Growing a better life for all with vines

Rising input costs, a worldwide wine glut and exorbitant land prices make the wine industry a hard nut to crack for black entrants. But black-owned wine label Blouvlei near Wellington is steadily making its mark – with a little help from its benefactor, Mont du Toit. Stephan Hofstätter reports.
Issue date 23 November 2007

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Black empowerment is notoriously difficult to achieve in the wine industry. The cost of entry is prohibitive, with land in the Cape winelands fetching up to R2 million a hectare. Production costs have skyrocketed from R6 000/ha in 1994 to R20 000/ha to R30 000/ha, while grape prices have either stagnated or declined, resulting in shrinking returns. And growing wine grapes, making wine and marketing it successfully at a time of worldwide oversupply is a complex task requiring specialised skills learned over decades.

A s a result, only about 1% of the industry was in black hands a decade after the end of apartheid. This has now risen to about 5% with empowerment consortium Phetogo’s acquisition in 2004 of a quarter of wine giant KWV, but still falls far short of government targets. Abelia Lawrence, CEO of black worker-owned wine label Blouvlei near Wellington in the Western Cape, believes this is because government-driven empowerment efforts in the industry are set up to fail. Grants are only approved if certain land is bought, so that empowerment funding contributes to national land reform targets. But the size of a land grant depends on the number of people applying, which encourages unsustainably large groups to get together to buy farms. “Government keeps putting people on farms and they keep going bankrupt,” she says.

“It’s a recipe for disaster.” Like most of the handful of successful black-owned wine labels, Lawrence had to piggyback on the expertise, facilities and marketing efforts of an established estate. Blouvlei’s benefactor is Mont du Toit, an internationally acclaimed boutique estate owned by Gauteng advocate Stephan du Toit. Mont du Toit employs traditional low-tech winemaking techniques. Yields are kept low, only the right grapes are grown, and only ripe fruit is selected by hand during harvesting. Grapes undergo another hand-selection process on the cellar sorting table, are gravity-fed into fermentation tanks and then go into small French oak barrels in an underground maturation cellar. Blouvlei uses the estate’s winemaking equipment, sources the bulk of its grapes from the Mont du Toit vineyards, and is marketed alongside Mont du Toit at international fairs. “If it wasn’t for Stephan du Toit we would not be in business,” says Lawrence. New worker housing was the beginning Lawrence met Du Toit in 2001, when she was running a real-estate business in Wellington.

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“He contacted me because he wanted houses for his workers in the town,” she explains. Neither Mont du Toit’s workers interviewed by Farmer’s Weekly nor Lawrence regard the move as an eviction. “Du Toit bought really nice houses in the same area where I live. He really just wanted to improve people’s lives.” Lawrence says the move resulted in a decline in alcohol abuse because of an increased sense of self-worth and responsibility. Three years ago Du Toit decided to launch an empowerment initiative for his workers, and asked Lawrence to help. The estate’s 15 workers, and Lawrence, were sent on formal courses at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch to obtain technical qualifications including tasting, farm production, cellar management and winemaking.

Market research was also conducted. A successful boutique vineyard Mont du Toit is well represented at the top end of the wine market. Its blends, mainly of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Cabernet Franc, were established by two German winemasters, Bernd Philippi and the late Bernhard Breuer, and have won numerous international gold awards. Its top wines retail for over R1 000 a bottle in London. But the market research found there was room for new wines locally and abroad that were well made, easy to drink and reasonably priced. “By using the younger vineyard blocks, less extraction of skins and not as much oak maturation, we produce good wines that retail at between R25 and R60 a bottle,” says winemaker Christa von La Chevallerie. Lawrence baulks at being labelled an empowerment wine producer.

“I don’t say to supermarkets: “Buy my wine to meet your BEE procurement targets”. I want people to buy my wine because they like it – not because it’s made by a black-owned company,” she says. Despite Blouvlei’s commercial and marketing difficulties, the company has yielded fruits for its worker-owners. Farmworker and single parent of two, Mary Anne April, says the group became the envy of the district when word got around they owned their own wine company. “Ons was in ons noppies (we were over the moon),” she says. “My children will have a better life.” For more information contact Blouvlei/Mont du Toit on (021) 873 7745 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw