Our family history in South Africa starts back at the beginning of the last century when my grandfather arrived at the shores of Cape Town as a penniless political and religious refugee from Lithuania.
Graduating from working as a dockhand on the reclamation program around what today is the Waterfront, he started as a bicycle delivery “boy”, and finally bought a butcher shop at Paarl train station. The story goes that one morning someone arrived at the shop and asked if he would be interested in buying a farm. Mr. C.L. Back thought this an excellent idea and sold the butchers shop to purchase what is today known as Backsberg Estate Cellars.
Farming activities in those days were mixed; some grain, some live stock, some fruit and in time, some wine grapes. Once wine making started in the early 20′s the wine was sold either to the KWV, or in bulk to destinations like England. Should you visit the cellars you will see pictures of my grandfather and father standing proudly at Cape Town harbour loading tankers of wine for shipment to France where there was a shortage of wine after the 2nd World War.
My father Sydney (spelled with a “Y” as he was always determined to make people understand) joined his father in 1936. Time and pressure allowed for no further education beyond Matric. Despite the lack of education, he certainly had inherent wine making skills and was awarded the Jan Smuts Trophy for overall performance at the SA Young Wine Show very early in his career.
Over the years my father focused more and more on the wine side of our business, but with a large volume of low priced wines he was getting squeezed out of the wine business by the bigger players. Eventually in 1969 he was offered, and accepted, the opportunity to sell the brand name in use at that time – Back’s Wines. For years after the sale he often used to say to me that that was one of his better decisions as it freed him of much debt and gave him the ability to restart. Whilst the buyers went off with the name, stock, the plant and equipment, he proceeded to register the name Backsberg. For my father this was a unique and challenging time. Our farm at that point was mostly planted to peaches, and thus he had the opportunity to build the brand without pressure to sell, as the orchards were replaced with vineyards over the next 10 years.
The cellars were opened to the public for the first time in 1970 and I can well remember sitting in the winery – with my father and his close friend and manager John Martin – waiting for people to come and visit. In those days if we sold a couple of cases of wine for the entire day we were grateful and excited.
In 1976 as a fresh and eager graduate from Stellenbosch University, I arrived ready to change the world. My father certainly taught me the lesson that you “crawl, walk and then run”. I was not even allocated a vehicle, let alone put on the payroll. Not known for my patience I set about ensuring that Backsberg would become one of the most important family-farming businesses; I expanded production, bought land and went wild.
Upon a day shortly before my father passed away, I realised the stupidity of this process and started to reign the business in. We sold our piggery and meat processing business, ripped out any under-performing vineyards, culled the list of wines we were producing, and adopted a zero tolerance policy to quality. Today some 10 years later we stand proud as a team of what we have achieved.
In 2008 my son Simon, joined the farm after finishing his Business Science Economics degree. Simon is armed with fresh ideas and all of us at the farm are excited to watch his progress.
- Michael Back