Green & Black
- Thursday 15 November 2007
Mzokhona Mvemve does not consider himself a black winemaker. While studying chemical engineering in Durban in the mid-1990s, he was spotted by long-established wine pioneer Jabulani Ntshangase (owner of Thabani wines), who encouraged him to try oenology. ‘Thirteen years ago, you and I wouldn’t have been able to sit here like this,’ he says over dinner at 96 Winery Road in Somerset West, east of Cape Town, a casual restaurant owned by renowned producer Ken Forrester. ‘I wouldn’t even have been your waiter. I might have cleaned the tables.’
Fast forward a decade or so, and Mvemve is a top graduate of Stellenbosch University’s oenology programme. A former winemaker for Cape Classics, in 2005 he launched his own Sagila range – a Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (£7.99; Ethical Wines). In 2005, he released the first vintage of MR (as in Mvemve Raats) de Compostella – a critically lauded Bordeaux blend costing £40 in the UK. Made in boutique quantities, it’s a 50/50 joint venture with winemaker Bruwer Raats, a friend and former colleague from a stint at Delaire Winery. Not bad for a Zulu who grew up in a township.
While Mvemve markets neither himself nor his wines as Black Empowerment projects, the fact that some people want to talk to him simply because he’s one of very few non-white winemakers to have achieved such a high level of professional responsibility is not lost on him.
‘I realise that being black in a predominantly white industry makes me unusual,’ he says. ‘But I have a voice, and I often have an opinion. There are only a few black oenology graduates, and if the industry is serious about transformation, then there has to be a much bigger effort to give black winemakers the same training and qualifications as our white counterparts, or we will never be taken seriously or get the top jobs.’
Mvemve knows his trajectory owes as much to timing and good mentors as it does to drive and hard work. (On top of the rest, he’s studying for an MBA.) He was an early participant in the broad-based Black Economic Empowerment – BEE for short – a government-mandated socioeconomic strategy that runs across all walks of life, formalised in 2003 with a legal act, and followed up in early 2007 by a set of Codes of Good Practice. BEE uses a balanced score card approach to encourage businesses to meet specified targets – which vary based on the company’s size – for a significant increase in the number of black people who manage, control, own and participate in all sectors of the economy – and thus reduce income disparity. The goal is no less than transformation of the economy, so that by 2014 it better reflects the country’s diverse ethnic make-up: 80% black, 9% white, 8.5% coloured (mixed- race people descended from the country’s early settlers, their slaves, and the indigenous population) and 2.5% Asian.
State bodies and public companies are obliged to comply, and private companies must do so if they want to do business with government entities.
Slow to start It’s no secret that the wine sector has had a particularly rocky time. One reason is that a critical aspect of transformation – particularly relevant to agriculture – calls for 30% of land to be under black ownership by 2014. Another is that the BEE charter exempts ‘micro- enterprises’ with less than R5 million (£341,000) annual turnover. The very structure of farming – and wine as a sub-category – puts the first target, not to mention all the others, at odds with the second. Most wineries are small businesses. ‘If you look at other industries – like mining and construction – BEE seems to have advanced much more rapidly,’ says Lynne Sherriff MW, a UK-based, South African-born independent wine consultant and South Africa Regional Chair for the Decanter World Wine Awards. ‘There’s a certain amount of frustration that change has been slow. But no other country, with the exception of Germany, has such a troubled history – and agriculture is a slow-moving industry. We almost need our own kick up the backside.’ Initial efforts to achieve the land and equity ownership targets – via spinning off shares to black-owned consortia, creating purportedly black-owned brands to benefit people without the experience to market them, establishing land-ownership trusts where each beneficiary might someday receive a minuscule dividend – have left people dissatisfied and distrustful of the system. There have also been serious allegations of cronyism and mismanagement of funds by both government entities such as the Department of Agriculture and the perpetually beleaguered Land Bank (the agriculture development finance institution tasked with funding land reform) and industry organs such as the South African Wine Industry Trust.
‘There’s nothing new about such manoeuvres,’ says Marthinus Saunderson, a Lutzville-based winemaker and the first general manager of SAWIT, whom many claim was forced out in 2004 because he was unwilling to fund projects with questionable viability. ‘Transformation seems to have less to do with changing the lives of the many – those with grim housing, whose weekly wages are the price of an expensive bottle of Cabernet – than with the enrichment of the few, who soon won’t even need to toss a few crumbs of comfort to those over whose backs they scramble upwards.’
Damning figures A definitive answer as to the number of black winemakers today is hard is to find. Estimates range from five (from the South African Black Vintners Association) to 25. And in terms of the number of blackowned wineries, figures are even starker: there are perhaps two or three, of which Saunderson is one.
With 570+ wineries, exporting 270- odd million litres – or 3.1% of the world’s wine, valued at almost R15 billion (about £1bn, in 2003) –such statistics make many feel the sector has not evolved quickly enough. With this in mind, the wine industry in July adopted its own version of the BEE charter, and many are pinning their hopes on this. Yet there has also been a more positive undercurrent: creative, results-oriented efforts, involving mentorship, partnership, joint ventures, which demonstrate that where the will exists, there are numerous ways to transform the industry.
In 2003, former academic administrator Diale Rangaka bought 42 hectares of poorly tended vines and fruit trees outside Stellenbosch, and moved his family there. The property came with old buildings and broken machinery, and its new inhabitants lacked experience, but were eager to learn. ‘It was a disaster zone,’ recalls Rangaka. ‘But I had done a lot of research and I saw wine could be a good business. I’d bought into the romance of this lovely wine culture and lifestyle we’d seen in magazines and on TV.’ Rangaka’s neighbours are the Grier family, producers of Villiera Wines. Winemaker Jeff Grier offered to help, and the M’hudi brand – carried by Marks & Spencer – was born.
‘They had a dream of getting into the wine business, and that’s something we know a lot about,’ said Grier. ‘Our view has always been that empowerment depends on developing skills. We agreed a mentorship arrangement, whereby we would help [Diale and his son Tseliso] fix up their vineyard, and add value to their grapes by creating a brand, which would assist them with marketing and selling.’ M’hudi – now in its third vintage – is selling well at M&S. Villiera does not share in the brand but recuperates costs from its profits. ‘We’re using our skills and contacts to help them,’ says Grier, ‘and we hope they will help us gain greater access to the developing black middle-class market.’ Marks & Spencer wine buyer Gerd Stepp says the brand fits neatly into the company’s new eco-plan, a multi-million pound strategy to source only sustainably and ehtically traded products.