Graaff-Reinet Stoep Tasting toasts a landmark with a bubbly weekend

Graaff-Reinet Stoep Tasting toasts a landmark with a bubbly weekend
Aaqansisi Guesthouse owner Ria Fivaz dresses up her stoep to a different theme for Stoep Tasting every year. This year she brought the beach to Graaff-Reinet, complete with surfboards, fishing boats and nets, deckchairs and old-school beach photo booths. (Photo: Sam Venter)

The stoep-tasting weekend started by Rose and Gordon Wright 10 years ago has developed into an annual R75-million economic boost for Graaff-Reinet.

What to do when a wine festival outgrows itself? It’s one thing to move an event to a bigger venue, but when the venue is an entire town where the accommodation is mostly booked up a year in advance and there is literally no more room at the inn(s) but still the demand grows, you do what Eastern Cape people are renowned for doing – you make a plan.

Festivals, whether the focus is wine, wool, biltong, cherries, the arts or live music, are known to attract local tourism, with knock-on local socioeconomic benefits that extend beyond a festival focus or single sector.

In the case of the Stoep Tasting wine weekend in Graaff-Reinet, it could be said that the event has become a victim of its own success – from five wine producers hosted on five local stoeps and 45 tickets sold for the first event in 2014, to this year’s 10th anniversary with 70 producers spread across the town and Nieu-Bethesda, and a sold-out 3,000 tickets.

The streets of Graaff-Reinet, many closed to traffic for the Stoep Tasting weekend, come alive with food trucks, haybale seating, outdoor heaters and braziers as evening falls, and plenty of spots to stop, gather and plan the next stoep foray. (Photo: Sam Venter)

Stoep Tasting’s success also spurred organisers the Karoo Wine Club to segue the recipe into more events, including the upcoming Karoo Classique Bubbles & Big Bottles event this weekend (15 and 16 September), and the seaside Great Kenton Wine Festival in March.

The Stoep Tasting weekend has become an estimated R75-million* annual economic boost for Graaff-Reinet and neighbouring Nieu-Bethesda, and the biggest tourism weekend in the Karoo. For a combined population under 50,000 that’s a substantial impact.

A Friday-Saturday event has grown into a three-day weekend and expanded to nearby Nieu-Bethesda three years ago – it even managed to be the only wine event in the country in the “Covid year” of 2020 – but eventually there was just no more room to grow.

The Vrede en Lust team of, from left, assistant winemaker Carla van Wyk, intern Elaina Lotter and head winemaker Karlin Nel presented the Franschhoek estate’s wines. (Photo: Sam Venter)

While Graaff-Reinet might have plenty of historic buildings and charming stoeps – that typical Karoo architecture that inspired the idea of visitors walking the streets from stoep to stoep, rather than the usual sterile wine exhibition spaces – there is no more accommodation capacity. Meanwhile, there is a 50-strong waiting list of wine producers wanting to get in on the action.

Enter the maak ‘n plan solution. Instead of one weekend, next year’s Stoep Tasting, for which ticket sales have just opened, will be held over two consecutive weekends – a new edition on Friday, 17 and Saturday, 18 May, while the “original” three-day weekend event returns from 23 to 25 May 2024.

This opens the event up for the lengthy waiting list to come on board, with a different roster of up to 70 wine, craft beer and spirits producers on each weekend.

Lelane Souverijn of Gqeberha takes time out from wine tasting to sample the gins of The Juniper Lab made at PE’s Bridge Street Brewery. (Photo: Sam Venter)

The Stoep Tasting weekend is rooted in maak ‘n plan solutions. The event began 10 years ago as an idea to liven up the “dead month” of May, filling the gap after the Easter weekend and before the winter school holidays and opening of the hunting season. 

Organisers Rose and Gordon Wright of the Karoo Wine Club owned a BnB and restaurant in Graaff-Reinet at the time, and wanted to create something that would benefit the whole town, not just the hospitality trade. With a business and personal interest in wine, and connections in the wine world, bringing the Western Cape wine industry to an Eastern Cape thirsty for wine experiences and exploring beyond the wines available on local bottle store shelves made sense.

They had no idea, however, that the concept would become a multimillion-rand tourism and economic success story.

With non-wine-drinking hangers on and families in tow, it is estimated that Stoep Tasting brings about 6-000 visitors to the area to stay, eat, drink, make merry and buy wine. They travel from Jozi, KZN and the Free State; Gqeberha, J’Bay and East London; nearby farming areas like Pearston, Richmond and Aberdeen, and far-flung places like the iron ore mining capital of Kathu in the far Northern Cape.

Elana van Schoor, left, and Izienne van Jaarsveld of Graaff-Reinet did a brisk trade in filled roosterkoek, raising funds for the church. (Photo: Sam Venter)

Many visitors and exhibitors book their accommodation for the next year as they check out at the end of the weekend, and the Drostdy Hotel is fully-booked for the Stoep Tasting weekend until 2025.

And they all spend on accommodation, food, drinks, groceries, braai wood, fuel, entertainment, side-events and visits to local attractions such as museums and art galleries.

There is a special vibe about Stoep Tasting in the clean Karoo air with mountains and views forever, amid tree-lined streets and historic buildings – there’s live music and partying, or relaxing and chilling, intimate wine dinners and master classes, a real feeling of a community all pitching in to make sure visitors are safe and have fun.

The weekend has been called “South Africa’s biggest reunion” as school reunion groups, wine clubs, book clubs, sports buddies and far-flung friends gather and kuier – many adding to the spirited vibe in matching outfits and custom-made T-shirts.

“Stoep Tasting has been a game-changer for Graaff-Reinet, bringing new visitors and business, and visitors that return at other times of the year too. The local businesses and fundraising organisations that take advantage of the platform see the benefits,” said Kim von Behr Imrie, who heads up Graaff-Reinet Community Tourism.

New, permanent jobs have been created; local businesses, schools, churches and NGOs grab the income-generating opportunity of a town bursting at the seams with visitors; streets get retarred, potholes and streetlights get fixed.

“There are more people now earning salaries, livelihoods for small businesses and informal traders have been strengthened, and the knock-on effects of the event go well beyond the hospitality sector, which is the impact that we wanted to achieve,” said Gordon.

Local community buy-in and participation is key, says Rose.

“The municipality, the tourism office, the SA Police, all are on board supporting the event because they know the local economy needs it.

“And the local community has bought into the idea of using Stoep Tasting as a platform to stage their own events, partner with wine producers on side-events like food-and-wine dinners, run food and coffee stands, run special offers and so on. The sky is the limit and there are no restrictions or fees to participate – the opportunity is there to make money or raise funds if they put the work in,” she said.

And the organisers return the favour by allocating trading spots for food, coffee, crafts and so on, only to locals, ensuring that money – apart from that taken home by the wine producers – stays local.

“The only people who leave with money are the wine producers. Averaging around R50,000 to R60,000 per farm, the wine sales run into the millions, and we support that. We focus on the wine guys doing well, because if they are happy, they will come back.

“The benefit is that it has opened the wine industry up to seeing the Eastern Cape as a viable market – there is a big thirst here for good wine, and a wider selection of it. Now, many of the producers use Stoep Tasting as the anchor for an extended marketing trip through the Eastern Cape, which benefits both their sales and a better selection for local wine lovers,” Gordon said.

Boutique wine and port producer Peter Bayly is one of three producers who have been at every single Stoep Tasting and has seen consistent growth in sales every year, as well as building a loyal following.

“We get a good return of sales to tastings, and we have people who return to our stand year after year to stock up. A lot of them also come to visit us on the farm, bringing tourism business to Calitzdorp too, which is a good spin-off benefit,” Bayly said.

For Michael White, owner of Highlands Road in Elgin, who has been at every event but one, building a loyal following, customers from all over South Africa who make a point of visiting his stand, is “part of the ethos of Stoep Tasting – why both producers and visitors return”. That, alongside the event having managed to retain the “quaint, quirky, eccentric charm” that it was built on, even though it has grown and changed.

“It just grew organically, as things do in the Karoo, and without ever having a single sponsor,” adds Rose.

Where some festivals live or die by sponsorship, the lack thereof is actually part of the reason for the Stoep Tasting’s longevity and sustainability. Deliberately choosing not to seek out sponsorship is partly a choice to avoid a corporate feel and garish branding everywhere, keeping the focus rather on the built heritage and natural beauty of Graaff-Reinet and Nieu-Bethesda and maintaining the small-town, outdoor countryside vibe that festival-goers love; and partly a smart move to create a self-sustaining event.

Chilling in the sun on the Outsiders restaurant stoep in Nieu-Bethesda hosting Thelema Wines. (Photo: Sam Venter)

“Already, many of the producers and visitors book their accommodation for a day or two before or after the event. Next year it is likely some people will stay for the week between the two weekends and make a holiday of it, especially those from further afield. The new set-up also allows more capacity for side-events, a really popular part of the Stoep Tasting, to spread out into the days between the two weekends,” says Gordon.

The “side-events” are where the local community comes in – the clubs, schools, restaurants, accommodation establishments and other local businesses coming up with their own events linked to the Stoep Tasting, to capitalise on the opportunity of having a large portion of the Western Cape wine industry in town and thousands of visitors looking for Things To Do. These range from farmers’ markets, running events and home-cooked supper deliveries, to theatre productions, art exhibitions and organ concerts, to vertical tastings and master classes with winemakers, sensory tasting experiences, food-and-wine pairing dinners, beer-and-food pairing – you name it, it will be paired with something.

“We attended a Montpellier brunch where we got to watch their Cap Classique being disgorged and experience the taste of a freshly disgorged bubbly. It is the unique experiences like that in the side events, opportunities to meet and talk to winemakers, enjoy a wine-focused meal, that make the Stoep Tasting special.

“Stoep Tasting has charm in the architecture and spaces and a quirky, offbeat vibe, and also a lot of variety – you can experience it as a party weekend, or in more intimate experiences with winemakers and remarkable wines,” says Gqeberha wine lover Nicole Worthington, who has watched the festival grow over the years, and still returns every year.

The Stoep Tasting is the biggest annual fundraiser for Union Preparatory, said Lené van den Heever, part of the team of governing body members and parents running the all-day and into-the-evening Karoo Braai stall. “Stall” is a bit of a misnomer for a vibey garden setting of wine stands, music and seemingly endless skaapstertjies, lamb chops, lamb spit and more coming off the fires in a continuous parade.

The Stoep Tasting organisers encourage local businesses, schools, churches and charities to use the weekend as an income-generating and fundraising opportunity, providing food and entertainment to the fest-goers at the same time. Union Prep goes all out with a festive braai garden for their single biggest annual fundraiser, run by an enthusiastic team of governing body and parents. (Photo: Sam Venter)

This year’s Stoep Tasting was set to cover new flooring for five of the school’s classrooms, with most of the ingredients, especially the lamb, donated by farming parents.

Over on Bourke Street, the Gereformeerde Kerk’s fires were going all day too, doing a brisk trade in roosterkoek, while the best “babelaas breakfast” in town was to be had at the Union Pre-School’s Saturday Breakfast Market, where breakfast rolls and 400 pre-made pancakes were sold out within an hour.

Meanwhile on Stockenstrom Street, secondhand dealer The Junkman turned their pavement into Party Central with all-day music and fairy lights, food and coffee stand and a night-time braai, bringing tasters flocking to their happy stoep “tenants” Muratie and Simonsig.

Owners Marna and Raymond van Staden, who recently reopened the shop previously owned by Raymond’s dad, said they hadn’t hesitated in jumping on the Stoep Tasting bandwagon, creating a fun vibe that resulted in “lots of sold stickers” on the goods, and would definitely do it again next year.

Wineries Fryer’s Cove, Kleinood and Old Road Wine Company found themselves on Stoep 14 at Aaqansisi Guesthouse, where owner Ria Fivaz dresses up her stoep in a different theme every year – this year a beach party complete with beach sand on the pavement, surfboards and fake palms – “just for fun”.

Stoep Tasting works for her, she said, in bringing not only fun to the town but good business and “if people cancel, we fill the space in 20 minutes”, such is the demand.

With Stoep Tasting, and the Karoo Wine Club’s other events, the organisers have built a recipe for success – a weekend of countryside and fresh air, friends, fun and lots to do apart from tasting wine. A mix of big-name mass-produced brands and the smaller, the boutique and the quirky, attract both the novice or less-adventurous wine lover as well as those seeking out premium wines, or something new and not readily found on a bottle store shelf. Craft beer and spirits producers are deliberately placed at intervals along the wine route, to keep the non-wine lovers interested and offer a respite for wine-weary palates.

The latest maak ‘n plan adaptation of the Stoep Tasting wine weekend holds the potential to substantially boost the already impressive socioeconomic impact of the biggest tourism weekend in the Karoo and one of South Africa’s largest consumer-focused wine events.  DM

* Research commissioned just before the Covid-19 pandemic, and before the 2021 extension of the Stoep Tasting venues to Graaff-Reinet’s neighbouring village of Nieu-Bethesda estimated the economic impact of the weekend at R50-million. This has been extrapolated to an estimated R75-million today.


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