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José Conde, cellarmaster

José Conde’s career path has been non-conventional to say the least. Born and raised in the small US midwestern town of Independence, Missouri, José credits his Cuban émigré father (an industrial designer) for his early interest in handicraft and arts. ...scroll to read more

At age 18, José left home for Parsons School of Design in New York City, where he received a scholarship to study art. The short version of his life story would simply say that he worked as an art director in New York and Tokyo­–but the interesting annotations below shed light on his unfolding journey, and how he ended up as a successful winemaker in Stellenbosch, South Africa. José continues to design all his own wine labels.

Did you grow up in a wine-drinking family?

Not at all, I grew up in the American Midwest– so if there was any wine in the house, it probably wasn’t even dry! My father was from Cuba and I was apparently named after a distant uncle who ran the Bacardi Rum company. So if anything, I believed I had dark rum running through my blood.

How does a boy from the Midwest end up studying art in New York?

My father was tough as nails but taught us kids (there were 6 of us) to work with our hands. We didn’t have TikTok to waste our time back then. He was the kind of perfectionist who would use a ruler to sign his name—on a birthday card or anything—just so his lines were straight. I inherited his knack for drawing, and some of his other quirks too so my nickname is “Eagle-eye Conde.”

"Eagle-eye Conde" hard at work hand-numbering wine labels.
"Eagle-eye Conde" hard at work at the sorting table 😉

What was your first real design job?

As a university student I worked in the editorial design department of the New York Times. It was a crazy, frenetic “old-school” newsroom environment and I loved the adrenaline of daily deadlines. I was usually the youngest one in the room so I just kept my head down and tried to stay out of trouble. But I learned valuable lessons about typography that I still refer to in my work.

As a student you developed an interest in Japanese art, but how did that come about?

I interned for a well-known American illustrator who had a massive collection of books on contemporary Japanese art and design. He had a constant flow of Japanese designers visiting his studio, and I realized that I needed to travel and see things for myself. It took awhile to get up the courage (and to save up the money!) Growing up in Missouri I didn’t even see the ocean until I was 11 years old so I wasn’t exactly well travelled. My first short visit to Japan was for a design seminar. I was quite unprepared for how exotic and different things were. This was Tokyo in the mid-1980’s.

And you eventually relocated to Japan to work professionally?

I was fortunate to be offered an opportunity to work at design firm in Tokyo. This was in the late 80’s and there was an economic “boom” happening in Japan. Corporations were keen to revamp their design programs, and there was a demand for international designers. I was invited to join a firm that specialised in coordinating projects between Japanese corporations and international design talent. That is actually where I met my wife, Marie.

José and Marie in 2012

Did you enjoy living and working in Japan?

Different jobs took me back and forth between New York and Tokyo for the next few years. Ultimately, Marie and I settled in Japan and opened our own design studio. Both of our daughters were born in Japan and I thought for a long time that we would stay there forever. By this time I was semi-fluent in the language, and learning Japanese was such an immense task that I didn’t want to let it go to waste!

What made you turn away from design, and pivot to winemaking?

The design process was busy turning digital. I found myself sitting in front of the screen for 12+ hours a day and feeling dissatisfied. I realized that I missed the process of creating something with my hands. My wife Marie had family in South Africa involved in growing grapes, and I got it in my mind that maybe that was the “hands-on” craft that was missing from my daily life. It was an early mid-life crisis.

Where did you study winemaking?

The South African wine fraternity was very insular back in the late 90’s. Nobody would hire me as an intern. I was already in my mid-30s when we immigrated to South Africa, and I wasn’t keen to return to a classroom so I learned winemaking by trial and error.  I’ve always been a book nerd so I read everything I could get my hands on. The one detail that all the winemaking texts had in common was the importance of starting with top notch grapes. And fortunately for me, Marie’s father farmed some of the best grapes in Stellenbosch.

All you need is 6 fermenters and a dream!

You famously began with just 6 barrels and built your winery to what it is now. What was the first wine that you ever made?

I was attracted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and my father-in-law had grapes he was willing to spare. In hindsight I realise I chose the most difficult and expensive grape but I wanted to start with a classic varietal, and try to create a beautiful, classic wine.

In designing your own wine labels, you seem to have integrated your two lifelong interests. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for these wine labels?

Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon with its traditional Hanko stamp.

Stark-Condé Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine label for the Stark-Condé Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon one of the first ones that I designed. The circular logo depicts a large tree and vineyard rows, but the style of illustration is based on the Japanese “hanko,” which is a traditional carved stamp. These stamps, often pressed onto a bright crimson inkpad,  are commonly used in lieu of signatures for documents or contracts. Each of the Stark-Condé labels contain slight variations of this circular logo.

The Round Mountain label & Marie's mother, Midori.

Stark-Condé Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc

For the Stark-Condé Round Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, I repeat the basic circular logo to create a repetitive pattern, as one often sees in Japanese fabrics or “washi” paper designs. I utilise a pale colour palette, because I associate muted colours as having a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. The name of this wine, “Round Mountain,” is a literal translation of the Japanese word “Maruyama,” which is Marie’s mother’s maiden name. I’ve added the Japanese characters to spell her name in the corner of the label as a subtle detail.

Kara-Tara's expressive label with its statement design and colours

Kara Tara Pinot Noir

The label design for Kara-Tara Pinot Noir came to me fairly easily, and I knew right away that we had a winner. Sometimes I work 50 variations on a single label and I’m still not satisfied. Other times, like with Kara-Tara, I hit it on the nail. I wanted to do something modern for the label, to reflect the energy and exuberance of Rudger van Wyk (winemaker, Kara-Tara). He’s not shy or quiet, and he has a positive energy that fills the room. That’s the feeling I wanted to express in this design.

Essay Wines

I was involved with Essay wines from the very beginning — from naming to label design. The logo design has evolved through the years, but I’m happy with this current iteration. These wines are versatile, easy to approach, modern in style, unabashedly South African and these labels have a very strong visual identity. The design has been very well-received in the international markets, particularly those in urban, cosmopolitan areas.

The iconic Liefkoos Rosé label design.

Lievland

The label for Lievland Liefkoos Rosé is one that I really enjoyed designing. It features the elegant bottle shape and exquisite salmon colour of the wine, but the thin diagonal label elevates the product. I’ve collaborated with Cape Town illustrator Doug Powell on quite a few labels, and I think he did an excellent job creating the image of cupid riding the springbok. We wanted to take a classic cherub illustration and add a tongue-in-cheek South African twist.

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