Say the word ‘fraternity’ and a common association (based on typical American movie depictions) would be of a college student organisation: delta gamma kappa what-what... And they would be predominantly negative associations from publicity given to these American student bodies – male and female – about initiation rituals, hazing, exclusion, privilege and a whole lot more.

But the definition of the noun ‘fraternity’ is that of a group of people sharing a common profession or interest, alternatively friendship and mutual support within a group. Its origin is from the Latin word frater or brother.

Nowhere was the true meaning of fraternity on display more than in the reaction to the shocking news that Samantha O’Keefe of Lismore in Greyton had lost everything in a fire on December 17. Vineyards, home, winery – all razed to the ground in a runaway blaze a week before Christmas.

The South African wine fraternity rallied. Offers of assistance flooded in, as did donations from people locally and abroad. Scarcely six weeks on from the tragedy and O’Keefe was back in harness, making wine – just not in her own winery, but at Radford Dale in Stellenbosch.

“No words can ever describe how we feel,” she stated. “The reality is that my staff and I made it out of the fire alive and my children and I are healthy and have each other.  I am acutely aware of how blessed I am for this.”

O’Keefe said this outpouring of concern and support was almost overwhelming and that she struggled to grasp the enormity of it all. “Your generosity and support have been overwhelming at times.

“It has been so big and loud and strong. I know you all are willing us to rebuild and get on with it.  Even when I felt like just falling down and crying, I was held upright by all of the strength you sent my way.”

A week ago, she took to social media, tweeting that a parcel of Chardonnay grapes from Block 11 on Lismore survived not only the fire but the hungry wildlife too. She described the arrival of the crates of grapes as an “emotional and exuberant afternoon”. An appeal for used 500-litre oak barrels spread via social media produced the desired result in days, with help coming from as far afield as Springfield in Robertson.         

This past weekend there was a report of another fire, this time in the Slanghoek valley – a fertile source of great Chenin Blanc but this time vineyards were spared. “The fire was in the mountains behind Jason’s Hill,” Beedekloof Wine & tourism CEO Melody Botha said. “It came quite close to Ivy (du Toit’s) home but no vineyard was affected. Luckily it was only fynbos on the mountainside that burned.”

But had the grapes come under threat, it’s a foregone conclusion that neighbouring farmers and friends would have jumped in to assist. As they did when many Elgin and Somerset West wineries faced runaway blazes some years ago – or when Thelema, Rustenberg and others were threatened in the devastating Simonsberg fire of 2016. It’s what South Africans do.

That fraternal instinct, of being part of something bigger – in this case the SA wine industry, is on display almost daily. The examples are numerous: of mates coming to the help of Lukas van Loggerenberg when he was injured in his first ever harvest. That’s what the wines Kameradarie and Break a Leg are all about – fellow winemakers helping out a mate with a busted leg, because they knew he’d do the same for them.

Of Chris Alheit inviting media to a tasting of his full range of wines – and allowing his assistant Franco Lourens to piggyback on the event to get the Lindi Carien, Howard John and Skuinskap Steen in front of some influential palates.

Or blokes like Ian Naudé of Naudé Family Wines introducing Greg Sherwood, a London-based Master of Wine to exciting new talents like Sakkie Mouton (Revenge of the Kreef) and Guillaume Nel (Lysa) – and Lysa Verdelho then going on to impress uber critic Jancis Robinson at the New Wave wine tasting in London just months later. (Let’s face it, a thumbs up from the first lady of wine is quite something for a winemaker struggling to establish his own label!)

Niels and Penny Verburg of Luddite have felt that fraternal caring when faced with a terrible attack while camping in 2005. But it doesn’t have to be limited to tragedy and disaster. The farming community of Bonnievale helped build a high school for local pupils, many of them children of their farmworkers after realising there was a desperate need for upliftment and education.

The Cape Wine Auction was held a week ago and raised in excess of R17 million, bringing the tally over its brief lifespan to more than R100 million – all of which goes to worthy winelands education initiatives. Projects such as Pebbles benefit directly from the money raised.

So for Samantha O’Keefe this is another hurdle to be overcome. The road has been distinctly bumpy but she’s adept at navigating obstacles. This time she’s not alone.

“I have such a gigantic mountain to climb,” O’Keefe wrote before her 2020 harvest began, “but I know that all of you are with me in this.”

- Fiona McDonald