Pulpit Rock: The Modern-Day Wine Dynasty Founded on a Shoebox of Tobacco Cuttings

Back in the mid-1600s, after an extremely long and tiring trek from the Cape of Good Hope, Pieter Cruythoff and his travelling party stood atop the Bothmanskloof pass and surveyed a valley rich in wonderment and beauty. Many followed in the years to come – to settle, to farm, to live and laugh, or to simply revel in the glorious views and enjoy the tranquil ambience of this singular destination.
One of the earliest farming families to settle in the Riebeek Valley were the Brinks. They bought their first farm, De Gift, in 1865 and began farming in true Swartland style, with a combination of sheep, cattle, grain and a smattering of vineyards. In 1890, Groenrivier was added to their stand, bringing it to 800ha.
Today, the Brinks are the owners of Pulpit Rock – the latest winery to number among the region’s acclaimed wine producers. The state-of-the-art cellars of Pulpit Rock are situated along the foothills of the Kasteelberg Mountain. Named for the craggy rock ‘pulpit’ that overlooks it from above, this innovative winery boasts two vast barrel maturation cellars with a combined 5000-tonne production capacity. But before they were known for their wine, Grandpa Pieter Van der Byl Brink was known as the Tobacco King, at that is where it all started…

THE BOX OF TOBACCO CUTTINGS THAT STARTED IT ALL
Winemaking is in the Brink blood. The family’s talent for this age-old craft have always been apparent, and the dream to make their own wine had lingered for decades. Groot Constantia approached Grandpa Pieter Van Der Byl Brink to become their winemaker in 1918 when he had finished his diploma at Elsenburg, but the time was not yet ripe. His father wanted him on the farm, and to soften the blow, great-grandpa Daniel Pieter Stephanus Brink built his son wine cellar where he could pursue his own experiments. However, it was the box of tobacco cuttings that Pieter brought along from Elsenburg that would ultimately found the Brink dynasty.
Pieter grew these cuttings and established what would become one of the most flourishing Turkish tobacco farms in South Africa at the time. This was no mean feat – it meant early mornings, late nights and careful tending of a notoriously fickle plant and product that fetched varying prices at market depending on the quality of your post-production and curing process.
“From the day you plant the seed, to the day you see any returns on your investment took at least sixteen months,” recalls Ernst Brink, Pieter’s son and the current patriarch of the Brink Family. “Whole families grew up in our tobacco sheds. Children were born and raised among the bales as their mothers worked. My own children spent a lot of time there as well – it was a happy environment with a profound sense of community.”

FROM TOBACCO TO WINE & BEYOND
It was only when Ernst sent his own two sons to further their studies that the stars would finally align to make the family’s wine-making aspirations a reality. They had phased out the tobacco farming in the late 1990s when table grape production in the valley reached it’s peak, affecting work force availability. Instead, they focussed on pig farming, which is still a vital component of their agricultural mix today.
In 2003, Ernst was one of the largest pig farmers in the Western Cape and most prolific landowners of agricultural farms in Namibia. By this time, his eldest son Van der Byl had completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Stellenbosch, while his younger son Haumann earned a diploma in Cellar Technology from Elsenburg Agricultural College. This combined expertise made them the perfect team to spearhead the workings of the family winery. Together, they approached Ernst about building a cellar. “I relented and said I would provide the capital to build a 60-tonne cellar. Suffice it to say, our first harvest yielded 400 tonnes, so we ended up building a 500-tonne cellar.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Visit the Pulpit Rock website to learn more about their current vintages and the many accolades it has received on the South African awards circuit in recent years, or visit them in person to sample their wines at their tasting room just outside of Riebeek West.

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