Posted by: Alex | November 24, 2007

An article I wrote for the ‘Young Wine Writer Award 2007′

The winner of the Young Wine Writer Award has just been announced, and it wasn’t me – Congratulations to Ray O’Connor for his winning article about Indian wines.

I thought I’d publish my entry on here, as my first foray into journalistic writing it was more of a learning experience. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the pictures from the article to upload onto the site for some reason, so it’s all text.

Wines with Conscience

As the first in a series of articles about ethically produced wines, Alex Bazeley went to visit some ‘Socially Responsible’ wineries in South Africa who are giving something back to the workers.

I met Enoch Zaleni at a wine fair in Cape Town where he was working, and as well as promoting the Fairview brands, he was keen to tell me about the Fairvalley project and range of wines. This project uses profits from the sale of their range of wines to help the community of workers at the Fairview Estate. Enoch has had a busy few years – in 1999, unable to afford to continue studying, he took a job at the cheese factory where his father worked, on the Fairview wine estate outside Paarl.

As well as wine, since the early eighties, Fairview has had a herd of goats on the estate, giving inspiration for the famous ‘Goats do Roam’ range of wines and providing milk for their range of cheeses. At the time he hoped to become an engineer, and at the end of the harvest, Charles Back guided Enoch towards the winery as he saw that it would offer a better outlet for his skills with its many pumps and machines.

Enoch became involved with all aspects of the winery and soon wine was more important to him than engineering. In 2002 Fairvalley paid for him to take a wine marketing course at Stellenbosch University, following which he returned to a job in the tasting centre at Fairview. Over the last few years he has travelled around the world promoting the Fairview name and in 2005 had the chance to spend six weeks working as a sommelier at Jamie Oliver’s acclaimed London restaurant ‘Fifteen’ itself renowned for providing young people with opportunities.

Like many people, when looking for a good value bottle of wine, I am drawn to areas such as Chile, Argentina and South Africa, where grapes are often hand harvested and labour intensive practices like hand sorting of bunches are used to create good quality wines for less than could be achieved in Europe for example. But we should look at the human cost of this cheap labour.

The Fairtrade logo, increasingly familiar to the UK consumer, provides a guarantee to consumers that the workers receive fair wages and are treated in accordance with set standards. Whilst more commonly associated with products such as coffee and chocolate, there has been significant increase in demand for Fairtrade wines, with sales of Fairtrade certified wines more than doubling between 2005 and 2006. Even so, this was less than 0.2% of UK wine sales by volume in 2006, but with the first Fairtrade wineries only being certified in 2003, it is a good start, and there are few sectors in the market that can boast such rapid growth.

The distinctive mark gives consumers a guarantee that the workers at these wineries have been treated fairly, and paid a reasonable wage. More South African wineries have signed up to the scheme than anywhere else by far, with more than twenty certified, compared to just four in Chile and one in Argentina, although many more are in the auditing process by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO). In addition, there are ‘special standard requirements’ for South Africa, which enable the workers to have at least 25% ownership of the company, this links to the “Black Economic Empowerment Policy” of the South African Government, which aims to transform the economy to be more representative of the demographic make up of the country.

As the FLO have only very recently turned their interests to the wine industry, there are quite a few projects that have yet to sign up to the scheme, and due to the costs of becoming certified by the FLO, some are choosing not to. There has been a scheme running in South Africa since 2002, the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) to promote better working practices. The scheme has a code of conduct that producers commit to adhere to if they sign up to the scheme, they are then audited by WIETA in order to become accredited members, a full and up-to-date list is available on their website www.wieta.org.za

It is the view of one winemaker I met, whose Estate is a member of the scheme, that in order to bring about change in the South African wine industry, the government should offer incentives to wineries who sign up to the WIETA code of practice, as at the moment the cost of the audit and accreditation process is actually passed on to the producer. While I agree with his point of view, it will be difficult to convince the already cash-strapped government to commit funding to an industry that has a reputation for being run by wealthy white farmers, despite the positive effects it could have on thousands of agricultural workers.

I was invited to ‘Thokozani,’ an empowerment project at the Diemersfontein Estate, which was officially launched in August this year with the distribution of share certificates for the company to staff who have signed up to the project. This gives them a 30% ownership of the company, WIETA accreditation has just been awarded at the start of September and it shouldn’t be too long before they become Fairtrade certified. Having just paid out for the WIETA auditing process, which has been going on at Diemersfontein since 2004, they will now have to pay more for the FLO accreditation, and yet more auditing in order to use the Fairtrade logo. They have two wines under the Thokozani label, the red, a Shiraz Mouvedre blend, is particularly good, with bright plum fruit and smoky depth.

In contrast to the fledgling Thokozani project, the Fairvalley workers association celebrate their tenth anniversary this year, and despite never having become Fairtrade as such, follow similar principles. I had come across their wines before, but hearing from Enoch about the difference the project had made to his life, I was keen to visit Fairview and hear more.

Tommy Fortuin left school in 1964 to join his parents, working on the Fairview wine farm. At the time, black farm workers’ lives were tough, often having to move from farm to farm depending upon seasonal demand for labour, making any chance of developing a stable home for their families impossible. Workers lived on the farms, sometimes even having to pay part of their meagre wages back to the farmers as rent.

Now in his sixties, Tommy beams with pride as he shows me around his family home. The very concept of owning a house is one that just a few years ago would have been virtually impossible, not only because black ownership of land was severely restricted under the Apartheid regime.

This house, along with seven others, are the first to have been built on the land purchased back in 1997 by the Fairvalley Workers Association, set up with money left to the farm workers by Cyril Back when he died in 1995. His son, Charles Back, the current energetic owner of Fairview decided that the best way to use the money was to help the farm workers to develop their own wine, and use the profits to develop their community. Long serving workers were given the opportunity to join the association and elected a committee, of which Tommy was the Chairman for eight years, and still acts as ambassador for the project when called upon… His enthusiasm is contagious as he tells me about their achievements over the last ten years.

As well as the eight existing houses, which were completed in 2002, another 26 houses are planned, to eventually provide all 34 families involved with their own houses, these will hopefully be completed by 2010, although that did seem to be a figure Tommy plucked from the air! Progress has been slowed somewhat by planning issues since the original houses were built. Once an adequate water supply is secured, the project should be full steam ahead and keen to help things along, Charles is even proposing that they lay pipes from Fairview!

Once the houses are complete, some sort of restaurant or visitors centre at Fairvalley is planned, much in the vein of the outstanding facilities up at Fairview. This will generate jobs and extra income for the project, as well as being a place to sell their wines.

Support in the UK for Fairtrade wines is gaining momentum rapidly, and having seen how projects of this nature can make a real difference to people’s lives, I hope that this continues. Despite the cost to producers the Fairtrade mark provides a guarantee to consumers, although there are quite a few operating outside of the accreditation of the FLO that are doing excellent work. Just as we might use the Fairtrade mark as a guide when buying products, retailers can now use Sedex, a new database giving details of socially responsible suppliers, to check up on the credentials of companies they deal with. So now, as they feel increasing consumer pressure, retailers are able to use this information to source more wines from producers who sign up to codes of conduct like WIETA.

So now it is down to us to make informed choices about the wines we drink, and support producers who are making a difference to their communities.

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