A Family Legacy
In 1976 Joachim Rieck, Karen’s father, was faced with a purchasing dilemma – buy a beautiful sea view property in Llandudno (now one of the most expensive areas in Cape Town, but at that time it had very little value) or buy Welmoed Farm, an 11 hectare property with some vineyards on the banks of the Breede River. Had he been financially driven, he might have predicted the increase in value of the Llandudno property, but he was led by a different kind of wisdom and heart – one which had learnt the value of a farm and the self-sufficiency that comes with it. Having grown up during World War II it was this gift he wished to give to his family. In 1992, when he presented the idea of handing over the family farm to his daughter, Karen, she was a young interior designer with no experience in farming. Nevertheless, Karen considered a career change and requested application forms for Viticulture and Oenology, the study of winemaking.
Only, it was John who found the empty forms lying on a table, had an epiphany and promptly filled them in, sent off his application and found himself coming out of Elsenburg 3 years later as Dux Student. Soon after, Karen’s father fell ill with an aggressive cancer and in 1999 John and Karen took full responsibility of the farm, which was at that stage running at a loss. For John as a young assistant winemaker at Graham Beck, and Karen who was expecting her second child while looking after her dying father and two-year old, the Silverthorn that exists today must have felt totally unreachable. And yet, the inklings of a dream were there. To build a cellar, to make wine and to keep the farm. This simple vision took them on a journey that would see John headhunted by Steenberg Vineyards for the position of cellar master with an offer to allow him to develop his own wine brand at the same time. For 17 years John worked at Steenberg, climbing the corporate ladder to eventually manage Steenberg Vineyards, Hotel and Restaurants before it became clear that in order to take the next steps with Silverthorn, he’d have to leave the certainty of the corporate world and enter the unchartered territory of following the dream.
Now over two decades into the journey, Silverthorn Wines has truly established itself as a world-class Cap Classique brand and destination.
As the dawn light breaks and the last of the insect bats return to the rafters of the old farm house, you will hear the first tentative chirps of the olive thrush and cape robin. It’s around this time that you may spot two people and a rather large dog walking the perimeter of the farm, clearing litter, finding stone age artifacts, watching the vineyards and admiring the infinite newness of the natural world. The feeling is one of total paradise and shares an insight into John and Karen – people who have truly settled themselves into the earth and into their passion.
In an alternate reality Karen might have been the winemaker at Silverthorn but instead she found herself in the position of managing everything around the brand. In the early days this included doing all the deliveries from her Renault, occasionally with her children to do some heavy-lifting, while handling the marketing, sales, admin and tastings. Her diligence and kindness in managing Silverthorn and its customers and partners have been instrumental to Silverthorn’s success.
“What I have loved most about Silverthorn is the realisation of a long-term dream, the falling into place of moments and events, the beauty of timing that always seems right. Silverthorn has been a culmination of so much growth and development, that I can almost feel the neurons creating new pathways…”
Although the journey of Silverthorn has brought Karen a significant amount of fulfillment and stimulation, she finds true peace when she spends time in the garden or in nature. Reminiscent of her 7-year-old self, who would spend hours alone in the sand building environments to explore with her imagination and toy cars, Karen’s adult-self is happiest spending hours working her hands through the earth.
Before John started his journey into winemaking, he spent his time studying architecture, perhaps in the knowledge that his personality needed the free expression of creativity combined with the rigidity of precision. Underwhelmed by architecture, John left to spend two years diving for diamonds on the Namibian coastline and a year traveling through Europe. When John crossed paths with Karen’s application forms for Oenology and Viticulture one might say that it was cosmic intervention. Completing his time at Elsenberg as Dux student, John went on to work at Moreson, De Wetshof and Graham Beck before the big move to Steenberg in 2001.
With more than just a talent for winemaking, John’s leadership abilities were quickly seen, along with his mastery of delegation and people skills, and John quickly ascended the corporate ladder. But the playful, adventurous spirit that lived within John and wanted expression had to wait until 2018 when John finally took the leap to work on Silverthorn full-time. With the combined passion, vision and energy of both John and Karen, Silverthorn has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few years since.
“We’re inquisitive, we’re daring, we’re experimental, and I think that’s what I like. I like pushing the boundaries; I like bringing art into it as long as the final product is pure and beautiful.”
Silverthorn Farm and Wines would not be possible without our extraordinary staff. Initially a core team of 3: Andries Schrader, Willem Willemse and Sophie Martin, the team has since grown to include 3 more after the completion of Silverthorn’s cellar project: Andrew Willemse (Andries and Sophia’s son), Sophia Willemse and Adrian van Wyk.
Andries Schrader moved to the farm with his family as a young boy of 10. Andries’s contribution to Silverthorn is enormous, with the most incredible can-do attitude and a work ethic that is simply extraordinary. Andries can put his hands and mind to anything and, with his son Andrew, is fast learning to handle many of the cellar tasks.
Willem Willemse joined the farm team in 1994 – He is our caretaker of the land which he does with gentleness, pride, intuition and a work ethic that is exemplary.
Sophie Martin joined the farm team with Willem, her husband, in 1994. Sophie has been taking care of the households with a great sense of humour and a very caring spirit.
Sophia Willemse, Andries’s wife, joined the team in 2020. Sophia takes care of the tasting room and helps with the gardens and on the Silverthorn packaging side.
Andrew Willemse – born on the farm, following in his Dads footsteps with great work ethic and endless ability. Andrew joined the Team in 2021 as cellar assistant and is learning many new skills quickly.
Adrian van Wyk – the son of a neighbouring farm family. Adrian joined us in 2022 to assist Willem in the vineyard. He may be small in stature, but he is a hard worker with the most positive demeanour and the brightest smile.
Thena, short for Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, entered the Loubser family a week after the death of their previous rottweiler, Roc (also a name of a mythological being – there may be a theme). Normally too lost in grief, the family would never have considered getting a new god so shortly after the death of another, however, Thena rather suddenly made an appearance on a Facebook timeline desperately needing a new home.
Her furever home here on Silverthorn farm includes patrolling the property, swimming in the river, sleeping on the bed and giving the most loving – and slightly raspy – licks you’ll ever receive. Thena’s most important role however is as an indicator of when to harvest… She only ever eats the grapes when they’re perfectly ripened for Cap Classique.
*(A dog, but arguably classified as people)
Silverthorn’s ethos is inspired by nature and our relationship with the natural world. It informs how we work with our terroir, vineyards and wines and shapes the stories and brand names we give to our products.
Terroir encompasses the entire natural environment that influences the personality of our wines, including climate, topography, and soil. At Silverthorn, our terroir is particularly unique due to our location on a shale ridge that overlooks the Breede River. Our soils consist mainly of shale and limestone and are officially part of the Bokkeveld shale group, dating back over 400 million years to an era predating dinosaurs when this land was an ancient seabed. Our region is one of the few places in the Cape where this shale group is visible on the surface, offering us a glimpse into the world as it was millions of years ago. The high limestone content of this ancient seabed is particularly beneficial for vineyards, resulting in naturally low pH and high acidity, essential qualities for producing top-quality Cap Classique.
Silverthorn’s vineyards are all old and gnarly with planting dates ranging between 1984 and 1999. While some may opt to remove older vines, there are several advantages to working with them. Due to their age, they often possess deep, well-established root systems and less vigorous canopies, making them more resistant to drought. Additionally, they tend to be more resilient to disease, having encountered and overcome numerous challenges over the years. Though their yield may be lower, resulting in fewer grapes per hectare, the vines focus their resources, producing fruit that is more flavourful and concentrated — a true embodiment of quality over quantity. Finally, old vines give the ultimate expression of terroir. Having spent considerable time co-existing with the land, the vines have merged their characteristics with the world around them. As a practice, we continue to care for the old vines we have, and where needed, have been successful at interplanting new vines amongst old vines, such that they may learn from their elders!
At Silverthorn, we have chosen to adopt a sustainable approach to farming our vineyards, working in harmony with nature. We do not employ the use of insecticides or herbicides, instead opting to encourage natural cover crops and weeds between the vines to promote healthy soil microbes and microclimates. Fungicides are only used when necessary, and we make sure to use the most environmentally-friendly products available. Our compost program is extensive, involving the planting and harvesting of rye, oats, Lucerne, and the collection of garden trimmings, grape skins, and invasive water hyacinth from the Breede River. These materials are composted in large, rocked-walled sites to produce nutrient-rich soil. We also understand Silverthorn Farm to be more than just its vineyards, and have over the past 20 years planted over 200 trees, which include a variety of olives, almonds, pecans, apples, pears and other stone fruit along with numerous other non-fruit bearing trees. We now produce enough olive oil and almonds for our family in a year.