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Michael Fridjhon: How to build a strong South African wine culture

November 25, 2015
by Michael Fridjhon
in Opinion & Analysis
with 2 Comments

SA flagI’m beginning to think that wine courses – for most people (as opposed to those in the trade) – are a little like book clubs. Lots of people attend them, but they go in order to be able to drink wine and chat to their mates. The book club crowd – as far as I can ascertain – hardly ever pretends that its objective is in any way literary. In discussion with some parents at a school cricket match the other day (the worst kind of dipstick research, I know) I established that no one even bothers to arrive with an even partially thumbed book and some notes for a discussion. The happy sound of corks popping has long ago replaced the more sedate library ambience.

None of this can be much news to anyone with eyes wide open, but it does elevate the conundrum about wine education and “wine culture” to a different level. Twenty years into our new (and now quite tarnished) democracy we’re not seeing much of a change in the demographic profile of the country’s wine drinkers. Sure, the crowd at WineX is more representative of the Gauteng middle classes now than ever before – but WineX is a show which is hosted in the very heart of South Africa’s dynamic business centre. So if the room has transformed from 40 – 50 year old white males to 40% – 50% blingy blacks it’s not representative of what is happening elsewhere in our slightly-too-sunny South Africa, and the annual per capita consumption of wine (down from 7.34 in 1998 to 6.54 in 2014) tells its own story.

What is certain is that while institutions like the Cape Wine Academy serve a select audience, they can hardly be said to be at the centre of building a wine culture in the new South Africa. In fairness, this is not their mandate: it would be a little like expecting book clubs to make a contribution to basic literacy. But if the CWA hasn’t been tasked with this not insignificant project, who should be, and what are the odds of success?

There are many who would argue that a robust wine culture should not be on the national agenda. Their reasons would include issues around alcohol, the Euro-centricity of the beverage and the perceived ‘unfair’ weighting of the Cape in this equation. While it is hardly worth dignifying these concerns with serious engagement, they can be disposed of succinctly enough. In moderation wine is the healthiest alcoholic beverage: a wine drinking culture is better news than hard tack, and vastly better for the fiscus than the type-2 diabetes bomb which lies in store for the much larger population of obese, teetotal soft-drink consumers. Rand-for-rand, wine better for South Africa’s GDP than beer, spirits and probably milk.

However, it would take more political will than is presently available in this country to build a robust wine culture – because the way forward is counter-intuitive, even before you try to accommodate the historical baggage of people for whom alcohol is (rightly) perceived as an instrument of repression. The school curriculum should include education about alcohol (and drugs, and other mind-altering substances). Like sex education, this should not take the form of preaching abstinence. If you don’t engage with and acknowledge reality, it will invade you. There is also a better chance of teaching moderation than prohibition. At the same age as we permit kids to learn to drive under licensed supervision, we should be teaching them how to taste, and how to drink – and this should be part of the school curriculum.

You don’t develop a literary culture in the absence of books: you cannot expect wine, consumed in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle, to become part of our way of life if it is set apart, excoriated, denigrated and pilloried. Embrace it and you will be enriched by it. Eschew it and alcohol will impoverish us all.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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  1. Chad CloeteNovember 25, 2015 at 12:51 pmReply

    Intimidation, snobbery & formality are words associated with wine in a culture and country that remains fearful of rejection and adamant about maintaining the status quo. You are right in saying education is needed but the setting is wrong. Wine needs a stage, where individuals can feel welcomed and intrigued to explore without being force feed the tasting notes.

    • MarthelizeNovember 25, 2015 at 2:26 pmReply

      Hi Chad,

      You’re right – in a way – but I’m happy to say that (even though it’s not turned around completely and in every way) the image of wine as a snob’s drink and the intimidating nature is vastly changing. Aside from the formalised wine course approach, social media and blogging platforms are going a long way to demystifying the whole wine thing. Even the industry and players are moving away from the stuffy old approaches and doing new, exciting things to make it more accessible.
      Your comments are valuable but what would be even more valuable is suggestions on a practical example of the stage you mention – because that’s exactly what’s needed.

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