Class of ’90 | In the early 1980s, when Anthony Hamilton Russell WG’90 received his call-ups for national service—which in the apartheid era really meant “policing the local community,” he says—he “disagreed with it vehemently, morally, and politically, and left the country.” He had no idea when he would be able to return to South Africa, nor that he would attend the Wharton School during his self-imposed exile, nor that he would leave the high-income life of investment banking in order to devote body, mind, and soul to wine.
Apartheid was on its last legs when Hamilton Russell returned to his homeland in 1991. By then he had earned a master’s degree in geography from Oxford and worked for Morgan Stanley. He also had an MBA from Wharton—where, on his first day in 1988, he met a guy in his cohort named Curtis Bashaw WG’90 [Alumni Profiles,”Sept|Oct 2012], who would become one of his most important friends. The two see each other every year when Hamilton Russell visits the United States, and have reconnected seven times in South Africa.
This past October, Bashaw honored their longtime friendship by hosting a wine dinner in the Ebbitt Room of the Virginia Hotel, one of his Cape May, New Jersey, hostelries. Four of Hamilton Russell’s single-varietal wines (from Hamilton Russell Vineyards and Southern Right Wine Estates) were paired with seven courses, all prepared with seasonal fare from Bashaw’s Beach Plum Farm, a mile and a half away. While the evening celebrated pairings of Western Cape wine with West Cape May seasonal foods, the original Cape-to-Cape pairing reaches back to that first day at Wharton.
“Curtis was a little more visible than most,” reminisces Hamilton Russell. “I wouldn’t say flamboyant in a dressy sense, but he has an electricity to him. He opens his eyes wider than most people. I’m attracted to positivity, animation, brightness, vibrancy, and Curtis has always been like that.”
Bashaw’s early memory of Hamilton Russell is just as vivid. “There was this very dapper person who was quite tall and spoke with a mean accent,” he recalls. “He was off to become an investment banker.”
Back then Bashaw, who already had a burgeoning hotel empire, was studying for the MBA to polish his business skills. “Two years after graduation, Anthony called me and asked, ‘How is it running a small business?’” Bashaw recalls. “I said, ‘Well, it’s okay. We have our moments. I mean, I just made a bed; it’s not so bad.’ He told me he was thinking of leaving that [banking] world and going back to South Africa to take over a family vineyard that his father had purchased some years ago.” Tim Hamilton Russell, a prominent businessman in Cape Town, had founded Hamilton Russell Vineyards in 1975; it was the first vineyard in the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) Valley.
Bashaw laughs. “We’re probably the only two Wharton MBAs to become farmers.”
By 1991, Tim Hamilton Russell had retired, and the vineyard needed someone to take charge. And so Anthony made the leap, to a career more aligned with his life and personality. In 1994 he bought the property from his father, which allowed him to make changes and take on more risk. That year he bought a neighboring property and named it Southern Right, in honor of the southern right whales that winter in the bay below their plateau near the town of Hermanus.
After a good deal of trial and error and rigorous soil testing, Hamilton Russell pruned the number of grape varieties from eight (which produced 11 wines) to four: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Hamilton Russell Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage in Southern Right. In 1998 he bought a third property and named it Ashbourne, in honor of the fighting spirit of this branch of the family. (The most famous warrior was Violet Gibson, daughter of Hamilton Russell’s great-great grandfather, Lord Ashbourne, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland in the late 1800s. In 1926 she shot Benito Mussolini at close range, but the bullet only clipped his nose.) There his red and white blends, Ashbourne and Sandstone, showcase his philosophy of planting varietals that bring out the best character of the land.
While his father gets kudos for founding the first vineyard in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, credit goes to the son for elevating Hamilton Russell wines to a level of serious global respect. In doing so, he has proved that Stellenbosch and Paarl—the original celebrated wine regions of South Africa—are not its only stellar winegrowing locales. Both his Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are often mistaken for more expensive red and white Burgundies in blind tastings, and both regularly receive 90-plus scores from respected publications.
Hamilton Russell aims to bring Pinotage, an underappreciated local grape, to a global stage. The Pinot Noir-Cinsault hybrid is a “bit like getting an overbred Englishman and finding a good, solid German wife,” he says. It also makes a perfect accompaniment for an upscale BBQ.
Describing wine as an “experience of a place in a point in time,” he has vivid memories of childhood Christmas holidays when he was allowed a glass at meals with his father.
“At that time South African wine was very classically styled,” he says. “It smelt of things that have almost a primal link. It’s not just fruit smells, like New World wine; it’s more the smell of earth, churned-up Atlantic sea with kelp on the beach, or iodine and salt, forest floors, almost like hunters-gatherers sheltering in a cave. They had those smells that you could not identify anywhere else, but somehow you connected with them emotionally.”
His own wines emphasize the nuances of site and soil in a decidedly Old World manner, which is one reason that he and his wife, co-owner Olive Hamilton Russell (from an old Afrikaans cattle-raising family), make a pilgrimage each year to a different wine region of France. The other reason is to actually spend some time together.
Hamilton Russell sees early education as crucial for success in later life. He founded a preschool at Hamilton Russell Vineyards for underprivileged farming children, some from families connected to his farm.
Back in Cape May, over a glass of Pinotage, he waxes philosophical about his friendship with Bashaw.
“We’re both very community-driven,” he says. “We’d both die a slow death in conventional corporate jobs. I had a crack at it; Curtis is too sensible. We’ve both found spiritual outlets, gratification, personal growth involved with communities in different ways. Curtis’s has a hospitality angle. Mine is all farming. It’s about creating a certain world around me that has meaning for me in the same way that Curtis has done here in Cape May. Curtis is doing it through people actually coming out there, experiencing it, and enjoying it. My way is, I export the wine.”