by Robert Joseph

Look back in anger – the Cape wine industry 30 years ago

This article by Robert Joseph was originally published in WINE magazine in February 1988

“I have never heard any public figure in our wine industry call for vineyard ownership, land ownership in the Cape, to be opened up unconditionally to all races.  To many of us, and to our overseas friends, as well as critics, a non-racial wine industry is simply axiomatic.  To many in our Cape winelands, the suggestion will sound revolutionary …. With these sobering thoughts, Mr Chairman, it is with great pleasure that I open this 1987 Stellenbosch Wine Show.”

Cue for applause.  Silence.  Half-hearted clapping.  Nervous glances to left and right to make sure that nobody is caught clapping in a non-clap zone.  These people know how to applaud – they did so enthusiastically enough when the names of the “distinguished” overseas guests were announced – to be caught showing approval for sentiments like these, well that was another thing entirely.  I had been in South African less than six hours; the annual Stellenbosch Wine Show was my introduction to the Cape and to its growers.

The speaker invited to open this most important annual event, held in the colonial surroundings of Stellenbosch’s town hall, was John Platter.  Arguably South Africa’s most respected wine writer, one of that country’s great tasters, and a damn good winemaker to boot.  He is also a one-man answer to the prevailing view that anyone living in South Africa must, by definition, be a swastika-waving fascist.

The winemakers and worthies of Stellenbosch must have expected at least a hint of controversy; after all, Wine Times, the newsletter published by Platter and his wife Erica, is frequently out of tune with the establishment.  What I suspect they had been expecting on this occasion, though, was controversy about the national wine industry.

John Platter didn’t disappoint them on that score either.  Before straying into the minefields of “decent wages” and “better worker conditions”, not to mention unions, worker participation and even profit-sharing schemes, he had said that he belonged to “that group – still very much a minority – who believe the set-up (of the South African wine industry) is structurally and philosophically wrong…The protectionism inherent in the present system relieves too many of our farmers of the risks and responsibilities of an open, competitive business world.”

Knowing little of what constituted the “set-up”, I began to ask how it worked.  This was no easy task; as Dave Hughes, one of the most forthright members of the industry drily told me, “I was once asked to explain our wine industry to an audience of people from all over the world.  When I had finished, and it took a while, there were less than a handful of people there who said that they had fully understood which I meant; they were the delegates from behind the Iron Curtain.”

According to the KWV’s own literature, its “most important objective is to stabilise the entire industry … by determining a production quota for every farm … supplying wine and 50 per cent of all brandy and other spirits which are locally marketed by wholesalers”.  It is responsible for “physical wine control in the industry, the administration of the system of origin certification, implementation of the law, and advice to producers, control of minimum prices of all sales transactions by wine producers”.  If that were not quite enough, the KWV also exports the majority (70 per cent) of South African wine which goes overseas and publishes Wynboer, South Africa’s only wine magazine.

As I understood it, the only thing that the KWV isn’t allowed to do is sell its wine in South Africa, a role largely filled by a near-duopoly consisting of the Stellenbosch Farmers Winery – SFW – and the Bergkelder, one of the octopoid arms of Anton Rupert’s Rembrandt-Rothman empire.  This kind of cosy system might not be to everyone’s tastes, but it is only fair to judge it by its results.  After all, perhaps a quasi-dictatorial power has helped to create one of the world’s great wine industries, held back only by the unwillingness – for non-vinous reasons – of the rest of the world to buy its products.  Well, not quite.

South Africa is one of the largest wine producing countries in the world.  In terms of vineyard acreage, it is comparable with Germany; in 1984 for example, it produced 9,082,440hl of wine at 10 per cent alc/vol.  Of this, less than half – 4,402650hl – was sold as “good wine”, leaving a pool of 4,679,790hl to be distilled.  1984 was far from exceptional: around half of every year’s grape harvest is distilled; grape farmers are being paid good money by the KWV so that brandy can be made and sold so cheaply that the French buy it rather than the distilled excess of their own wine lake.

As Michael Fridjhon, co-author of Conspiracy of the Giants, the Cape wine establishment’s least favourite book, points out, South Africa stands incongruously alongside the Soviet Union in the imbalance between production and consumption figures.

Of course, the obvious answer would be to follow the example of Australia and New Zealand in running a government-funded vine-pull scheme intended to uproot superfluous vineyards, where necessary funding the replacement of unwanted grape varieties with internationally desirable ones.  After all, like those other ex-colonies, South Africa still bears the burden of inheriting a tradition of making fortified wine and growing grapes suited to fortification.

But here, inevitably, we stray straight back on to political territory.  The government doesn’t want to offend all those grape farmers, the huge majority of whom so helpfully vote for the National Party when called upon to do so.  It would be ingenuous to ignore the fact that PW Botha is leader of the Cape branch of the party – and that Denis Worrall, former ambassador to London and, more recently, vociferous government opponent, fought and only just lost a seat down here at the last elections.

Suddenly the structure of the web becomes a little clearer, as do the ramifications of the KWV’s stated role: “To protect the interests of nearly 6,000 wine farmers.” And, presumably, their vote-wielding dependents.  The KWV is, for the moment at least, Pretoria’s way of keeping a significant group of voters happy.  Another of John Platter’s comments made sense too: “We have to recognise that, like this government, the KMV, with its tight web of controls is here to stay.  For a while …”

But let’s get back to the wine.  Surely the distillation of a large part of the crop simply means that what’s left can be of a higher quality.  The theory is fine; the practice is rather less so.  Visitors to South Africa expect to see large vineyards full of Chenin Blanc, or Steen, as it is known there; what they actually see are rather large quantities of Crouchen Riesling, one of the world’s dullest white wine varieties.

As for the reds, here the problem is more often poor and old-fashioned winemaking.  Geisenheim expertise has ensured that that the whites at least are clean and well made; the reds are often either dull or display a curious, burned and meaty character which I previously thought came from the soil, but now realise is the result of prolonged sojourns in large, old casks.  The amount of South African wine which, until very recently, ever saw brief oak maturation is remarkably tiny.

If Australia and California now have almost no excuse for making substandard wine, South Africa has none at all.  The Cape is glorious grape growing country and everything everybody has always said about the potential of South African wines is true – and then some.  Political considerations apart, this is a country which could, one day, take the wine world by storm.

If the potential is not being realised by the cooperatives and – with a few exceptions – by the KWV, some stupendous wines are being made by individual estates.  Just taste the Sauvignon from Le Bonheur and Klein Constantia and you could revise all your newly-formed ideas about New Zealand being the place to grow the gooseberry-grape.  Then taste the Cabernets from Meerlust, from John Platter’s estate at Delaire, from Rosendahl and from Delheim and Blaauwklippen’s Zinfandel and Pinotage – and, whatever political convictions you hold, your tastebuds at least will be regretting that these wines and others like them cannot be part of the international wine market.

The sad thing about it all is that some of these estates are owned and run by just the kind of people who, like the whites who stayed on in Zimbabwe, are strongest in their opposition to racism.  More or less deprived of a political voice (the National Party overran their kind of spokesmen in the last election) and cut off from the outside world, these growers are doubly isolated.

More isolated than most – in more senses than one – and a new member of this group, Tim Hamilton-Russell had good reason to resent the system.  After years spent as chairman of J Walter Thompson in Johannesburg, he decided, like so many counterparts in Australia and California, that he wanted to make wine; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to be precise.  His search for the ideal vineyard took him to Hermanus, right on the southern coast of the Cape – “If I were any further south,” he says, “I’d be on the south pole” – and right into all kinds of arguments with the KWV and its famous quota system.

Those arguments have now been resolved (ludicrously, quotas are transferable from one producer to another) and Hamilton-Russell no longer has to use arcane code on the labels of his outstanding Pinot Noir.  Hamilton-Russell’s policy of charging what, by South African standards at least, are phenomenally high prices for his wines also sets him apart from most other growers, but his increasingly vociferous opposition to the government clearly makes him yet another member of a sizeable, if very loose-knit band.

That band may become rather more tightly knit during the next year, as the result of an initiative to launch a charter organisation grouping together South African winegrowers who are opposed to apartheid.  The organisation would, if successful, oblige its members to confirm to basic rules covering workers’ conditions and wages, and to display their membership clearly on their labels.

It will be very interesting to see how the last of these proposals is received, particularly given the way in which a number of producers like to be vociferously anti-Botha when talking to foreigners and resolute conservatives when among their neighbours.  It will also be interesting to see how the existence of the organisation is welcomed by Anton Rupert, a famous member of the infamous Broederbond, and his Bergkelder winery; another feature of this curious South African wine industry is that several of the very finest estates’ – including Meerlust’s – wines are bottled and marketed by the Bergkelder, much as Bordeaux châteaux’ wines used to pass through the hands of the négociants on the Quai des Chartrons.  Among other things, in answering Platter’s call for decent wages, it will sort out in a few instances at least, the extent to which the cheapness of Cape wines is attributable to the low costs incurred by their makers.

In fact, those costs vary enormously; at one end of the scale, there are the wineries which, until recently, used black prisoners to work their vines and/or paid their staff largely in wine, thus turning significant numbers of them into alcoholic slaves.  This notorious “dop system” is now thankfully rare, though victims of its use still survive, as do some very, very basic forms of worker accommodation.  At the other end of that same scale, however, there are the buildings which I initially took to be holiday cottages in which Tim Hamilton-Russell’s workers live, and there are Nico Myburgh’s vineyard workers at Meerlust who are, he claims, among the best paid blacks in South Africa.  They get around 120 rand (£40) per week, plus lodgings, some food and medical care.

And what about sanctions?  While governments around the world pause and ponder over precisely what kinds of pressure they should place on Pretoria, several have quietly halted the importation of Cape wine.  New Zealand and Australia may not have been a great loss as a market but the US, Canada and Scandinavia are all very sorely missed; KWV’s “Paarl” brandy represented 25 per cent of the Canadian brandy market – until 1986.  Great Britain still buys between 100 and 200,000 cases a year but, as the producers and importers would have to admit, these are sales achieved very largely on the basis of heavy marketing and very low price.  KWV’s profit on its UK sales must be quite limited; but the British market is crucially important to the Cape morale.  Its loss would hurt very badly.

If concerted international sanctions were applied, one consequence would be the drying up of the French market for all that brandy which is currently so gladly bought by liqueur manufacturers (if the earnest avoiders of Cape apples and wines wish to be consistent in their policy, they really ought to steer clear of cocktail bars).  But then no one really believes that France would take any such sanctions very seriously.

My own doubts about the likely efficacy of sanctions came in Harare, where I learned not only that Robert Mugabe has a ruckful of South African wine but also that Zambia, once a major purchaser of Zimbabwean wine, now buys from the Cape.  Suddenly I was reminded of Bismarck’s reply to the Kaiser’s command that he stop drinking Champagne and turn instead to Sekt. “My patriotism,” he is reported to have said, “stops short of my stomach.”  Perhaps Robert Mugabe and Kenneth Kaunda feel the same way.

Interestingly, the closure of the world markets to South African wine may ultimately have a more beneficial effect in South Africa than most other kinds of sanctions.  On the one hand it has, so far, caused relatively few job losses among the blacks – in a heavily cushioned wine industry, the show, and production, must go on – and on the other, it has obliged some of the more diehard members of the industry to think about alternative markets, one of which is very near to home.

I must confess that when a KWV executive earnestly explained to me that he thought the black market was crucially important to his business, I initially thought he was talking about some kind of under-the-counter, parallel selling.  What he actually meant of course was the selling of wine into the black townships.  His organisation had apparently just earmarked 2.5m rand to be spent on encouraging blacks to drink wine.

Historically, wine drinking has been a white pastime; now however, with the development of a growing black middle class, wine is genuinely finding a new market.  At Benny Goldberg’s wine hypermarket (which claims to be the biggest wine store in the world), the manager gleefully reports the growth in sales to blacks from the nearby township of Alexandria – and the fact that his smart black customers buy high-quality wine.

The problem that would-be wine marketeers have, though, is learning how to get to their target market.  Their dilemma is most obvious in Soweto.  Outsiders imagine this most famous of the townships to be some kind of large Johannesburg suburb.  In reality, however, Soweto is more of a nation-state, with a population (estimates vary from 2.5 to 4m) probably greater than that of New Zealand.  Imagine a country of that size with virtually no identifiable shops and bars and you will begin to have some conception of what the townships represent to a would-be marketeer.

To put this in figures, Michael Fridjhon estimates that there are around 19,000 illegal drink retailers, ranging from 4,000 “stockvels” – clubs uniting groups of friends who meet at each other’s homes where they pay to eat and drink – to heaven knows how many “shebeens”.  These mythical places, possibly more talked about by liberal whites who go on boozy “shebeen tours”, than the blacks in whose townships they are to be found, vary from front-parlour drinking dives to plush nightclubs with live music.  Despite government attempts to legalise them (and thus rake in some tax) and the national fame of “Lucky Michael”, the “Shebeen King”, these establishments remain illegal and almost wholly impenetrable to whites who are not accompanied by acceptable black drinking companions.

Closer contact with black consumers will inevitably alter at least some of the thinking on the part of the producers.  The brewers, to whom the black market is absolutely crucial, are living proof of this phenomenon; employment within the breweries has had to become more liberal; black salesmen (distinctly more successful in the townships than whites) have meant that blacks have stood a greater chance of other, better white-collar jobs.  There is inevitably a step on the ladder beyond which they may not climb, but the change in staff policy is dramatic.

At SFW, the huge co-operative which has over 60% of South Africa’s domestic market, including a handy line in ‘”flavoured” wines such as banana-and-vanilla, specially devised for the black market, the story is similar.  Equal pay and – up to lab staff level at least – equal jobs have been instituted; in a Soweto shebeen I was told that SFW had taken “a lot of trouble to understand the black market”.  Back at KWV, when I asked how many black white-collar workers there were, the answer was that “KWV doesn’t sell into townships, so we don’t really …well, it’s not like SFW.”

Homeward bound, somewhere a long way above South Africa, I attempted to sort out the hoard of impressions which had struck me while in their weird, beautiful and benighted country – and thought back to John Platter’s plea for multi-racial vineyard ownership, and of Simon van der Stel, the second governor of the Cape, the “father” of South African winegrowing, the founder of Groot Constantia.

Did any of the Afrikaners who were gathered with their wines in the town hall of the place to which he had given his name realise that, by the standard of the present government, van der Stel would have been classed as “coloured” – and ineligible to own as much as an allotment anywhere near Stellenbosch?  Perhaps there is irony everywhere if you really look for it, but this one seems peculiarly piquant.  Still, irony deficiency is not a uniquely South African condition.


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