On Kinini Street, near Soweto’s Mofolo Park (home to the Mofolo parkrun), is the Morara Wine & Spirits Emporium. It’s a bright red splash on an otherwise unremarkable street. Inside, it’s cool, elegant and a little dark, with shelves stacked with wine, and a resident sommelier on hand to give assistance.

The owner, Mnikelo Mangciphu, is on a mission "to demystify the negative notions about wine — that wine is for whites, for the affluent, a drink for sissies — that you can’t be a man if you’re drinking wine," he says. He is one of the original co-founders of the Soweto Wine Festival, along with wine master and former CEO of the Cape Wine Academy, Marilyn Cooper. The festival is now in its 13th year, despite ups and downs, and the challenge of making wine broadly accessible, while simultaneously inculcating an appreciation for its serious side.

"Over the years we’ve had to fine-tune the festival," says Mangciphu. "We want to attract people who understand that they’re there to grow their wine knowledge, meet people, discover new brands. We want people who are going to engage with wine makers, wine producers, and explore the business opportunities offered by wine."

The industry has a lot to gain by winning black consumers over to wine. Several years ago, Tim Rands, who was then MD of Vinimark Trading, noted that if the black population (the majority of the market) took to drinking wine, SA "would not produce enough wine domestically to satisfy the potential". Mangciphu feels that despite this interest, there isn’t much action; and when there is, marketers use traditional approaches that just don’t work ("the Soweto market is really unorthodox," he says) and then opt rather for the export market.

Mangciphu fell in love with wine culture while on holiday in Cape Town, an infatuation that ultimately inspired the Soweto Wine Festival and, in turn, the establishment of Morara (meaning "grapes" in Sesotho) Wine Emporium. The shop was necessary to provide exhibitors with a return on their investment, and ensure that their products were available and accessible in Soweto.

To win Sowetans over to wine, the emporium needed to be right in their midst. "Can you imagine if I had been singing the same song, but was based in Sandton or Rosebank? I don’t think it would have worked," he says. A born-and-bred Sowetan, Mangciphu uses his insider status to set his customers at ease. "You can ask in your own language, I will answer in the same language. And there is no stupid question; because wine is seen as a very snobbish drink." As many people are also put off by the perception that wine is bitter, Mangciphu stocks not only premium and mid-range wines, but also "entry level wines" — the sweeter stuff, "so that we accommodate every single person who walks in that door".

Changing the game

Inside, the shop is deliberately planned to encourage interaction. There are no signs indicating the different varietals. "We want to encourage people to ask: ‘Where’s the Baronne?’ for example," says Mangciphu. "‘OK, why Baronne?’ Then you get to understand how people think. [Nederburg] Baronne is a household name, in the same way that when we grew up, we used to talk about toothpaste as ‘Colgate’."

Once the conversation has started, it’s possible to educate customers on all the subtleties of wine culture — that wine is less bitter if left to breathe, for example — and introduce them to other styles and varieties. "Thirteen years on, I’ve seen people migrating from sweet wines to dry wines. They’re starting up with your merlots, your blends. People walk through that door confidently. They’re able to differentiate between a sparkling wine and a champagne, or an MCC. They are able to say ‘I’m looking for a sauvignon blanc, a chenin blanc’. And I’m talking about locals, not people from the suburbs."

"People from the suburbs" have played a major role in transforming the wine market, says Mangciphu. "People attend school here in the township, get decent work, and buy a house in the suburbs — but leave family and friends behind. So over the weekends they come to check on mum, dad, sisters, or friends. Now when they come to visit, they come back with the suburban lifestyle and habits ... These people unintentionally become wine ambassadors. So that has contributed positively to getting Sowetans to develop an appreciation for wine, because they don’t view these people as snobs."

Mangciphu feels that bringing in more wines created by black wine makers will also expedite its appreciation; hence Morara is currently working with Treasure Chest, an organisation of about 14 black wineries that has been around for the past decade, but up till now has had little or no presence in Soweto. "We want to make sure that we give them a platform, and direct access to the Soweto market, and eventually to other main market black labels," he says.

There have been other initiatives that have also increased black participation in the industry. Several years ago, the Cape Wine Academy, of which Mangciphu is a board member, won a tender to empower black youth who had passed matric but remained unemployed. The academy ran a one-year, full-time sommelier’s course training students in the art of pairing food and wine. Most of the 1,000 students graduated and went on to find work as wine advisers in speciality shops, hotels and the hospitality industry.

Slowly, wine culture is taking root in Soweto: "There is no single restaurant that doesn’t carry a serious range of wines," says Mangciphu. "Wine Bar in Vilakazi Street and Just Badela Food & Wine carry only medium range and premium wine. This [Mofolo] is an entertainment precinct — there’s a wine bar called Eyethu Cellar Door, a restaurant called La Cadi; so this whole precinct is about wine. There are cook-offs — we get inquiries saying ‘come partner with us, we’ll cook, you do the wine’. There was never that interest before, so it’s a huge sign that it is taking off."

It’s something to take notice of, because as Mangciphu says: "When Soweto sneezes, the whole of SA catches a cold."

For more info on the Wine Emporium, visit morarawine.co.za

The hit list:

Wanting to get in on the wine buying action yourself? Mnikelo Mangciphu rates these reds and whites:
• Spier Creative Block 2
• La Bri Chardonnay
• Glen Carlou Cabernet Sauvignon
• Tamboerskloof Syrah
• Hermanuspietersfontein Kleinboet