Michael Fridjhon: SA wine’s ongoing lack of transformation
By Michael Fridjhon, 27 September 2017
I was privileged to attend a pre-release showing of a documentary entitled “The Colour of Wine” which dealt with the first very tentative steps towards transformation within the wine industry in the decade following the 1994 election. Directed by Akin Omotoso, an award winning film-maker whose technique here is to juxtapose interviews with many of the key role players (including, most particularly, some of the first people of colour to enter the industry’s training institutions), it reveals much about an era we’ve chosen to forget.
It was a time in which I was directly involved in the processes which led to the restructuring of the industry on a macro scale, so I knew, and worked with, most of the cast of characters whose stories are enshrined in the documentary. That said, it was humbling to hear from them the details of their lives, the difficulties they confronted, the naked racism of some of the institutions they attended, the inhospitable environment that awaited them in the Cape winelands. It is not possible to see this film and not feel ashamed: no wonder we’ve swept that era out of our consciousness preferring to think that we’ve put all that behind us – because people of colour are no longer told to step out of the year-end class photos at Elsenburg. We comfort ourselves with the few initiatives – such as the Guild’s Protege Programme – which offer entry points that didn’t exist two decades ago.
But how much has really changed, at the elementary level of providing senior technical employment in the production side of the industry? I’m not even talking about the much more fraught question of ownership, or the vastly easier-to-implement area of elementary technical training. Many of the various bursary programmes targeting black winemakers were established in the mid-1990s, but by the millennium I was already bumping into graduates who complained that they couldn’t find suitable employment. One I spoke to had accepted a position at WOSA because she had given up hope of obtaining a winemaking position. I’m not sure how many people of colour have passed through the courses at Elsenburg and the University of Stellenbosch, but it seems only a fraction of that number has a position of any seniority – or visibility – in the production sector.
We like to pride ourselves on the recent achievements of the industry. We bathe in the glory of the ever-increasing scores (as much an indication of the devaluation of the currency as a measure of the new heights scaled by producers who are the focus of the critics for whom the Cape has become a stomping ground); we recycle their sound bytes (“most exciting wine producing country in the world”) thinking that this means we’ve put our sinful past behind us. We use the increase in the number of boutique wineries as a metric of progress, as if the co-op era belongs to our apartheid past, and take comfort from the fact that half the cellars in the country now produce less than 7000 cases annually. We like the craft feel that comes with the old vines being saved in the Swartland and the Piketberg: it implies a more thoughtful and sustainable philosophy.
Worst of all we think our wine industry stands transformed because a few dozen largely white kids from mainly well-to-do homes buy fruit from growers who until a few years ago lived a precarious existence as members of the old co-ops. We seem to think that as long as enough of these adventurous newcomers, producing between them comfortably less than 0.5% of our national crop, are garnering scores in the 90s for a couple of barrels each of “statement” wines, we are not the same wine industry that was a “whites only” (and pretty much “men only”) home to winemakers 25 years ago. We find it convenient to think there’s no connection between who we are now, and the wine industry that not so long ago paid its workers in “dops” of wine. We choose not to ask why the same communities which a quarter of a century ago earned us our shameful reputation for the highest foetal alcohol syndrome in the world are still hard at it if this is, indeed, another industry in another country.
One glimpse at who is in charge of the country’s production facilities – now, in 2017 – tells a story of a lack of transformation which is not a matter of coincidence, but a monument to a concerted effort which starts at the top and permeates down – from the (generally) white male heads of our quasi-statutory institutions all the way to the employers who appoint the cellarmasters and viticulturists. A few token assistant winemakers, a face of colour for the marketing or sales team, and precious little else. The wall of white faces which greeted the heroes of “The Colour of Wine” when they set out on their career paths in the 1990s is largely unchanged, and the rank stupidity which has produced this situation will reap its own harvest.
- Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za 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.