A Bit of Back-bone Never Hurt Anybody

Integrity is not an island in the Aegean Sea. But it is something the South African wine industry has to not only embrace, but prove it is holding closer to its heart than a Grizzly bear grips its cub on the first day of the Canadian hunting season.

Image, and those who seek and show it, may appear vain and be mocked accordingly. But in the wine world, image is everything. Because image triggers impression. And who wants wine from a place or made by people do not impress?

South Africa’s image as a wine country is already hindered by the African reality. To the uninitiated – most of the world’s wine drinking population, that is – the thought of growing vines and making wine on the ravaged continent is laughable. Like farming Cape Buffalo in downtown Manhattan.

But our problem has to do with more than geography. News-bites of Ebola, refugees, bloodied rhinos and machete-wielding dictators are not the kind of thing one expects from your friendly wine-making continent. The African miracle? Sure, whatever, just pass me the Louis-Jadot.

Therefore South Africa has had to work that much harder to reach its current status as a reckoned wine country. The Cape’s climate and embedded wine culture has had to be proactively communicated, sometimes using the same tact a French farmer does in feeding his geese to foie gras readiness.

And yes, the wines have spoken.

Gorgeous and great, they span the spectrum of diversity. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc. They are loved – perhaps not in the volumes and at the price-points we like – but the disciples are growing in numbers.

Image looks good.
Image looks good.

But the road to go is long, and the treading has to be careful. And in the meantime, the competition is growing at a rapid rate. One wrong foot on the path of impression and image, and obscurity awaits.

The country must keep impressing, showing that best foot and for this integrity is required.

As was (again) seen recently, international television stations are all too eager to paint outdated pictures of the apparent serfdom in which farm workers must live. We know this is not the real picture, but those seeking faults shall find them, causing misrepresentation and leaving a grimy skid-mark on the wall protecting the industry’s image.

Farm worker plight, a cliché in the frequency with which it has been used to cane the South African wine industry, is not the only potential tarnisher of image. There is integrity of production.

A commentator on the Daily Maverick recently wrote that South African producers add water to wine to lower the alcohol levels. In an unashamed eschewing of the basic tenets of journalism, the commentator did not provide one inkling of evidence to back-up his claim. Yet succeeded in tarnishing the industry by questioning the integrity of producers and producer bodies.

Despite the lack of evidence, the damage has been done. Those reading the piece will just remember watered wine – and illegal to boot – and gone are the values and positive image we who work in the wine industry wish to portray.

On this the industry bodies have remained alarmingly mum, leading to one questioning the seriousness with which the matter of integrity in production is approached.

A few months ago a scam was revealed where wine was falsely labelled Cap Classique when the production thereof had not followed the procedures required by regulation for making this wonderful wine. The culprits were identified in the media, questions were asked. But to date nothing has been done to convince those interested that the relevant authoritative bodies have acted to protect the integrity of the product concerned, as well as the industry as a whole.

Remember the Sauvignon Blanc flavourant scandal of 10 years ago? The Wine and Spirits Board were fuming, promising random testing of harvested grapes and just-made wine. This happened for a year or two. And now? How many producers have been tested over the past two years?

These are just a few tiny examples. Small cracks, waiting to be levered into something bigger.

Make the communication of its commitment to integrity as important a part of the image of South African wine as old soils, diverse slopes and the wonderful influences of sun and sea. Embrace its importance and hold it as high as a wine maker holds an IWSC Trophy for World’s Best Wine.

Image is everything, and a good image is driven by integrity. Ignore it, or keep it under wraps, and it will claw its way out to bite you. Deep, hard and painful.


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