Behind the Bar with David Cope

It’s a picture-perfect afternoon on my first day in Cape Town; sunny with trees swaying gently in the breeze. It’s my first time in South Africa and Cape Town is distinctly different than Johannesburg, where I’d spent the previous four days. It’s lush and cool, and with it’s brightly colored Cape Dutch architecture, it reminds me a lot of Southern California.

I’d just come off of a bender-like four day work trip and after a very late night before and a very early flight in the morning, I certainly feel like I spent the last four days heavily drinking - even if I hadn’t been. Tiredness aside, I was to be in Cape Town for a few days and I planned to dedicate a great deal of time to Cape Town’s most famous export: wine.

My penchant for detailed internet sleuthing led me to David Cope and his small wine-focused, Cape Town-based mini wine empire. I was meeting him at Publik Wine Bar, his small, unpretentious spot on the outer reaches of the Gardens neighborhood in the City Bowl part of town. When Publik first opened it was (and still remains) one of Cape Town’s only dedicated wine bars, but the brand has grown to include a distribution business dedicated to independent South African wines, and has added a new location in Johannesburg.

I sat down with David (and his impossibly cool South African accent) before the bar opened for the evening rush to talk winemaking, natural wine, and the growth of the wine industry in South Africa.


Brianna Plaza: How did Publik Wine Bar start?

David Cope: We opened 5 years ago and were downtown in a different location. At the time, there wasn’t really a platform for small, independent winemakers. The idea was to create a place where people can come in and try new wines. After about 2 years we expanded to online sales because we couldn’t get a retail license for where the bar was.

We deal with small, independent farms and the bar is a mix of the coolest wines of South Africa. The mindset when we opened was to feature independent brands that follow the minimal intervention approach and showcase the quality of the product.

When we opened, people would come in and see a list of 40 wines they didn’t know. The industry has changed so much in the last 5 years that people are much more interested in the wines we carry now. If someone were to come in for Chardonnay, we’d say we don’t have that but we have 3 full-bodied whites that you might like, so you can get something you’re happy with. There will always be something for everyone.

More people are coming in here to expand what they know about wine. There’s a reason there aren’t 20 wine bars around Cape Town. They just don’t make financial sense. This business is cool and it covers itself, but if I was just doing this for business I wouldn’t be doing it. We’re surrounded by wine in this region but there are only 3 wine bars in Cape Town.

Brianna Plaza: How do you use the bar to promote independent winemakers?

David Cope: We didn’t really start with a business plan. The plan was to set up a place to drink and now it’s evolved. As we opened, the wine industry was going through an amazing period of change and a lot of people started to do interesting things as a side job.

Now, 5 years later, our bigger business is distribution and we represent the smaller farmers. We’re able to help them grow and promote them through our wine events. The bar is overall a small part of our business, but it’s a big part of the promotion bit.

Brianna Plaza: Would you call Publik a natural wine bar?

David Cope: Pretty much all the wines we work with are natural wines, but the definition of natural wines is quite skewed. When you think natural wine you think funky and cloudy, and that’s what’s really popular. That’s a part of wine as much as commercial wine is. But I could pour you a natural wine that doesn’t taste funky or hazy, it just doesn’t have any additives.

Out of all these wines we have, there are probably 7 or 8 that are quirky, but our whole list is natural and made with minimal intervention. Most of these winemakers don’t go around trying to market themselves as natural wine.

Brianna Plaza: Even though most South African natural wines are not of the funky variety, do you think South Africa could be a leader in this space?

David Cope: There are only 50-60 independent producers here but there are probably 40-50 producers of independent wine in every growing region of France. There’s a lot of inspiration that comes from overseas, but just as much is coming from around here. It’s a new movement in terms of popularity but when we talk about wine making countries, other countries are always going to make more of it.

The winemakers in South Africa are making natural wine because it’s the best way to do it; it’s the best expression of the wine. It’s an older way of doing it. It’s more real.

We do these warehouse tastings where you get to taste like 20 types of wine and you get a chance to talk to the winemakers. They do it because it’s cool and they get to talk to younger people. It’s mostly younger people who want to come and taste it. The industry is changing.

Brianna Plaza: How do you see these independent brands fitting in with the bigger estate brands?

David Cope: They don’t fit it in. There are some winemakers that have full-time jobs at big wineries and start a side project. Some are viticulturists (grape growers) who freelance for different wineries and start doing some things on the side. There are some amazing wines and some really weird shit being made because there’s not as much pressure. After a certain amount of time they might spin off and start doing their own thing and turn a side project into a full-time gig. The volume of these are so small that the commercial guys don’t really care about it as competition and these independent winemakers are not into it for money.

Brianna Plaza: Have you seen more growth from non traditional groups of wine makers (women, people of color)?

David Cope: Yes, definitely, but they’re still a tiny minority. Out of 40 producers on our list, there might be 7 women and 1-2 non-white makers. The nature of the industry is changing but it will take a long time. Most of the producers are still white South Africans. The wine drinking world is much more of a representation of South Africa, but the producing world isn’t. Some of the best winemakers in South Africa are non-white but most of them are working for the bigger wine producers.

Brianna Plaza: What made you decide to start your own brand (Alphabetical)?

David Cope: The simple truth is that I was in wine PR which is the biggest load of shit and after doing that for a few years, I wanted something new. I was writing website copy for hotels and writing wine tasting notes and I was like this is such BS.

In 2010 we made like 5 barrels of wine, and it was cool. And then we made a bit more. And then it grew from there. It all evolved nicely, but it’s still a side project now. We have a red, a white, and a rosé, but three types is good. It’s nice to dabble; most of the wines we carry are made by full-time dabblers. The collaborative and connective part of winemaking is really cool; it’s a very friendly industry.

Brianna Plaza: Do you sell wine from the same winemakers every year?

David Cope: Because also have the distribution business, we work with about 50 farms. There’s constantly new stuff coming out which makes it exciting; every year there’s another producer that comes out.

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In the few months since I met with David, he’s opened up a second location of Publik in Johannesburg and continues to host tasting events with winemakers. South Africans may never drink wine at the rate they drink beer (or brandy), but if the country’s independent wine industry is any indication, there will always be something interesting to drink.

words + photography: brianna plaza

edit: peter lacovara

Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.