Bidding is always fierce for the most distinctive lot in the annual Cape Winemakers Guild auction, the giant 18-litre bottle filled with a special blend of the best wines of the most recent vintage produced by members of this elite club of South Africa’s top vintners. At this year’s sale, held three weeks ago in Stellenbosch, the winning bidder, Czech wine merchant Zdenek Lang, declined to take his booty back to Prague. Instead, he declared he was leaving it with the Guild, to be opened only when the first black winemaker is elected as a member.
The 2009 blend will probably last a good 20 years but even that may not be long enough to see the cork pulled. Equal opportunity, black empowerment and transferring expertise to the previously disadvantaged may be the convoluted names of the Cape restitution game but, 17 years after the creation of the rainbow nation, there are still pitifully few black or mixed race winemakers. The Guild has a highly publicised protégé programme, but so far a total of only five particularly promising students at the local wine college have been sponsored (although its first graduate, Howard Booysen, is already making waves).
It is different in the vineyard of course. The Cape’s beautiful vines have never been tended by whites but have depended on a supply of cheap if not willing labour. A report last month, “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries” by a Human Rights Watch researcher, drew the world’s attention to some scandalous tales of living conditions on a handful of (unspecified) wine and fruit farms on the Cape. Farm and vineyard owners were supposed to have cleaned up their act. Many of them have. In general, farm workers’ living conditions have become immeasurably better over the past three decades, but there is still room for improvement.
Guild member Andries Burger runs Paul Cluver, one of the first wineries to set up a black empowerment scheme and encourage some of their workers to establish their own wine label, Thandi, now widely distributed in the UK. As he puts it: “In my personal opinion, even one bad example is one too many. But the problem is that not naming the farms in question has been counterproductive, because how can we rectify it? Let’s name and shame, I say.”
Human Rights Watch said it did not want to name or locate its informants for fear of reprisals, and would not even specify which of their more horrific reported examples were wine rather than fruit farms. This, unfortunately, has given those too complacent or mean to bring their workers’ living conditions into even the 20th century, as well as the Western Cape government, the perfect excuse for continued inaction.
There are various well-meant official initiatives in the Cape wine industry that can be quoted, but few signs of a real desire to clean things up once and forever. Every Cape wine producer I have asked admits there continue to be examples of maltreatment of vineyard and winery workers, or “a few bad apples”, as Senyane Rangaka of M’hudi, the first South African wine farm to be owned by a black family, describes them. “It’s a sad reflection on the industry that there are still some bad guys out there,” she told me at Cape Wine Europe, a vast generic tasting in Earls Court exhibition halls last week. Her proposed solution is that every producer who wants a piece of the valuable export market should be properly inspected and screened. Barely 100 producers were represented at this tasting in the UK, South African wine’s biggest market by far. Surely it wouldn’t take much more than a deep breath and a certain amount of agreement on minimum acceptable standards to inspect all exporting farms? And once a farm met those standards, that would probably be enough.
The report certainly stirred a few consciences on export markets. The B-word (boycott) was breathed for the first time in years, although as Andries Burger maintains, ignoring the South African section in British supermarkets would hurt the most vulnerable – the vineyard workers – the most. Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof immediately had to field calls from his importers. “‘Guys, you’ve been here,’ I told them. ‘You’ve seen the satellite television in our manager’s house.’” And of course he cannot help mentioning the Mexican vineyard workers, on whom the California wine industry is utterly dependent.
Su Birch, the hard-working CEO of Wines of South Africa, a not-for-profit industry organisation that promotes the exports of South African wine, has had to answer publicly for the industry in the face of the HRW revelations. She knows they have provided yet more ammunition for American importers to continue to virtually ignore South African wine. As for the reaction back home, “the good wine producers, the ones that have really been making efforts to improve their workers’ conditions, are feeling hurt, indignant and upset. As for the others, they are mumbling about cost,” Birch says. “In fact, because the law increasingly protects workers, and makes it extremely expensive to evict even the most disruptive employee, farmers are moving away from housing workers – but meanwhile, the government isn’t building new housing as an alternative.”
Under pressure from the liquor monopolies such as Sweden’s Systembolaget, which buys considerable quantities of South African wine, Wines of South Africa is trying to draw up some sort of ethical charter, and Fairtrade is quite big on the Cape but, as Su Birch admits, these do not always represent a solution to the fundamental problem of those bad apples.
All is by no means doom and gloom however. South Africa continues to make some great wine, and the whites, while still excellent value, are better than ever. There are some good reds, but too many red wine vines continue to be affected by leafroll virus. Perhaps if every farm cleaned up its employment policy, the mealy bugs that spread leafroll would pack up and leave.
According to Su Birch: “There is one way to end all this. It’s to get our house in order. But we can’t do it all at once.”