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POWERLESS PRODUCERS

Embattled wine industry corked by persistent rolling blackouts

Embattled wine industry corked by persistent rolling blackouts
Harvest time at the Simonsig Winelands in Stellenbosch. South Africa's wine industry contributes more than R55-billion to gross domestic product and employs almost 269,000 people. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais)

Rolling blackouts damage every stage of production from irrigation to bottling and labelling, and diesel generators burn money. Anxieties are high as the critical harvest season is underway. 

Rolling blackouts are causing major problems for the wine industry as its crucial harvest season is underway, ­causing costs to balloon and endangering crops and jobs.

South Africa’s industry ranks eighth in the world, according to 2021 data from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

It contributes more than R55-billion to gross domestic product and employs close to 269,000 people.

The industry has been hit by Covid-19 and fuel prices. Now the main challenge is rolling blackouts, which affects irrigation, cooling, fermentation, bottling and labelling.

Read how Daily Maverick readers have been impacted by load shedding herePeople are broken

Now, during harvest season, people in the industry are feeling especially anxious.

Klein Goederust Boutique Winery

The difficulties caused by power cuts have increased in harvest time, says Paul Siguqa, owner of the Klein Goederust Boutique ­Winery in Franschhoek.

In January, February or March, grapes reach optimal ripeness. That’s when it’s time to pick them and, if you don’t, they will rot.

Problems start with grapes needing to be placed in cold rooms, which need electricity.

“So now the cold rooms are not working. It’s a high risk to the quality of the wine,” Siguqa says. If grapes are not cooled, fermentation might not take place properly.

“If fermentation doesn’t properly happen, the whole crop goes to waste. And we’re talking about tonnes and tonnes of grapes,” he says.

Rolling blackouts also affects irrigation, important in the summer heat. Full irrigation cycles cannot be completed.

Siguqa’s biggest problem with rolling blackouts are their unpredictability, making it difficult to figure out a production schedule.

He estimates that rolling blackouts have cost his winery R400,000 in the past three months, and predicts losses will be worse during harvest season.

It is becoming difficult to maintain jobs at his business, he says.

“We were just seeing recovery after the pandemic, when we couldn’t sell wine… But the recovery has been wiped out by rolling blackouts. We’re moving one step forward and three back.”

Paul Siguqa

Paul Siguqa, owner of Klein Goederust wine estate in Franschhoek, estimates rolling blackouts have cost his winery R400,000 in the past three months. (Photo: Gianluigi Guercia / AFP)


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Blank Bottle Winery

In times like these, businesses need to obtain generators urgently, says Pieter Walser, owner of Blank Bottle Winery in Somerset West.

Though he would like to use solar power, he cannot install it because he does not own the building where his business is located.

When it comes to making up for losses, raising prices is not a simple solution, he says: “I can’t just adjust my prices; it’s not that simple. You can’t raise your prices overnight.”

Doing so would put any business in a bad place in the market, he says.

Groote Post Vineyards

“Without electricity, we are quite doomed,” says Peter Pentz, communications manager for Groote Post Vineyards in Darling. “We need to revert to a generator. Obviously, a generator takes diesel, and the cost of diesel is increasing immensely.”

Like Siguqa, Pentz says irrigation and cooling are affected. Electricity is also needed for bottling, labelling and administration.

Before the harvest season, Groote Post ran its generator during office hours but switched it off at night. However, in harvest season it will run through the night, raising costs. Groote Post has spent “tens of thousands of rands per month” on diesel.

Pentz believes renewable energy is the long-term solution. “But then the question arises: what is the cost implication?

“Why must we pay that money for a service that should be rendered by the government? We are still paying taxes and sin taxes despite the fact that our business is suffering.”

He said rolling blackouts’ larger impact on the agricultural sector could endanger food security, but “despite all the negatives, I always say that farmers are people of hope”.

Allée Bleue Wine Estate

“Our winemaker and vineyard manager work tirelessly at finding ways to readjust and adapt,” says Carol Maggs, sales and marketing manager at Allée Bleue Wine Estate.

They rely heavily on generators, despite the rising cost of diesel.

“These costs are extremely difficult to pass fully on to consumers in a highly competitive environment. We believe solar power is the way to go, but for a farm of our size that would require a substantial investment,” she says.

“Load shedding has had a huge impact on our supply of packaging materials, bottles in particular. The shipping constraints and delays at ports have also had an enormous impact on our wine export and especially on our fruit export business.”

Vinpro

Christo Conradie, the manager of Vinpro, says: “The current situation with Eskom and load shedding is extremely challenging.”

Vinpro is a nonprofit company that represents nearly 2,600 South African wine producers, cellars and industry stakeholders.

Last month it and other agricultural leaders met Minister of Agriculture Thoko Didiza.

Conradie says the meeting resolved to establish a task team of government and agriculture representatives and energy specialists to monitor the effects of power cuts and explore solutions. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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