Tim James: SA wine and transformation

By , 3 May 2022

It’s only too easy to see the lack of social-dimension change in the South African wine industry in the nearly three decades since the official end of apartheid. But in face of that, it’s also too easy to not notice what change there has been – at least at the more glamorous end of the business.

I got to this admittedly not very profound thought at an auspicious Freedom Day lunch-braai last week. The lunch was at Cultivate in Salt River in Cape Town, and followed what I believe was an important meting of the members that morning (though I don’t know all that what was discussed). The Cultivate Collective is the organisation which is working from this handsome and hospitable HQ to “promote and amplify the participation of black and brown talent in one of this country’s flagship enterprises”. I wrote about them enthusiastically last year, followed up by an equally enthusiastic account of one of the Cultivate members, Natasha Williams, and her Lelie van Saron wines.

CWG Protégés 2022. First row: Shanice du Preez, Mosima Mabelebele, Kaylin Wilscott, Terry-Ann Klink. Second row: Kyle Davids, Thabile Cele, Gina Viola, Anique Ceronio.

Obviously, the existence of Cultivate (which is clearly getting into its stride – see the website for details of wines available, the wine bar in Salt River, events, etc) is evidence both that something needs to be done and that at least something is being done, even if it did need Swiss funding, local billionnaires in the wine industry having better things to do with their money. The only other effort that easily comes to mind with regard to advancing black winemaking is the Protegé programme of the Cape Winemakers Guild – the growing success of which is also obvious in the membership  of Cutivate (though the group also takes in other professionals, like sommeliers and scientists).

Both efforts, however, do still have to cope with the fact that this is an industry where large profitability is not widespread, and also the fact that black or brown students with good enough maths and science take some persuading not to move in more lucrative directions – though the number of students is growing. I suspect, though, that it still takes quite a bit of courage for black students to enter an established, rather clique-ish culture like that of the winemaking fraternity.

It struck me, though, thinking about the slowness of racial transformation of this sector of the wine industry (even leaving aside other sectors), about the reasonable success of the other great demographic issue of past decades  and of how much less of an issue it is these days. Women winemakers were fairly rare creatures in the 1990s. Those there were had quite a tough time of it on the whole, having to cope with the cruder sort of sexism from their fellow winemakers, employers, the trade, etc – and the subtler attempts to keep them in their place. I remember in the good old, bad old days of the print version of Wine magazine, that, on the rare occasions when a woman winemaker was profiled (if her wine had won something, say), the dominant photographs would always be of her in full make up and evening wear – so as to show that she really was properly “feminine” despite competing in a man’s world.

But my impression is that the position of women winemakers in the industry has changed enormously – partly through sheer weight of numbers of successful examples. (Viticulturists rather less so, though the small number of women involved, with Rosa Kruger by far the best known, is no doubt explanding slowly.) When, for example, Andrea Freeborough was appointed as Distell’s chief winemaker, in charge of producing the country’s largest wine portfolio, her sex was scarcely noted, as I recall – she’d been at the head of the Nederburg cellar for four years, after all. That’s not the sort of profile that gets someone elected to the Cape Winemakers Guild, where they’re impressed by sexier labels, but there too are now a small handful of women among the old Stellenbosch mafia and the increasingly comfortable new-wave mafia – with another Andrea (Mullineux this time) having served as a throroughly well regarded chair.

So, when it comes to black winemakers, who knows, perhaps another decade or two will make a similar difference. There will be winemakers, and race will disappear as an important signifier, just as gender largely has. There’s no question but that for at least some of the members of Cultivate the adjective qualifying “winemaker” is something of a difficulty. The goal of the organisation must inevitably be  for the need for the qualification to disappear – and so for its own present purpose to disappear. When it does, the South African wine industry will be all the stronger. It’s all a long time a-coming, though.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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