There are an array of important issues being examined around the world right now. Conversations surrounding sustainability, labor, community development, equal opportunity and equitable representation are becoming more prominent in nearly every country, culture and profession, and the wine industry is not immune.
These discourses can encourage a shared sense of cognizance and ethical duty to positive long-term effect.
While South Africa’s social policies and citizen treatment were stained by apartheid, many within the country’s wine industry have been committed to social responsibility and development of their communities.
Today, the pursuit of the greater good, especially in business, is not necessarily a given, but it’s one that rings louder and truer with each passing moment. Its effects can be real and lasting, and it can help to ensure a viable and valuable wine industry.
Ahead, we shine a light on some of the successful strategies employed within South Africa’s wine industry.
Charles Brain, co-founder of Lubanzi Wines, with students at a Lubanzi-supported Pebbles Project Early Child Development Center and After-School Club / Photo courtesy Lubanzi Wines
Early Social Pioneers
Prior to the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, there were almost no opportunities for professional development, advancement or economic stability for people of color in South Africa, who represented the majority of the country’s population.
The limitation resulted in an imbalanced wine industry that suffered from subpar working conditions as well as labor relations that often featured low wages, discrimination, inadequate housing and little employee support.
Post apartheid, many in the industry sought to right such pronounced historical wrongs, and, while still a work in progress, efforts continue toward improvement.
Initial strategies included a number of Cape wine farms that sought to establish joint ventures with their workers. These programs aimed to address some of the imbalance in land holdings by providing workers with partial ownership in addition to teaching skills like winemaking and winery management.
Post apartheid, many in the industry sought to right pronounced historical wrongs.
One pioneer was the Fairvalley Farm Workers Association. Established in 1997 by employees of Fairview Estate with Charles Back, the estate owner, this workers’ empowerment initiative sought to provide land ownership to its members and their families.
Through a combination of grants from the Department of Land Affairs and the Fairview Trust, the association purchased and developed a roughly 40-acre farm to create a new wine brand called Fairvalley.
Fairvalley’s first release, a Chenin Blanc, was launched the following year, and proceeds from its sales were used to build houses for the founding members and their families. Today, more than 60 families are members of the association. They benefit from the land, brand and housing, as well as the employment opportunities those things afford.
Seeking to provide workers with stable homes, Backsberg Wine Estate developed a project called Freedom Road. Typically, agricultural housing at the time was dependent on employment—if a worker lost their job, their housing went along with it.
Instead, the Freedom Road housing project sought to assist the winery’s full-time employees in obtaining their own homes free of substantial debt and without fear of losing them should their employment status change.
A subsidy for first-time homeowners provided by the South African government helped Backsberg fund the project. The workers’ supervision and management of around 35 acres of leased vineyards also helped get things off the ground.
Two Freedom Road wines were subsequently produced in 1998. The workers handled the production of the wines, from vineyard to bottle, under the guidance of Owner Michael Back and Backsberg’s then-winemaker, and Backsberg managed the marketing and sales on their behalf. Profits from the sale of the wines helped build 18 houses, which were acquired mortgage-free by vineyard workers.
Industry Change Champions
While early pioneers worked to improve conditions on their farms, more formalized efforts were needed to instill awareness and advance socioeconomic change throughout South Africa’s winelands.
To that end, the Wine & Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) was established in 2002. The nonprofit multi-stakeholder organization of wine cellars, producers, wineries, trade and civil-society unions created an ethical code of conduct to promote respect, dignity and fair treatment that members must adhere to.
Currently, the association has more than 1,500 members, up from only 400 in 2012.
Today, South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine globally.
Members are subject to periodic audits—some announced, some not—to ensure compliance with labor, occupational health and safety legislation. The visits also seek to confirm members are maintaining sustainable ethical policies and practices, housing safety and sanitation, as well as supporting the broader development of community and family life.
About 1,000 members are currently WIETA certified.
A WIETA Fair Labour Certification Seal for wine packages was introduced in 2012. The seal signifies that all producers, growers, cellars and bottling facilities that contributed to the production of the wine adhere to the association’s ethical standards, policies and procedures.
South African workers at a WIETA certified cite / Photo courtesy WIETA
“Globally, key consideration has been given over the last few years to the way in which global supply chains are having to account for human rights and working conditions in supply chains across the globe,” says Linda Lipparoni, CEO of WIETA, through a statement.
“Moving forward, 2020 and the next 10 years will be seen as the decade of action on climate change, with leading food and beverage brands aligning their sustainability targets to the [United Nation’s] Sustainable Development Goals, climate change targets, consumer sentiment and efforts to support sustainable agriculture and support producer resilience.”
In 2009, Fairtrade Label South Africa (FLSA) was also established to promote, protect and advance the rights of farmers, workers and producers in the country.
“You cannot have a good life if part of the community in which you find yourself is excluded from the possibility to progress.” –Petrus Bosman
Supported through the Fairtrade International Central Office since 2017, it seeks to ensure suitable working conditions and labor rights. This includes the ability to join a trade union or collectively negotiate conditions, as well as payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price, a floor price that buyers must pay producers to cover small wine-grape farmers’ average costs of production.
Additionally, a Fairtrade Premium added to the selling price gets put into a communal fund for farmers and workers. These profits can be used however they see fit to improve farm practices, education, healthcare and training programs that benefit them, their families and communities.
Today, South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine globally, accounting for around twothirds of Fairtrade wine sales. There are 24 producer organizations involved, encompassing around 70 farms and employing nearly 3,000 workers.
One of the country’s first Fairtrade-certified producers was Bosman Family Vineyards. Over the years, the estate has implemented numerous social, economic and environmental practices that promote long-term sustainability and equitable representation.
Many of its more than 350 full-time employees represent their family’s fifth generation on the farm.
In 2008, a joint venture between Bosman Family Vineyards and the Adama Workers Trust formed the wine industry’s largest Black Economic Empowerment (BEE, the government’s post-apartheid affirmative-action program) deal to date. The transaction transferred 26% ownership of the company to the winery and vineyard workers, which included shareholding in the winery, vineyards, vine nursery and more than 1,000 acres of land.
Together, over the last decade, they have grown the business eightfold. The brand has acquired more land, imported new drought-resistant varieties and invested in the marketing and export of their wines.
All in all, initiatives from Bosman Family Vineyards and other Fairtrade-certified progressives Du Toitskloof Wines and Merwida Winery have helped more than 6,200 people. They’ve also contributed valuable infrastructure, including several schools and libraries, hundreds of farm housing opportunities, a retirement home, community centers that feature social and medical facilities, and both fixed and mobile medical clinics.
“If there is care for the people that do the work, they care for the work they do,” says Petrus Bosman, managing director of Bosman Family Vineyards. “You cannot have a good life if part of the community in which you find yourself is excluded from the possibility to progress. Children from our farming communities have opportunities to become everything and anything they would like to.”
In October, the Stellenbosch Wine Region adopted a comprehensive code of conduct as the foundation for its own socioeconomic development projects. The guidelines apply to the 150-plus members of the Stellenbosch