Of all my field research of wine regions around the world, no area has affected me more deeply than South Africa. The post-apartheid wine industry is more complex, nuanced, and fascinating than the best examples of its Pinotage and certainly other sectors of Africa’s largest economy. Even more compelling, the struggle, revitalization, and promise weave a complicated yet inspiring narrative that parallels issues we are facing within our own borders.
In the few days I spent in the Cape Winelands, South Africa’s largest wine region, I planned visits to wineries—or “wine farms” as Capetonians call them—that would give me a smattering of experiences. From grand, historical producers to smaller, family-owned ventures, the Cape Winelands would suit all. However, it was only after I engaged with local wine professionals that I realized I was overlooking a critical piece of the wine industry’s larger composition: In a country where 90% of the population is black or non-white, where are the black winemakers? Where are the black wine professionals?
Maybe the answers should’ve been as obvious to me as the Cape’s iconic Table Mountain, or Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years. Nevertheless, I was driven to connect with the few that are helping transform South Africa’s wine industry.
“We Have Arrived”
Ndumi Pikashe is not your stereotypical swaggering, hipster winemaker. In fact, her warm, hospitable, nurturing demeanor are more consistent with her decades in the teaching profession—a career she clearly loved. But the collapse of apartheid in 1994 afforded Ndumi more opportunities than the segregated, “Bantu Education,” careers blacks had been forced to accept, and she became an entrepreneur of the wine kind. Ndumi, a single mother, managed to take winemaking workshops at Stellenbosch University, but mostly studied on her own to gain the skills necessary to start making her own wine. Ses’fikile wines (www.sesifikile.co.za)—a fitting, dynamic name which means “we have arrived” in her ethnic tongue of Xhosa—was born in 2006.
Welcoming visitors to her home in Capetown’s Guguletu township to taste her wine, Ndumi doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of being one of the handful of black winemakers in an overwhelmingly white—and male-dominated—industry. “We don’t control the means of production, we don’t have role models, and we don’t have peers,” she states. Market access is also major obstacle she—and the South African wine industry as whole—faces. She’s had more success promoting her wines overseas than in domestic channels. Some of it, she feels, is still due to old ways of thinking.
Still, Ndumi is undaunted and beams with pride on the slow, but steady, progress her passion project has made. “My vision is to create sustainable, high quality wine that truly represents South Africa,” she proclaims. “Ses’fikile is aspirational, celebratory, and looks forward to a better future. I hope that I can serve as a pioneering agent for others to enter into the industry.”
“Wine is for Everyone”
While Ndumi has clearly arrived and continues to inspire other women to pursue their wine dreams, another group of aspiring black wine professionals has banded together to promote the industry where they have typically been excluded. The Black Cellar Club (BLACC) was formed in 2016 by a small group of sommeliers who wanted to educate, connect, and leverage South Africa’s wine community while promoting the beverage industry to the country’s growing—and mostly black—middle class.
“We are trying to cultivate and support Africa’s wine culture,” says one of BLACC’s chairmen Dumisa Nojozi, who also works as a barman in one of Capetown’s leading hotels. With inclusivity as a core value, the organization has grown from a handful of members to over 1000 and continues to expand its membership. Educational meet-ups and excursions to local wine farms for hosted tastings are some of BLACC’s main activities.
Open to anyone, the group has become an important force for empowering the less privileged in the wine industry. Overcoming adversity himself, Dumisa says BLACC has given him the opportunity to network and develop his own career path. “This group has given me the confidence to realize my passion can become a profession, and we hope to do the same for younger enthusiasts,” he states.
BLACC also serves to demystify wine culture and strip away some of the elitism that has made its appreciation intimidating—and unsavory—for many blacks. Wine is, of course, still associated with apartheid, segregationist society. But there is clearly an opportunity in this reconstructive period for all given the absence of a strong domestic market. The wine industry as a whole stands to benefit from efforts to support its home-grown wine makers and professionals. The endeavors of both Ndumi and Dumisa make them well-positioned to continue to impact this emerging sector.
So where are the black wine makers and professionals? They are small in numbers but growing…and a force to be reckoned with as the wine industry continues to evolve in South Africa…and within our own country.
Interested to learn more about South African wines or the pioneers from all backgrounds that are transforming the industry? Are you interested in making your own discovery to region? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website at www.thevinicola.com.