The South African wine industry must be commended for the step it took in selecting the individual on which to bestow this year’s 1659 Visionary Leadership Award during the annual function at Groot Constantia. By presenting this accolade to Carmen Stevens, the petite and feisty winemaker who 25 years ago began paving the way for many of today’s black winemakers, these awards veered onto a new path. Not only by recognizing the role of persons of colour and emphasizing the industry’s commitment to transformation, but also by admitting that “visionary leadership” can be shown by people who still have the power of youth on their side.
These awards, a traditional highlight on the Cape wine calendar, have been vital in recognizing the roles of various industry stalwarts who have been at the forefront of getting the South African wine industry to where it is today – namely one of the world’s great wine corners in terms of quality of product, innovation, energy and character. Previous recipients of the 1659 Visionary Leadership Award include individuals of the likes of Dave Hughes, Spatz Sperling, Norma Ratcliffe, Charles Back and Danie de Wet, which pretty much says it all in terms of the accolade’s representative gravitas.
The criteria for individuals or organisations to qualify for this iconic award include demonstrable efforts and initiatives that have benefited the South African wine industry; a lasting impact and legacy; and to encourage and inspire others in the game of wine. And up until now, these criteria have appeared to be exclusively appropriate to industry veterans of at least 60 years of age. Well, Carmen has changed that.
With the speed at which the modern world and the modern wine industry allows change to be affected, a winemaker, viticulturist or wine marketer no longer needs four decades in the profession to make his or her mark. Due to the demand for change, rejuvenation and the implementation of vision in today’s wine arena, a talented person can – with respect to the old-guard – achieve in 15 or 20 years what it took his or her predecessors 40 or 50 years to do. Who can doubt that Eben Sadie has in just over 20 years played a profound leadership role in the opening-up of a new South African wine region and a new local wine character and identity?
Thys Louw, still to reach 40 years of age, has in under two decades been at the forefront of the dynamic evolution of the South African Sauvignon Blanc category in local and international markets.
Many more young industry leaders, worthy of this 1659 commendation, can be named. And by including these in the annual awards ceremony will not only mark an evolution in this hallowed event, but will recognise the fact that legacy, progress, foresight and influence are no longer the sole domain of the masters and veterans.
As recipient of this year’s Leadership Award, the fact that Carmen is a person of colour has dominated the story. Which is a pity, as youth, talent, determination and dedication are – for me – the more deserved reasons for her getting the accolade. It is important that future recipients of industry accolades and awards – of which many will surely also be black individuals – are made to feel that whatever fortune becomes them, is the sole result of their genuine talent and recognisable professionalism.
The only awkward aspect about this year’s 1659 Leadership Award to Carmen Stevens is the silence with which the news was met by the so-called liberal media commentators who are constantly and monotonously bemoaning the lack of transformation in the South African wine industry. Of course, these folk will never see their restless negativity being satisfied.
In light of this year’s phenomenal achievement at Constantia, it appears as if this truly then is a case of the more things change, the more they remain the same.
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