and the walls are decorated with coloured lighting tubes spelling out the words ‘seduce’, ‘succumb’, ‘sense’, ‘swirl’ and ‘serenade’. It’s a creative sort of environment that fits with Flagstone’s eclectic portfolio.  

With its modern, high quality wines and innovative approach, Flagstone has become one of the most visible and celebrated wineries in South Africa, and Bruce, with his articulate, forthright views has become an opinion former in the trade. It therefore came as a real shock when yesterday it was announced that Flagstone was in the process of being acquired by Constellation, the world’s largest wine company. Constellation have a growing list of wine producers scattered around the world, including the likes of Mondavi, Hardys, Ravenswood, Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Da Luca and Kumala.

Eager to find out the story behind this surprising move, I caught up with Bruce Jack at the South African mega tasting and asked some questions. He was looking tired, but was eager to chat. ‘It has been tough to keep this quiet for the last couple of months’, he says. ‘The worst part was keeping it from my mates in the industry’. Indeed, he only told the Flagstone staff about this on Friday. ‘When I broke the news to my team, everyone cried’.

The first issue I had was the perceived disconnect between Bruce with his free-spirit approach to wine, and the big corporate giant of Constellation. Is there a poor fit here?

‘I don’t think there is’, explained Bruce. ‘I don’t think constellation is typically corporate: it’s family controlled.’ He cited the example of Sonoma producer Ravenswood, which was acquired by Constellation in 2001, where the founder Joel Peterson has been able to maintain his autonomy. ‘Troy Christensen [current CEO of Constellation Europe] is an amazing guy, and he has reassured me in the negotiations we have had that the specialness of Flagstone will be maintained’. Bruce will remain autonomous as the man at the top: ‘The winemaking-led philosophy of Flagstone isn’t going to change’, he maintains. ‘The only thing that changes is the source of the revenue’.

So was Bruce forced to sell because of financial constraints? He denies this. ‘We’re mostly family funded and there’s been no pressure to sell. It has been a tough internal debate to convince my family that this was the right thing to do.’

But there’s more to this story than just Flagstone being sold. Perhaps a more interesting, and important development is that Bruce will now be at the helm of Kumala. Launched in 1995 by Western Wines as an export-only brand, Kumala was a great success story, and still accounts for 23% of South African wine sold in the UK. In 2004 Constellation bought Western Wines and with it Kumala, but the brand is now currently in need of revitalizing.

Bruce is enthusiastic about this new role, and sees it as a big chance for South African wine in general. ‘I’m frustrated that to date there hasn’t been a big South African brand’, he says. ‘Kumala should have been that’. He will have complete responsibility for Kumala winemaking. ‘I want to take Kumala back to the vineyards’, he says. Currently, Kumala is sourced as finished wine, but Bruce reckons that he needs to unlock the potential at the vineyard stage. ‘I want to identify growers in the Co-ops we buy from and follow the grapes through to the product. I understand our soils, and my belief is in our land and terroir. No one is doing this at the moment for brands in South Africa.’ Bruce thinks that by working with growers and giving them a sense of ownership of the brand, the wine will improve greatly. ‘It’s an opportunity to give the brand integrity and authentic roots, taking growers along with us. It’s the old Penfolds model: you unlock value by getting them involved.’

South African wine could certainly do with a really good, successful wine brand, and if Bruce can help turn Kumala around, then this could be great news for the industry. ‘This is a fantastic opportunity to do this with a brand that has traction’, he says. ‘We only live once and this is an opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.’

Bruce also reckons that this move will free up his time to concentrate on what he’s good at: winemaking, rather than dealing with finance, human resources and other elements of running a business. ‘I’m geed up about it, and I want to be given 36 months to prove my point.’ One thing is sure: there will be a lot of people watching what he does quite carefully.

see also: report on a visit to Flagstone

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