Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

A year ago the Wall Street Journal declared SA wines "the best fine wines for your money ". Many others have dished out praise, including Tim Atkin, a leading international wine critic, who in 2014 wrote: " [SA] is one of the most exciting and dynamic wine-producing countries in the world."

After years of marketing by producers and industry organisations to have SA wines recognised as being among the world’s finest, things finally seemed to be coming right.

Then, in October, came the release in Denmark and Sweden of Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the Vineyards, a 58-minute documentary directed by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann.

Sweden and Denmark are among the top-10 importers of SA wine and account for a combined 11% (45Ml) of annual exports.

Fuelled by headlines such as "SA wines removed from Danish shelves", the documentary — which is also likely to be aired in the UK, SA’s biggest export market, the US, Germany and Norway — sent shock waves through the local wine industry.

"SA wines were on the up, but there goes the momentum again," says an angry Eben Sadie, a dynamic young SA winemaker.

Much of the task of minimising the reputational damage done by Heinemann’s documentary falls on the industry’s export-promotion body, Wines of SA (Wosa).

"The full impact of the documentary has yet to be seen," says Wosa CEO Siobhan Thompson. She is as angered as Sadie is.

"As an industry we have a long way to go, but we are doing much to improve and transform," she says. "[But] the Heinemann documentary is not objective. It interviews a handful of people on a few farms to paint a very biased picture of the entire industry."

Thompson’s view is broadly shared by industry players. "To say there is not abuse of workers out there would not be true, but to say it is prevalent among a high proportion of wine farmers is also not true," says Kobus Basson, MD and co-owner of Kleine Zalze wine estate.

Andrew Gunn, owner of Iona, a major exporter to the US, shares this view. "Bad farmers are the exception," he says. "But you can go to any country and dig up bad things."

Industry efforts to improve conditions for workers are driven by a Wosa initiative, the Wine & Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association (Wieta ), which launched in 2002.

"Wieta audits and encourages transformation across all areas of the wine business," says Thompson. "But it is impossible for Wieta to police the entire industry on an ongoing basis."

What is being done by some farmers is eye opening.

"We pay all our workers’ children’s school fees [and] medical expenses, and have even helped some of their children go to university," says Basson. "None of our workers wants to belong to a union."

Gunn’s approach is similar, and extends to sending his workers’ children to a local private school. "I also ensure that all families have basic, good quality furniture, fridges and stoves," says Gunn. "When I speak to people in the US they are blown away by what we do, especially compared with conditions Mexican migrant workers work under."

Basson and Gunn could save themselves a lot of effort and money. "We could mechanise almost every aspect of work done manually," says Gunn. "But I believe we have a responsibility in SA to provide employment to people."

However, there is a financial limit to what farmers can do. This is a legacy of SA’s image as a low-quality, low-cost wine producer.

"Importers are not prepared to pay us what our wine is worth," says Gunn.

It is a stigma Wosa and wine producers are fighting to eliminate — but there is tough opposition. "Producers are still under immense pressure from European retailers to lower their prices," says Thompson.

A spin-off is that many SA producers are forced to export wine in bulk at rock-bottom prices. SA is the loser in terms of export revenue lost, and in terms of the employment that packaging locally would bring.

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