What happens when a passionate wine maker goes back to basics in the African bush?
We cosied up with Jeremy Borg, the man behind Painted Wolf Wines and a brilliant storyteller, to hear his tale…
Ocado: Let’s start at the beginning. Your wines fund wildlife conservation projects in Africa – how did that come about?
Jeremy: After 16 years in the UK and California, I returned to Africa in 1994, aged 34, and accidentally went to work in Botswana for a well-known safari camp.
J: I had been visiting my family in South Africa with no intention of returning immediately, and Amanda (my sister), a wildlife filmmaker, volunteered my services. After two incredible years living in a small tent in the middle of the wilderness with elephants, lions, painted wolves (also known as painted dogs or wild dogs) baboons and a host of other wild animals as companions, Emma (my boss at Lloyds!) and I married under a large acacia tree in the bush.
Being back in the bush I had so loved as a child was invigorating after some wild and crazy years in California. The bush has been very good to us, and we made a pledge to make a contribution back.
After 18 months of head scratching we were blessed by the arrival of a magazine picturing a wild dog on its cover, captioned ‘The Natal Painted Wolf Project’ and telling the story of the successful reintroduction of wild dogs to parks in Natal. Wild dogs are our most systemically endangered large mammals – fewer than 400 in the wild in South Africa.
As soon as I saw the magazine, I did a trademark search and found that the name was available. Our experiences and knowledge of painted wolves resonated loudly, and we developed a community-based business strategy and plan, based on teamwork and the pack mentality.
O: Things seem to have developed pretty fast since then?
J: As our sales grow – 70% over the past 12 months! – so does the Painted Wolf pack of wine lovers and our pool of conservation funds. We have partnered with a number of highly regarded conservation organisations. In UK, we’re teamed with the Tusk trust. Prince William, a passionate force for African conservation, is the patron of Tusk, and I am so excited to have such an influential ally fighting for the same things we live our lives for.
I also recently started a new venture, Pedals 4 Paws, to raise money by cycling in Africa’s wilderness areas to raise money for wild dogs and other rare carnivores, and to collect resources for poor rural school children – the future custodians of Africa’s remaining wild spaces.
O: Have you ever seen a painted wolf in its natural habitat?
J: Oh yes, thankfully on quite a few occasions. One of the earliest memories I have of the bush is of a large pack of dogs on the road as my mum and dad rushed to reach the gate at the Kruger Park, late one afternoon in 1968. I was transfixed – it was the first time we had ever seen dogs.
Just a few months ago, during our Pedals 4 Paws ride from Mana Pools in the north of Zimbabwe to Chilo Gorge in the south, we had an opportunity to spend a day with Dr Rosemary Groom at a den in Save conservancy in South Eastern Zimbabwe. It was a wonderful experience spending hours with the dogs.
O: What’s the most inspiring use of the funds you’ve seen so far?
J: Emma and I have made a decision to work with a number of highly reputed and effective conservation organisations. The main recipients of our funds are Painted Dog and The Lowveld Wild Dog projects in Zimbabwe, The Botswana Predator Conservation Trust and The Wild Dog Project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa.
All of the organisations have active anti-poaching programs, which employ people from the local communities to collect snares. At Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe these are transformed into beautiful snare art.
What was a lot of fun for us was to take books and other education materials to kids in the bush in Zimbabwe during our recent visit, and to see their joy when they were received.
O: What’s in the future for your campaigning? Any plans or challenges you see on the horizon?
Our Pedals 4 Paws cycling project – which has till now been funded and organised directly by us – is going to a different level next year. We plan to take 12-20 riders, who will pay for the privilege of riding in some of the wildest places in Southern Africa, and who will need to raise money for conservation.
We have a longer-term goal of building a larger bush cycling event in the south of Zimbabwe to benefit conservation and rural development projects in the Save Valley/Gonarezhou areas. This will need to be done over a number of years, and will only be able to roll out in a significant way once there are some changes in the country. I am patient and like to work slowly and steadily on my projects so we should be ok.
O: Your pack has a diverse background, but how did you get into wine?
J: When I passed my A levels I visited Malawi, where the father of a friend of mine (now a major conservationist in Malawi) opened a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1962 to celebrate. Though not the greatest vintage it was still a mesmerising wine. After that I found every possible occasion to enjoy the best wine I could.
It was whilst I was in San Fran that I got my first wine opportunity as the chef at a wine bistro researching and pairing food with a different wine region each fortnight, then selling wine for a wholesaler, and eventually working in the cellar for two years at Rosenblum Cellars, attending viticulture college before taking my safari sabbatical. Kent Rosenblum is an inspirational man from whom I learnt so much.
I spent 1996 in the UK, a 36-year-old wine bum, used the time to apply for jobs in South Africa, and was appointed as assistant wine maker for Fairview. I have to thank Charles Back for teaching me so much about the business and Anthony de Jager, the quiet genius behind their wines, who shared so much of his wine knowledge with me and who still occasionally helps me when confronted by a challenge.
O: Art seems to play a key role in your wineries. How does art inspire your wine?
J: I am a person who enjoys things for the way they feel, and the best things bring joy with warmth, sensual and tactile qualities. I love the intensity and the peach of nature and natural beauty, and I have always been keen on paintings and art (and food and music) – I’ve even been known to paint a bit myself in the past.
Wine plays a big part of my life and it needs to satisfy me on all of these different levels, and it needs to have a personality, or should we say a ‘dogalty’! Also we have a number of wonderful and talented artist friends in our pack, and our bottles give us an opportunity to showcase their work. Artwork is also a key part of the fundraising work we do.
O: You’ve talked a lot about teamwork in the past. Why is it so important to you?
J: I believe that strength comes from co-operation and from finding paths that are mutually beneficial to all parties in any arrangement. My experiences in Berkeley, California, with bright and socially aware entrepreneurs, left a lasting impression on me. I saw people develop and run great businesses with loyal customers by taking a long-term, community-based approach. When Emma and I put Painted Wolf together, that’s what we wanted.
If we had to buy the skills we have from our investors, it would cost much more than our type of business could possibly afford. Over the years we have worked in seven different cellars – denning down as wild dogs do – which has given me access to a number of wonderful wine makers from whom I have learnt a lot.
My grower partners take care of the grapes; pack members help with web design; there are others with financial and business skills; and cycling buffs have been helping with Pedals 4 Paws.
It is better to drive and own a portion of something great than have full control of something modest.
O: Finally, tell us a secret. What’s your favourite wine from your range?
J: Gosh, which of our puppies is my fave? It really depends on the time of year and on the food I am preparing. I do however have a bit of a soft spot for Chenin Blanc, and for more stately occasions our Pinotage. I will probably give you a different answer if you ask again in two weeks! I’m really excited by the Pedals wines we are preparing for Ocado.
O: Thanks Jeremy!
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