During a recent road-trip through the majestic open spaces of the South African Karoo, I was once again exposed to the fact that as a nation we have an alcohol problem that needs dealing with. It was Friday afternoon, and from the town of Laingsburg through Beaufort-West and onto the quaint historical hamlet of Richmond in the Karoo’s icy heart, a fair amount of drinking was being done – or had been committed – by the time I hit town.
Take note: this pastoral sketch did not show cheerful folk relaxing after a week’s toil, calmly sipping cool draught beers or chilled glasses of Sauvignon Blanc at roadside cafés. Instead, the local work-force were knocking-off. All drinking wine from plastic bottles with red-caps. Standing outside liquor stores as they stupefied themselves with Cape wine that somebody was selling to them for around R22 a litre. Ill-nourished, snot-nosed infants were tugging at their mothers’ frayed skirts, requesting attention of some sorts while the moms glugged thirstily at the plastic wine containers before passing the booze on to their male partners for finishing. Cents were counted and then it was back into the liquor store for a refill of vino.
Two young farm-workers in overalls sat next to the biltong store on Laingsburg main road, a plastic bag filled with plastic wine containers between them and each with a bottle in his hand. When I politely declined their slurred request to donate them some money, I was instructed to commit vigorous fellatio on myself, before them commenting on the condition of a female relative’s private parts.
Similar scenes played out in Beaufort-West and Richmond, and one can pretty well assume that this mass drunkenness resulting from the imbibing of cheap wine was the cause. And it has been the case in the rural – and urban – communities of South Africa for as long as I can remember. Most of us are aware of this, as well as the social ills it causes. Foetal alcohol syndrome, crime, ripped social fabric, domestic violence, child prostitution….slices of real South African life wherein alcohol plays a role and not showing any sign of abating.
The recent navel-gazing done by the South African wine industry shows that 52% of all wine sold locally reaches the consumer at below R30 a litre. This means some 220m of cheap wine is being made available to the public at prices that most industry insiders would regard as being “unsustainable”. Others would call it irresponsible and dangerous.
The damage inflicted by this cheap wine is twofold. As mentioned, there is the social destruction which, despite the wine industry talk and programmes and NGO activity is not showing any real signs of improving a society drenched in substandard, cheap booze. (These people drink, I might add, of their own free-will. This liberal assumption that drinking oneself into a stupor is “historical” and “endemic” is nonsense.)
Secondly, the dumping of rot-gut wine is hamstringing the quest to get the image of South African wine into a premium scenario where image and class is reflected through better pricing, hopefully leading to the much-needed economic growth the industry is clamouring for.
With 85% of all wine being sold at less than R48 a litre, the producers of the other 15% who urge price increasing of quality wines have a near impossible task. For the overriding image of South African wine is determined and driven by producers perpetuating the image of the wine category as cheap, nasty and brain-numbing. For every one producer trying to stick his or her hand up and request a better reputation and value proposition for the wine category, ten hippos are there to overrule any such efforts by forging ahead, seeing how much wine they can sell at a price their perpetually sozzeled customers are willing to pay.
By feeding this dependency and the public’s expectation of cheap wine, the presence of wine-drinking communities comprising people not exactly conducive to the image of the product just increases along with the population.
This begs the question whether South Africa should not follow the example of Scotland by invoking a minimum alcohol-price. Ask consumers to pay a minimum price of R40 per 750ml of wine. Hit them where it hurts. If it drives the low-level boozers to other products, so be it. Brand Wine South Africa does not need them and the category will be better off without their participation.
Same goes for producers doing business in this environment. There really should not be a place in Wine SA for producers who drag the image of the industry down and continue to ravage economically fragile communities by flogging plastic litres of wine at these current evilly low prices.
Until this situation is placed on the industry agenda there simply cannot be much sympathy for the lack of a premium image within wine South Africa.