Don't encourage us
21 September 2017 21:43 (South Africa)
Opinionista Michael Fridjhon

Walking the Talk in the wine industry and on the air

  • Michael Fridjhon
    Michael-Fridjhon.jpg
    Michael Fridjhon

    Michael Fridjhon is South Africa's most highly regarded international wine judge, the country's most widely consulted liquor industry authority, and one of South Africa's leading wine writers. Chairman of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception, he has judged in countless wine competitions around the world. Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town, he has been an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and is a recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Worldwide winner of the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2012, he is the author, co-author or contributor to over 30 books and is a regular contributor to wine publications in the UK, France, Germany and China. He is the founder of winewizard.co.za , a site which specialises in scoring South Affrican wine and guiding consumers to excellent value for money and quality.

It’s easy to espouse high principles but not always comfortable to practise them. Talk Radio 702 has long enjoyed a reputation for fair and balanced news and commentary. But when the municipal elections came round and there was a vast amount of money being spent both by government and the political parties, it conveniently took the government money – without disclosing the political nature of the advertisement.

While the station appeared to be squeaky clean as it ran paid-for party advertising for the municipal elections (“this advertisement has been paid for by the political party concerned,” it trumpeted ahead of each of these revenue-raising moments), it was remarkably silent about its financial dependence on (in those days) the ANC-led City of Johannesburg to swell its coffers.

We’re not talking here only about Walk the Talk (“Brought to you by Joburg – a World Class African City”); it was the constant flow of pre-election advertising (which didn’t come with any disclaimer as to its very party-particular message) about the city’s seemingly successful service delivery strategy, the spouting of meaningless numbers and achievements designed to make listeners believe (in the face of the common sense evidence to the contrary) that the leadership of the city had been doing a great job. The sleight of hand that goes with accepting an endless stream of advertisements (not just at election time, but throughout the year) from government departments and from the City of Joburg – whose claims to being a “world class African city” have been put to the test, and found wanting. (On reflection, this claim is as useful a description of things as the “highest mountain in the Maldives.” )

Here we had ratepayers' money being spent by the Gauteng ANC as part of its election campaign, promoting the entirely fallacious idea that the council which ran the city until August 2016 did anything except the most embarrassingly inept job – something which in the old days, when Talk Radio 702 was a real and independent radio station, it would have been the first to point out. But not any more: just as Iqbal Surve’s Independent Newspapers has been corrupted by the spending power of Luthuli House, so Primedia has taken the modern-day equivalent of the 30 pieces of silver.

Sometimes I suspect that the wine industry is equally guilty of walking a different walk from the talk it talks. So much of the puffery that goes with selling wine includes claims which are intended to persuade the purchaser that buying the bottle will somehow be achieving far more than merely paying for a decent sip of tipple. The more harmless of these claims relate to “working in concert with nature” – implying that the entirely alien vegetation of a grape vine farmed usually with herbicides (but at least these days with fewer and fewer pesticides) is somehow part of the natural landscape. The rather less innocuous claims – which are more often a matter of brochure than label statements – relate to management and labour practices. These, sadly, are belied – in the general if not in the particular – by the simple fact that Cape wines remain resolutely cheap.

In the 1980s, amid considerable controversy, John Platter, Rustenberg’s Simon Barlow and the late Tim Hamilton Russell launched the Winelands Commitment, a proposal aimed at improving the wages and living conditions of vineyard workers. They were excoriated by their compatriots, who regarded this initiative by a small group from the minority English-speaking sector of the community as a treasonous betrayal. Given the invective that followed the launch of the Winelands Commitment, no one had the temerity to join. Instead other, lower key, programmes emerged which focused more on living conditions than living wages and, in fairness, achieved more for the communities than anything the post-1994 government seems to have done.

For the past 25 years the tangible fruit of these enterprises has been (and has been demonstrated ad nauseam) the show villages often strategically positioned near the entrances to wine properties whose production they are intended subliminally to promote. Now that we have a democratically elected government which is supposed to attend to these matters, not a lot is being said about the conditions under which vineyard workers labour, the wages they earn, the social environment they inhabit. So when there is unrest at harvest time, or when a report is prepared which makes it clear that not all of the wine industry rank and file are living happily ever after, there is a flurry of denials, of postcard-perfect pictures of cute little workers' villages, and the really penetrating questions are either never asked, or are airbrushed away.

This has certainly been the pattern until a documentary produced by Paul Heineman “revealing” the conditions and wages of workers at the Robertson Winery, as well as vineyard workers in the Swartland, has begun to generate an international campaign aimed at forcing a boycott of Cape wine. While it is clear that the documentary is both manipulative and in places short of verified facts and a balanced view, it rightly touches a raw nerve. Even if there has been no breach of the WIETA codes and the other checks and balances imposed by the international buyers who represent the major clients of these businesses, the fact of the matter is that what constitutes a “living wage” is little more that R120 per day – which doesn’t go very far.

There are some inescapably hard facts about the Robertson strike in particular. The workers who have been on strike there for some time have turned down a lowest level wage offer of R4,400 and have stuck to a demand for a minimum R8,500. The majority of the jobs they do could be mechanised: much of it is basic work on bottling lines. In other parts of the world, where labour costs are higher, machines have taken over. The management says that with unemployment in Robertson running at over 50%, it has until now refused to go down the automation road. How much longer it will maintain this position remains to be seen. The place between the rock of poor wages and the hard place of unemployment is only marginally more comfortable than a day trip to Mosul or Aleppo.

At the heart of the problem is the low price of bulk wine worldwide, which makes it a buyers’ market, locally and abroad. More than 50% of all SA wine retails for R40 per bottle or less in South Africa. The dry goods and excise component accounts for half of that, and transport and retailers’ margins half of what remains. It’s not difficult to work out how much the vineyard and cellar workers are earning to keep up the flow of cheap wine. But this isn’t the only problem. The industry (through VinPro) publishes actual statistics on all the components of the value chain – and it tells us that the majority of grape farmers are selling their fruit for less than the real cost of farming it. In fact, it’s a safe bet that except for mechanically farmed high yielding vineyards, there isn’t the money to pay the workers a living wage, or to provide good enough housing that the subsidy of a roof over the head of the worker and his/her family is compensation enough for going to bed hungry at night.

Beyond our borders there’s an even stranger anomaly about South African wine. The grape growers who have to meet the price points imposed on them by the major international buyers, UK supermarkets and the Swedish monopoly for example, earn a fraction of what their customers are banking. It’s estimated that Systembolaget – the Swedish monopoly – banks 25 times more per litre than the grape grower whose fruit has ended up in the bottle on the monopoly’s shelf. Incidentally, one way the international trade could contribute to transformation in the wine industry would be to reinvest some of their profits in training programmes that would enable workers to upgrade their contribution so they are not doing work that will increasingly be taken over by machines.

In any event, the wine industry – which means producers, agents, exporters and retailers – shares with Talk Radio 702 an obligation to come clean, to make the figures public, and then to go forward practising its business in an ethical way. And the listeners and consumers have an equal obligation to make this possible by supporting those who do it right, and by withholding support from those who don’t. This, I believe, is called “walking the talk” – and no one is in the clear until they have been seen walking it.

There’s very little difference between those who lie on air, and those who lie on the back labels of bottles. At best it could be argued that commercial wineries don’t have a tradition of impartiality and public service, and don’t market themselves as “in touch, in tune and independent”. DM

  • Michael Fridjhon
    Michael-Fridjhon.jpg
    Michael Fridjhon

    Michael Fridjhon is South Africa's most highly regarded international wine judge, the country's most widely consulted liquor industry authority, and one of South Africa's leading wine writers. Chairman of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception, he has judged in countless wine competitions around the world. Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town, he has been an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and is a recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Worldwide winner of the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2012, he is the author, co-author or contributor to over 30 books and is a regular contributor to wine publications in the UK, France, Germany and China. He is the founder of winewizard.co.za , a site which specialises in scoring South Affrican wine and guiding consumers to excellent value for money and quality.

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