Back in 2000, Los Angeles native Samantha O’Keefe took a major chance on a winemaking career and an untested wine region when she purchased a farm in South Africa’s Overberg. Today, her Lismore Estate Vineyards wines consistently achieve 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights, and she’s considered a pioneer of a region that is making world-class wine. “It’s been an overnight success after 14 years of slogging away,” she says with dry humor.
It all started 16 years ago, when O’Keefe, whose career was in TV development, and her then-husband decided to travel in South Africa. They ended up planting roots in Cape Town, where they looked for a business they could develop. One rainy Sunday with their 5-month-old baby, they drove out to a farm on the outskirts of Greyton, a small town at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. As they stood at the bottom of the property and looked up at its dramatic slopes, her husband said: “We could make wine here.”
Pioneers in the region
Neither had made wine before and there were no vineyards on the farm, or within 40 miles of Greyton. Four days later, they made an offer on Lismore farm.
Crazy? “It was a vision,” says O’Keefe. The deal was contingent on the results of an extensive viticulturist report, which came back showing favorable cool climate terroir with shale soils. “The research showed that the terroir was similar to that of the Northern Rhone. At the time, everybody was pushing cool climate planting, but Greyton was overlooked, maybe because there was nothing out here.”
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The couple spoke to a few local winemakers, including Peter Finlayson, the highly respected first winemaker in nearby Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. “Peter said that if we succeeded, we’d be pioneers. If we failed, no one would care. When all was said and done, we made an educated guess that it could be very special.” By 2004, they had planted 36,000 vines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Northern Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier, the two that are Lismore’s most critically acclaimed today and “taste like nothing else coming out of South Africa,” she says.
They then set about building their dream house, “a cross between Cape vernacular and California ranch,” high up on the 740-acre property, and they had a second child. There were many initial shocks, including a house that was way over budget, but this was nothing compared to what happened on the eve of Lismore’s first harvest in 2008, when O’Keefe’s husband unexpectedly left. “It was a shock, but the next day I had to get up and start making wine.” A few months later, the global financial crisis hit, and things got even tougher.
“I had borrowed millions of rands that I needed to pay back, when suddenly the world ground to a complete standstill. I was desperate and tried to sell the farm but couldn’t. Finally I was able to sell 20 percent of the property, which enabled me to pay off my debt.”
In 2012, friends pooled funds to buy O’Keefe a ticket to London, so that she could participate in the Beautiful South, a show featuring wines from South Africa, Argentina and Chile. At the show, she stood across from Neal Martin, who she didn’t know was a Robert Parker reviewer. After tasting her wine, Martin said: “I hope you have distribution, because when people read my report they’ll be banging down your door.” He gave her Chardonnay and Viognier 92 points. That’s when things started to change, for the better.
Today, she is most proud of her Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, “a wine that is outside of the box by South African standards, more winemaker-driven than my others, and more style than terroir.” The list of Lismore accolades is long, with her 2014 Syrah on the Robert Parker Wine Advocate Best 50 List of 2015 and the 2013 Lismore Viognier named one of Tim Atkin’s Wines of the Year. More than half her wines are exported to the United States and Europe.
The fact that a virgin winemaker could make such a success is as captivating as her wines. O’Keefe is proud, but also grounded. “Winemaking is not rocket science. It’s chemistry, which I’ve always loved, as well as schlep. I also had the best minds in the area on speed dial.”
There are still no other commercial producers in Greyton, but O’Keefe thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has winemaking neighbors. “South Africa is a really exciting place to be in the wine industry today,” she says. “Small producers have the freedom to experiment and push boundaries, and we are benchmarking wines against the best of the world for the first time.”
The Lismore Estate wines can be bought at timelesswines.com.
Main photo: Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards