Tim James: Semi-prohibition and commercial coaxing

By , 27 March 2020

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So here we are. Locked down. The suburban streets are empty and silent. My dogs do not understand that I may not take them for the briefest walk beyond the gate. I’m finally realising how difficult this will be for me – and guessing how much worse it will be for many others.

And I trust that all Winemag readers will have sufficient stocks of wine to see them (imbibing at a moderate, restrained pace, of course, and not alone) through at least the next three weeks –  perhaps even longer, if the temporary bout of semi-prohibition is renewed: “[T]he selling of liquor is strictly prohibited. This is applicable to also those supermarkets with liquor licences. No liquor will be sold anywhere by anyone during the 21-day period of the lockdown.”

This is not in itself an unreasonable move by the state, for various reasons. But it is not hard to imagine an element of satisfaction, even of sombre glee, in certain governmental quarters at imposing that degree of prohibition, tempered by regret that they cannot enforce an actual cessation of consumption. This is, I think, the first time that South Africa has known the like. There was a racially-based prohibition at times in our country’s glorious past, but never a total shutdown of liquor-dealing for such a lengthy period – though trading and serving hours were strictly administered for a long time before the comparatively laissez-faire attitude that has obtained more recently. This latter notwithstanding, there’s an undisguised distaste for liquor consumption by alcohol-austere elements in the ruling ANC, not to mention a distaste for a wine industry that had been largely united in support of  the apartheid regime.

On the other hand, there’s been no shortage in the last week of wine-dealers with our email addresses urging us to buy – and being most helpful in their suggestions. With noble (not to mention cynically opportunistic) zeal, we are encouraged. One not untypical producer has been “working around the clock to ensure that your lock-down and Easter orders are shipped to your doorstep. To ease the pain, we are extending our 20% wine club discount and free national shipping to all customers placing orders at this time.” Generous indeed.

I have been particularly subject to the blandishments of importers: One, egregiously assiduous, has been cajoling me almost daily it seems, urging me, sometime in bold or red type and lots of capital letters: “The Lockdown is HERE: Stock up now”, offering “FREE home delivery for all orders of 12 x 750ml bottles or more in Gauteng”.  And the like. Another humbly feels “very fortunate …. to import and distribute wines from some of the most precious and beautiful wine regions in the world”, and rather less humbly suggests that we should buy lots of the stuff from them. Now.

And why not? So, if we were able to get over our bizarre fixation with snaffling and hoarding enough toilet paper to serve a numberless race of diarrhoetic giants, there were opportunities aplenty to get wines delivered to our doors – or sometimes deposited, with invoice, at our front gates.

Cynical – moi? Never; but I have idly wondered, noticing the particular pushiness of predominantly online dealers, if they are hoping that they can subtly effect a more permanent shift to online sales in South Africa, which has been somewhat behind this international trend.

And internationally, there’s been some rather more obviously vicious, self-interested politicking around an old issue, occasioned by the advent of Covid-19 in the United States. There, the National Association of Wine Retailers suggests that the present crisis is the “moment that demonstrated both the utility and necessity of allowing consumers to receive shipments of wine from out-of-state wine retailers”. It self-effacingly inveighs against the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of America for “blatantly us[ing] one of the most severe health crises in U.S. history to advance their protectionist, anti-consumer agenda of requiring wine drinkers to only have access to products wholesalers distribute in the state where consumers reside”.

So much for wine industry solidarity, let alone human solidarity, in the cause of letting us have a relaxing drink, or a more definitive buzz of help in coping with this awfulness.

I’m not necessarily a great fan of Distell but it was, on the other hand, almost heart-warming to hear (as reported yesterday on Winemag) that the behemoth was “producing hand sanitisers and other hygienic products at its production facilities as part of its efforts to help curb the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”. Distell has “committed 100 000 litres of alcohol, which will be used to produce sanitisers as well as a variety of other hygienic and sanitising products”. One hundred thousand litres of pure alcohol! Who’d have imagined its existence, there in Paarl or Wellington or wherever, where the column stills work so busily at distilling base wine? Lucky the local brandy industry is in a bit of a slump, despite my fervent admiration for it, or I suppose there wouldn’t have been so much spirit available. It recalls the early days of the KWV, which had so much alcohol sloshing around as a result of buying up and converting dreadful excess wine that it started producing eau de cologne and fuel for motor vehicles.

This virus and the world’s reactions to it is teaching us so many things. Let’s hope that most of the ones that stick are conducive to the health and happiness of people around the world, and none of them to abusive authoritarian power.

Be well, be safe. Drink well, happily and wisely. This too shall pass – and we will find what happens on the other side (where supplies of two-ply for the likes of us are unlimited).  Remember the smallest wine producers when you next have a choice of what to buy, as they are amongst those in the industry who will have suffered most from the lockdown, alongside the laid-off workers.

  • 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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  • Carl27 March 2020

    I will be investing money in the small scale local producers during the lock down period. Obviously not all obviously a mere drop in the vat, but it is cash flow. We can look at shipping after this has passed.

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