It’s a freezing morning in April and we are mooting wardrobe choices with Wendy Appelbaum in the closet of her cold marbled bathroom. Outside, the wind is howling menacingly. We are inside Appelbaum’s massive stone mansion, a chateau by all means, 450 meters above sea level in the Stellenbosch winelands of South Africa’s Western Cape. From here, you get sweeping views of the rolling hills and her endless 100-hectare wine farm.
For all the loftiness around us, Appelbaum is spectacularly down-to-earth and unassuming, and fuss-free too as she picks the outfits for this photoshoot – a black Donna Karan fur jacket, a Hugo Boss suit, a red silk Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a knee-length velvet coat the color of wine. She won’t change her jewelry. The gold Italian neckpiece she wears every day – she loves gold – and earrings will stay. She may be one of South Africa’s richest and most successful businesswomen, but says she does not quite care about switching handbags and jewelry each time she dresses up, and no high heels either – she is a farmer happy in her boots.
In her upstair office, filled with trophies, journals and a mahogany table weighed down by coffee-table books, the balcony, with its iron railing and hills in the distance, is the perfect setting for a picture. But when the windows open, the wind is vicious.
“It’s the lousiest day I have seen in a long time,” says Appelbaum.
Earlier, when we had driven up to the house, passing the guards at the manor house, the sloping vineyards and beds of roses, Appelbaum had greeted us in her warm country-style kitchen.
Beyond the kitchen, a long carpeted corridor features grand stairways on both sides, and life-size oil paintings of ships at sea, grim generals, horses and packs of dogs. Appelbaum’s own dogs, two endearing Jack Russells named Dotty and Jane, follow her everywhere, while her Burmese cats Sally and Molly vainly peer from the top floor.
Dotty dances on her lap as Appelbaum finally settles in the living room, on a wing-back chair, the drapes billowing behind her. In this room, a snooker table takes pride of place, along with an eyeful of treasures – Ming vases, leopard print chairs, fur cushions, silverware and stuffed birds.
A large dining table at the far end with a fireplace, chandeliers and crystal decanters suggest the house receives many guests.
A floor below, in Appelbaum’s icy, temperature-controlled red-brick cellar, an iron chandelier overpowers a large oak table with leather chairs she “bought from a flea market in France”; on the walls are wicker baskets, pitchforks and shovels, and not to mention wines going back to the last century.
“We mostly do wine-tastings here. And if I have meetings [here], the cell phones don’t work, it is cold and I can keep [people] awake so they concentrate,” Appelbaum says mischievously.
“I love to entertain and cook,” she had said in the kitchen earlier. We spot pictures of her with Nelson Mandela, Thuli Madonsela, American feminist Gloria Steinem, even a picture of her with Hollywood hunk Robert Redford.
“Robert Redford is a friend of a friend who came here,” says Appelbaum wryly. “He said he had six Jack Russell dogs and picked my dogs up. And I said ‘do you mind if I smoke’, and he said ‘can I join you’?”
There are more pictures of her with sons Nicholas, a 29-year-old surgeon, and Matthew, a 26-year-old banker in Johannesburg. Appelbaum beams with pride when Nicholas walks into the room.
“Are you going to have lunch?” she asks him fondly. He says he needs to go into town.
How does it feel to have an energetic 24/7 mother, you ask Nicholas? His answer is quick and polite: “She is 24/7 with everybody else, but she is a mom behind closed doors. She is not cuddly, but she is capable of being motherly.”
Appelbaum beams again. “He is the most amazing child, so gifted, but unbelievably serious.”
In between, she calls for Jean, her butler, a 20-something lad in a Polo shirt who looks more Johnny Bravo than Jeeves.
It is clear Appelbaum is most happy on her farm, waking early to catch the first rays of the sun, like her wine estate itself, named DeMorgenzon, meaning ‘the morning sun’. Because of its elevation, it gets the first light over the mountains.
Appelbaum built and moved in to this house eight years ago.
“I wanted it to look like it had been here forever, I also wanted it to blend into the environment, that is why [it is in] stone. In fact, most of the time, you can hardly see it unless you look for it. It’s an adaption to the beautiful environment we live in.”
It explains why she prefers to spend more time in Cape Town, and less time in Johannesburg, “stuck in traffic, attending meetings”.
She travels to the Unites States (US) three times a year. She is a part of the global advisory board to the president of Harvard, looking into the globalization of Harvard. Appelbaum says the institution is on course to open its largest office outside of the US, in Cape Town. She has also been a member of Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Board for 15 years.
“And then I sell a lot of wine,” says Appelbaum simply, coming back to her turf. A medium-sized wine producer, she sells about half a million bottles of wine a year, exporting 85% of it, her main markets being the US, the United Kingdom, Holland, Belgium, Sweden and Canada. DeMorgenzon’s signature is Chenin Blanc.
“We sit on some of the best white wine terroir in the world – one of the reasons is our proximity to the sea, the cooling breezes and the elevation of the farm. [These are] mountain vineyards and we actually have the coolest vineyard site in the whole of Stellenbosch.”
Appelbaum says she always wanted to be a farmer; the important thing was finding what she loved, and she absolutely loved wine.
“And it was a hell of a learning curve,” she admits.
“It really does not matter whether you sell computers, wine, investments or insurance, you have got to run a business like a business irrespective of what your product is and I think it was just bringing all my business library of knowledge together, but it was fantastic as I have been in advertising, in marketing, so that came into it, and I think it is very important to have incredible staff, and I did a lot of consulting to make sure our viticulture practices are world-class.”
The perfectionist that she confesses to being, Appelbaum wanted the best or nothing.
“I drive myself very hard… Life is too short to do something badly,” she says.
“Your priorities change when you become a farmer. All sorts of things like the weather become more important; you become more in touch with the earth.”
Her husband Hylton manages the gardens, playing Baroque music to the grapes 24/7 with speakers installed in the vineyards and at the winery to influence the ripening and maturation process.
“He makes this a beautiful place to live in,” says Appelbaum. “He propagates the wild flowers. The roses are important too – if a rose gets sick, you know your vines will get sick soon. We use a lot of color to attract insect life. Everything is as close to nature as you can find.”
Appelbaum’s first vintage was a Chenin Blanc in 2005, which was the first maiden vintage to get 5-star ratings in the Platter’s Wine Guide.
“The awards are Return On Ego,” she laughs, as she uses a ‘thief’ to draw a few drops of Shiraz wine from an ageing oak barrel when we go down to her winery.
“The wine industry is creative, it’s got so many parts, you meet some of the most extraordinary and passionate people around the world.”
Appelbaum says South African wines are gaining recognition for quality, and are really starting to be seen as a force in the international wine industry.
“There is no doubt in my mind we have some of the best grapes in the world. From the perspective of tourism, it is the most exquisite winelands in the world.”
Appelbaum is now looking to market her wines in the rest of Africa, eyeing countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe.
“The rest of Africa has become a very valuable market. This year, we intend to roll out into Africa. There is huge demand.”
The Early Years
An only daughter, Appelbaum grew up in Johannesburg. As a child, there was not a single game she couldn’t play, be it bridge, tennis, golf, scrabble or show-jumping.
“Games teach you an enormous amount in terms of negotiation skills. Women essentially don’t know how to compete. I am highly competitive, and I learned that on the sports field. I just challenged everything, I still do, and that’s what makes me a very good director.”
After a degree in psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, she worked with her father, Sir Donald Gordon, founder of the Liberty Group. She was also a Director at Liberty Investors.
“I don’t think he was a good mentor,” she says.
“I think he was an interesting person and I learned some incredible skills from him, in terms of his determination, his attention to detail, patience and work ethic. He was an amazing role model rather than a mentor,” says Appelbaum.
Often, she was also the only one to challenge him in the boardroom.
“I always like a good fight,” she says.
“He wasn’t happy with it, but it was better to accept it than to challenge it because it probably made me worse. Every now and again he was patronizing, or gender-insensitive, but I never allowed him to get away with it, but even so he didn’t really go out of his way to promote women in his companies. He was a good sexist. He liked women, but he wasn’t so sure he wanted to work with them.”
Appelbaum was one of the co-founders and Deputy Chairman of pioneering women’s investment holding company Wiphold, from 1994 for about five years, and the company did really well.
“Those were fun days. But not just from the perspective of working with women, which is quite sleek and chic, but also from the perspective of when the country was changing and understanding different cultures. It was a sexy combination, and we had the capacity and brains.”
Post Wiphold, she was also Deputy Chairman of the Connection Group, another success story.
“I have been on so many boards I used to call myself a ‘serial board-sitter’,” she laughs.
“I sat on listed and unlisted companies, charitable trusts, foundations and all sorts of things. At one point, I was sitting on 15 boards, in the mid-2000s. It was insanity.”
For now, Appelbaum says she has embarked on a few new businesses, and “will be doing all sorts of fantastic things”.
In her mid-50s, Appelbaum’s philanthropic work continues.
She is a Director of the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre, and believes true wealth is giving back, which is why she won’t admit how much she is worth.
“I loathe to say that. I think money for money’s sake is pretty evil stuff. If you have the opportunity to do wonderful work and make a difference in people’s lives, it’s a responsibility that has positive outcomes, but just to count pennies and pounds has really got to be one of the most mindless obsessions and careers.”
The view from Appelbaum’s mountain home is certainly inspiring, but even more so is this person fronting a beautiful piece of earth in Stellenbosch, and she’s fun, feisty and fearless.