A book just published, entitled ‘Grape’, and sub-titled ‘Stories of the Vineyards in South Africa’, covering the history of wine and grape farming in the period 1652 – 2011, is certain to cause discomfort to the wine and table grape industry, in its accusation that there is much room for improvement in the way this industry treats its staff, despite many changes over time, especially since 1994. The industry is asked to get its house in order, in being ethical in the treatment of its staff. The book concludes that the future of the wine and table grape industry is a depressing one, and one that can be to the disadvantage of those workers it aims to uplift.
A large part of the blame must be placed at the door of the Department of Labour, which does not appear to be doing its job properly in regulating working conditions for farm workers, said ‘Grape’ co-author Dr Wilmot James, a member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance, addressing the Franschhoek Literary Festival about his book on Sunday. Written with Professor Jakes Gerwel, Chancellor of Rhodes University, and freelance journalist Jeanne Viall, the book paints the picture of the history of labour on grape and wine farms since 1652.
In hearing Dr James speak, it felt as if he has a chip on his shoulder, as he told the audience that the book’s initial focus was the abuse of ‘Coloureds’ by the wine industry, but as he was told that this was a racist approach, and he could not define exactly what this racial label means, he and his co-authors decided to broaden the focus of the book to include all workers in the industry. The book kicks off with a “Note on terminology”, and in it is written “it is questionable whether one can speak of the coloured people at all. In this essentially residual category are to be found people of the most diverse descent”, including slaves from Indonesia, the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi.
The book documents the stories of workers on grape farms, “which is the story of South Africa, mostly that of the Gariep/Orange River area and the Western Cape”. The book continues: “The history of workers on grape farms is a sad one; indeed, the history of farm workers in South Africa in general, and also elsewhere in the world, is often one of hardship. But the ‘dop’ system, and its ongoing effects over many generations, adds another dimension to disempowered and marginalised grape farm communities.” It likens the history of our wine industry to that written about by John Steinbeck in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, first published in 1939.
The first vines were planted by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655, and four years later the first wine was produced in Wynberg – Van Riebeeck wrote: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes… mostly Muscadel and other white, round grapes, very fragrant and tasty”.
South Africa is predominantly a beer drinking nation, the book states, with 65% of the population drinking this beverage, as opposed to only 15 % drinking wine. In 2009, 1089 million litres of wine, brandy and grape juice were produced. Of the total of 125000 hectares planted under vines, 81 % was used for wine production and the balance for table grapes in 2009. The number of grape farm workers is estimated at 30000 – 50000 permanent staff, and ‘many thousands’ of seasonal workers. Half of the 396 million liters of wine that was produced in 2009 was exported.
The book tells the stories of interesting wine personalities:
* Mohammed Karaan, now Dean of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University, is quoted as saying:”The wine industry takes money. It is squandered on image and ego, these are not good values, the downside of the industry is that it destroys human capital, along with its stepbrother, the fruit industry. I used to be astounded at how fellow students justified the ‘dop’ system. And now they are saying that wine is good for the heart… All politicians have a romanticism around wine, they’re intoxicated with wine. They were going to legislate against ‘papsakke’. Nothing happened.”
* Spatz Sperling of Delheim was one of the driving forces in wine marketing, and the legal constraints of wine-selling locally and to overseas markets led to his pioneering marketing, often more for the benefit of the industry than for his own brand
* Michael Back, owner of Backsberg, is the first wine farm to become carbon-neutral in South Africa, and is the third in the world
* Professor Mark Solms, whose aim is to not lose money with his farm Solms-Delta: “Wine is not the way to make money quickly; my long-term view is that what will make it truly sustainable is doing it excellently”. He added: “Only by delving into the social history of the farm could I properly understand it. What needed to be done was to understand the nature of the problem in order to change it. I found things I wouldn’t have anticipated: people had no hope, no sense of the future. They were at best fatalistic, and most were clinically depressed”. The Solms-Delta Oesfees is written about in the book, as is the trust in which the farmworkers have ownership, with owners Mark Solms and Richard Astor.
Interesting wine industry facts are spread throughout the book:
* Constantia wines were acclaimed, and Vin Constance was enjoyed by royalty, including King Frederick the Great of Prussia, King George IV, King Louis-Philippe, and Napeolean Bonaparte, amongst others.
* Muratie’s first owners, when the farm was named ‘De Driesprong’, were Lourens Campher and the freed slave Ansela van de Caab, and was handed to them by Willem Adriaan van der Stel in 1699.
* Evidence of a Stone Age civilisation from 4000 – 6000 years ago was found when renovation work was done at Solms-Delta, after Mark Solms bought the farm in 2002.
* One needs at least R25 million to buy a farm, and ‘the margins are paper thin for growing grapes for basic wine”, Professor Joachim Ewert from Stellenbosch University is quoted as saying. He says it takes three generations to make money on a wine farm. Added to this, is that many foreign owners have bought wine farms, for ‘status and the snob value of your own wine label…’. One of the main findings of the book, the writers state, “…has been a revelation to find that not only have wine farmers always struggled to survive, but that still today wine farming is marginal.”
* Wine farms are not always well-known for their wines, but often more for their owners, e.g. Jan Boland Coetzee, the rugby player who makes wine at Vriesenhof; Beyers Truter who has become known as ‘Mr Pinotage’, of Beyerskloof; Dr Paul Cluver is a brain surgeon; Professor Mark Solms is a neurologist.
* Good ‘table wine’ has only been produced in the past 15 years, WOSA CEO Su Birch is quoted as saying, with only Meerlust, Delheim and Kanonkop known to make good wines before this time.
* The Stellenbosch Wine Route was the first route to open, in 1972, and was the brainchild of Spatz Sperling of Delheim, Frans Malan of Simonsig, and Neil Joubert of Spier, the first of now 15 wine routes in the country.
* Spatz Sperling of Delheim, Frans Malan from Simonsig, and Sydney Back of Backsberg got the Wine of Origin wine certification system established
* Distell’s Nederburg, JC le Roux and Graça, as well as Van Loveren’s Four Cousins, sell well in our ’emerging markets’ (a nice way to say ‘township’), the book states, and Nederburg Baronne in particular is known in Soweto as the ‘Coca Cola wine’.
* The ‘dop’ system is not South African in origin, and was probably introduced by the French Huguenots
* South African wine production appears least likely to be affected by climate change, most wine-producing areas, other than the Northern Cape, having the lowest average increase in temperature of all wine-producing regions in the world. Yet more costly water and climate change will influence berry ripening, and will lead to earlier harvests and to different wine styles being produced.
* Wines were sold in supermarkets in 1966 for the first time.
* ‘Black-owned’ wine farms include Constantia Uitsig, Bloemendal and D’Aria (Tokyo Sexwale having a part ownership) and Sexwale’s fully owned Oude Kelder in Franschhoek; Paardenkloof owned by Valli Moosa; and M’Hudi Wines, owned by the Rangaka family.
* Empowerment schemes for grape farm workers include Malmaison near Groblershoop; Beyerskloof; Naftali Estate at Dyasonsklip; black consortia own shares in Distell and the KWV; ’empowerment’ wine brands include Epicurean Wines, Ses’fikile; LaThiThá Wines; and Thabani.
‘Grape’ moves backwards and forwards in time in presenting an overview of far more than the labour on grape farms, and this is its weakness. It has so much material to cover that the book loses focus in the presentation of its wealth of information. Making so much in its build up of the exploitation of mainly ‘Coloured’ farm workers on such farms, as well as the production of ‘cheap wines’ to target this population group, it is a surprise when the book’s “Last Word” paints a depressing future for the industry, which “is facing incredibly tough times”, “soaring production costs”, “poor return on their product”, a “changing climate”, and a “strong rand”. “Very few farmers are making a profit; many wine farms are on the market”. Given this scenario of a challenging future, one gets the feeling that the authors backed off their initial tough stance, as all these challenges that the industry faces will affect the workers on these farms, as well as their livelihoods. For the wine and table grape industry currently survival is a greater priority than its continued transformation!
Jeanne Viall, Wilmot James & Jakes Gerwel: ‘Grape – Stories of the Vineyards in South Africa’. Tafelberg. 2011. www.tafelberg.com
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage