Enter the wioneers

Traditionally white-dominated, South African winemaking is starting to see transformation. Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi gives a snapshot of ingenuity and opportunity for the second generation of black women in the local wine industry.

by: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi | 25 Feb 2018
 

The lip-smacking tannin-talk; cheesy vine and vintage speak; and nosing, corking and breathing chat of wine connoisseurs is especially asphyxiating in South Africa because our palettes are political – necessarily so. From vineyard to vintner and cellar to seller, the industry is an aggressively contested one in desperate need of meaningful transformation to redress the centuries of dispossession, exploitation and oppression in every drop of South African wine. The cellar doors must open on one side as markets need to on the other.

The wine industry is one of South Africa’s largest agricultural sectors, accounting for nearly 96 000 hectares of arable land cultivation, contributing upwards of R36 billion to the gross domestic product and providing more than 300 000 direct and indirect jobs. Top-down efforts at redressing the industry imbalance have come from government and industry bodies in the form of mandates and white papers by government, and transformation and development initiatives by nonprofit organisations including Vinpro, a leading body; Wine of South Africa, which represents South African wines abroad; and the Cape Winemakers Guild.

The numbers mask an industry that for the most part lies comfortably in white ownership and control, and has done for generations. But the true racial and gender transformation champions in the industry are into their second generation, with the baton being sometimes seized and sometimes passed on to a generation following black female trailblazers of the local and international markets. Without the nouveau or generational wealth that is almost synonymous with wine production, distribution and marketing, entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways of turning a profit and keeping some good stock aside for their growth while even a third and younger generation readies itself to take over from them.

The experiences of Janine Petersen, the brand pusher with a sharp eye for strategy; Hope Monageng, the wine brand owner pioneering into her immediate surrounds; and Candice Barnes, the career-focused winemaker-in-training offer just snapshots of what opportunities and challenges await young black women in the industry. Success in this industry at any level demands heaps of skill and capability. Reaping success as a black woman requires barrels more.

The brand pusher

Thirty-year-old Janine Petersen launched her J9 Wine in April 2017 after she had worked in marketing and promotions for a telecoms company, became bored and made a career change to experiential marketing for wine brands. The mother of two was raised and lives in Atlantis, Cape Town, a historically coloured area, but she identifies as black.

“When I started J9 wine,” she says, “I wanted something specific. I wanted something that everyone who is not a wine drinker would be able to drink. I wanted to capture the new guys on the block – the young professional, those coming out of university who want to upgrade from drinking beers and ciders and start drinking wine, but also don’t want to drink low-end wine.”

For her purposes and projected direction, Petersen believes, “You have to sign up with one of the distributors. Before we can even get to the big boys, there’s a criteria. Before you can even go to a big distributor, you first work on your client book and then you go to them. But it’s difficult to work on a client book if you have no distribution. So, basically, you have to start selling out of the boot of your car.”

The “boot of the car” trading for wine entrepreneurs today doesn’t always mean disconnecting the subwoofers to make space for one’s crates. As internet access and the number of people accessing and trusting online shopping platforms grow, ordering products, including wine, online is becoming a norm. Petersen uses a small delivery company with a national footprint to make good on orders made online and paid for upfront. “It’s the innovation and technology space that’s growing and the wine industry is still running on ancient systems.” By this she is not referring to the closely guarded secrets of stuffy winemakers in dusty cellars, but the gaps wine brands are leaving unexplored in the marketing of their offerings. “I think it’s for the past two years that wine farms have actually been investing in their social media and realised that it drives traffic to their farm or buying their product.”

The “wioneer”

“I’m a pioneer in wine; I’m a wioneer,” exclaims Hope Monageng (27). Similarly to Petersen, Monageng sources the wine for her black-owned brand, Delight Wines, from a farm where the production, bottling and labelling is done for her. She is also interested in eventually becoming a wine producer but, alas, the land is abundant but not accessible to someone in her socioeconomic position. To work towards her vine dream, she is building a niche in the market that starts at the doorstep of her mother’s face-bricked home in Thembisa, Gauteng – Delight Wines HQ.

She’s turning the reputation for exclusivity which precedes wine into an advantage instead of a challenge. “We deserve bourgie things,” she says. “I feel like our people limit themselves [in] the kinds of things that they should be having, so there’s that mentality that wine is associated with being white and bourgie. But we also deserve to be bourgie, we also deserve to be classy, we also deserve nice things like wine, and we shouldn’t associate it with one race or one type of people.”

It is common knowledge that sweeter wines have been and continue to be marketed and distributed more in black communities than in affluent white communities. This of course means that Monageng’s target market is accustomed to sweeter wines. Her aim is to change this by educating her potential clientele with wine tastings in Thembisa and introducing her audiences to different wine varietals as she gains access to them. “Already they would have trusted me with the first ones that I prescribed to them,” she plots, “and then eventually I will give them more options to choose from.”

Although, admittedly, her mzalwane mother is not bubbling over at the idea of her daughter trading in alcohol, Monageng believes that on some level she is fulfilling the life lessons taught to her at home: “Even though she doesn’t like the fact that I’m going into the route of alcohol selling, she is supportive. She has raised me to be an independent woman who thinks for herself and goes out there and does everything for herself. I think deep down she is proud.”

The winemaker (in training)

A career in the wine value chain came to Candice Barnes in a circumspect way. The 23-year-old University of Cape Town Bachelor of Social Sciences graduate came across the cellar technology courses offered by Elsenberg Agricultural College when she was looking at furthering her studies at Stellenbosch University, 15km from Elsenberg.

After a conversation with her government employee sister, her eyes were opened to the opportunities available for black and coloured women in the industry. It uncorked her eventual love for cellar technology, or winemaking for the “uncultured”. “I actually had no relationship with wine at all,” says Barnes. “I started very slowly, drinking wine in 2014 and in 2016 I started studying here. So coming into an industry where you have no experience at all, not having lived on a farm, not being close to wine farms; it’s a very difficult thing to just hop in.”

Lorraine Geldenhuys, who did grow up on a farm and had a long relationship with wine prior to becoming a cellar technology lecturer at Elsenberg, believes that “Anyone can become a winemaker; you just need to have passion to become one. If you are passionate about what you do, you will start to educate yourself. For the first time in eight years since I have been here, we have 60% women and 40% men.”

Although Barnes and Geldenhuys find the student selection process at Elsenberg fair in terms of gender, the course has given Barnes glimpses of the types of inequalities that persist in the industry. “I had this experience where we are harvesting our grapes and they had contracted harvesters,” Barnes says. “We need to make sure that we go into the vineyards, count crates, make sure that the grapes are all loaded. The men and even some of the women don’t take you seriously, they’ll make jokes. So in that aspect, it’s very intimidating.

“Lots of people think that winemaking is very romantic,” she laments. “Not even my family fully understand what I do in the cellar. It’s very difficult to explain until you’ve experienced it. It’s long hours, it’s hard work. When our Sauvignon Blanc came in, just the bottom part of it was 289 crates, so we are chucking crates, we’re packing crates out of the cooling system, we’re cleaning tanks, scrubbing floors.”

“Your nails are never pretty,” Geldenhuys interjects, “they always look like you’ve painted them black because of all the red wine that gets stuck under them. When you’re working with such a small team, it resembles a real life situation in the wine industry.”

Distilled to its essentials, to achieve success in South Africa’s wine value chain as a black female, you need a lot more than brand savviness, a pioneering spirit and ability to apply yourself to the technical aspects of winemaking and trading. Dislodging the entrenched white male domination of the industry that stretches back generations cannot be the sole responsibility of any or all industry actors and champions. If transformation is to germinate, we, the swirling and sipping consumers, need to inform ourselves and support black-owned wine brands consciously and continually.

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