To be young, gifted and black

One importer describes the race issue in the South African wine trade as “the elephant in the room”. The fact most wines are owned and made by whites, and that “you can count the black faces at the Wines of South Africa tasting on the fingers of one hand” is not something that is discussed much in the UK.

Consumers almost certainly aren’t interested in who is making their wine. As WOSA chief executive Su Birch puts it: “I don’t think consumers want politics mixed up in their wine.”?But should it matter to the UK trade? Should we be concerned about the on-­ going stability of a country still recovering from decades of apartheid, therefore the stability of the businesses we rely on? For UK importers, wine quality and value for money are almost always going to take precedence over any other issues.

Stratford’s commercial manager Neville Harris says: “What is important is the quality and style of the wines being produced; and as long as the image of a particular industry or country is perceived as fair, I don’t believe consumers really care who the actual winemaker is.

“As part of the Black Economic Empowerment programme, the South African government has set itself a target of moving 30% of the country’s farms to black ownership by 2014, so change is well advanced,” he says. “South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds will increasingly have better access to training, travel and work in the world’s other wine-producing regions. I would expect that in the years ahead there will naturally be a more representative spread of winemakers from South Africa’s different cultures.”?But some Cape producers feel the trade needs to do more to be as fair as it would like to appear. “Black winemakers are woefully thin on the ground,” says Diale Rangaka, marketer at M’hudi. “There are about 15 wine companies either owned by black people or in which they have a majority interest. Of the 600 wine companies, there are about six owned entirely by black people. Of the 4,000 vineyards, only one, M’hudi, is owned by a black family. This is a legacy of the 350-year history of the Cape winelands and period of racially determined access to land and economic opportunity.

“We can only ask UK buyers to allow their decisions to be influenced by the desire of most of their customers to make a contribution to aiding the development of black business. This is the only reason I can think of, and sadly it has nothing to do with the bottom line – just doing good because of the special circumstances of our country.”?Thierry’s buying director Lindsay Talas says the agency buys wines on quality and value alone, but adds: “I do think it’s fair to say that the South African wine industry is still very white and middle-class, and I would like to see more opportunities for talented black people to thrive in all aspects of the wine business in South Africa, not just winemaking.”?Shelagh de Rosenwerth, PR manager for Stellar Organics, says: “The quicker and more effectively transformation proceeds in the South African wine industry, the better for all concerned. The more inclusive the industry, the more stable it becomes and the more reassuring it is for customers to deal with us.”?Some producers are taking part in, or financing, schemes to help bring more black winemakers into the business. Constellation’s Flagstone winery and chief South African wine­­ maker Bruce Jack have been involved in the Cape Winemakers Guild’s Protégé Programme,

which offers deser­ving university students a three-year employment contract within the guild.

But Anton du Toit, export director for Lourensford, says more schemes are needed. “Wine companies want to employ more to help transformation, but not enough black people study winemaking. The problem is not that we don’t want to employ more black winemakers, the question is how can we convince more black people to get involved in the industry?”?Steve Barton, director of Brand Phoenix, warns that any attempts at balancing the wine trade must be genuine, and consumers will become sceptical if wine­makers are given jobs on any basis other than ability. “We have to provide the right infrastructure, so the best people, male, female, coloured or whatever, have a fantastic opportunity to rise to the top and be the best in their profession, because that is the only thing that’s going to make a difference – you can’t artificially create it.”?Tariro Masayiti, white winemaker for Nederburg, says he is already seeing more black winemakers coming into the business. “There are no longer obstacles in the way of black winemakers entering into and succeeding in the industry. There is a relatively small number of black winemakers and we hope to attract more in future as their exposure to, and knowledge about, wine grows.”?WOSA’s Birch says transformation is already well underway. “While black winemakers don’t represent the same proportion as the population, where blacks are obviously in the majority, there has been a really significant change. It’s an area in which there is pretty meaningful transformation – black winemakers are not, as sometimes happens with transformation, puppets or window dressing, they are actually successfully making wine.”