Grapes were crushed, but not the people
As people in the wine industry found new ways to overcome the Covid crisis, some, like winemaker Carmen Stevens, also gave a hand to those in greater need, writes Bobby Jordan
There have been several notable harvests fermenting in winemaker Carmen Stevens’s cellar, but the one that mattered most whizzed through in just 24 hours — emergency food for children left hungry because of the Covid lockdown.
It was the evening of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a hard lockdown, due to start in 48 hours. Stevens and her colleagues in the industry were staring down the wine barrel of a fresh harvest with nowhere to go in an economic standstill. Whereas many surely drowned their sorrows, Stevens switched to rescue mode, stung into action by the thought of what would happen to the school feeding scheme she supports via her non-profit company.
“The schools were closing on Wednesday and where would they get food if the main food they receive is at school?” said Stevens this week of the days before the March 27 2020 level 5 lockdown.
Fortunately winemakers are schooled in the art of Mother Nature’s unforgiving deadlines. By Monday Stevens and her team had delivered high-energy cereal packs to 6,500 children, each one packed to last 22 days (the lockdown period). “We did that in 24 hours,” Stevens said. “I realised we needed to get food to these kids.”
There would be no respite, however. With Covid-19 infections soaring, Ramaphosa announced an extended lockdown. “Everybody thought we would go back to normal but it was just not the case. So we packed another 1,000 food parcels in our cellar space and handed that out,” Stevens said. “Pleas kept coming in — people were losing jobs left and right.”
Thus began a welfare operation that has since spread across much of the Cape peninsula, going way beyond the wine industry. In 2011 the Carmen Stevens team provided a cup of soup three times a week to primary school pupils in Belhar, a crime-ravaged community where Stevens once lived, just a short drive from the Stellenbosch vineyards. Her company now reaches 18,160 people with breakfasts and lunches across a broad swathe of suburban Cape Town, and beyond, from the winelands towns of Paarl and Wellington to the cluttered streets of Macassar and Eerste River, and as far as Ceres and Villiersdorp.
They serve 53 schools and have dished up over 223 tons of food since August.
“We were really trying to reach as many children as we could but we are obviously now facing a situation where adults need food as well. That is why our focus changed from schools to working with community kitchens.”
The mercy mission is a collaboration between Stevens, her staff, and UK-based online wine retailer Naked Wines, which runs its own Charity Trust. The company initiated a campaign to help the SA wine industry in response to widespread reports about the industry’s plight. Not only were local wine estates barred from selling produce on the local market during the Covid alcohol prohibition, but the tourist trade that sustained many estates dried up overnight, leaving some businesses without any income.
Earlier this month, the average annual R1.2m charity contribution raised in the UK swelled to R10m in one week. This allowed Stevens to upscale her service.
“With these new funds being raised we are now actually looking for new schools that we can support, to get food to children,” Stevens said. “The food that the children receive makes such a difference. It means there is a lower school dropout rate. More kids arriving at school early to get a breakfast. Aggression levels have gone down.”
SA wine has also benefitted from a social media campaign that has garnered international support. #SaveSAwine and #DrinkSouthAfrican were shared across multiple media platforms, driven partly by
You know, the government can’t switch us on and off like a light switch Winemaker Kiara Scott, speaking to the BBC about the Covid-19 alcohol ban
active retail support. “I think that was because we were in a unique situation — I don’t think any other wine industry was shut down the way we were shut down over Covid,” said industry commentator Su Birch, a former Wines of South Africa CEO.
“It has had the most incredible amount of support. We can see from our export data that our better wines grew for the last three months of last year. And as far as I know it has been the same this year,” Birch said.
The success of the offshore marketing drive
contrasts starkly with the plight of the local industry last year when estates closed doors and all alcohol sales were banned. The resultant oversupply led to industry experts issuing warnings of surplus wine tsunamis washing away marginal wineries.
When the economy reopened, producers battled to get produce to market for a multitude of reasons linked to Covid-19. Some large companies that were sitting on bulk wine stock cancelled grape contracts, causing financial stress for small cellars with limited sources of income.
“I won’t go into politics, but the local ban on alcohol sales has really screwed up the wider industry, resulting in millions of litres of bulk wine still in cellars when tanks should have been empty as harvest started,” said a farm owner. “That has caused prices of average bulk wine to free-fall — definitely not good for SA’s image, resulting for many at belowcost pricing, which will mean that money for wage increases, training, etc will just not be there.”
Industry figures for 2020 were dismal: domestic wine sales dropped 20%, to 290-million litres from 363-million litres in 2019.
Such was the devastation that industry body Vinpro began a legal challenge to prevent future industry lockdowns.
“In the absence of herd immunity, which may or may not be reached in SA at the end of 2021, we fear that national government will again resort to a nationwide ban on the local sale of liquor as they have done in the past when a third of fourth wave of infection hits the country. Therefore Vinpro will go ahead and challenge the manner in which these bans are imposed,” the organisation said earlier this year.
However, other global market factors appear to be playing into SA’s hands, mitigating the oversupply problem. A trade tariff dispute between Australia and China has opened a massive export opportunity, while France faces a harvest devastated by frost.
Denise Stubbs, business development director at Diemersfontein Wines, said the Covid era meant businesses would need to become more resilient and adapt.
“Survival is really the word,” said Stubbs, who says business is slowly returning to the estate in Wellington.
“All is flowing gradually back to normal.”
As the dust settles on yet another harvest, with pundits saying this year’s grapes look good, Stevens reflects on an industry delicately poised between two well-worn adages: old habits die hard, and there’s a first time for everything.
As the country’s first black winemaker, now at the helm of the country’s first fully black-owned winery, she brings much-needed insight to the plight of her winelands family. Like most other challenges the pandemic, which affected everything from the availability of shipping containers to dry ice, was keenly felt by the most vulnerable workers who had to take a pay cut.
Said Stevens: “I can just imagine the financial strain they felt just in putting food on the table.”
For Birch, the pedigree of new generation winemakers like Stevens mirrors the optimism about this year’s slow-ripened harvest.
“Apparently it’s a legendary harvest, everyone is so excited about it. Things were so dire. Now the outlook is starting to shift,” she said.