Perspective is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “a particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view”.

Recently, accompanying a group of 15 American wine enthusiasts, all members of the Napa Valley Wine School, provided an interesting view of something that we, as South African wine lovers and consumers, almost overlook every time a bottle is opened. And that’s the sustainability seal, that little green protea graphic with a bunch of numbers which is affixed to every bottle of South African wine and what it means.

“I had no idea of how impressive the traceability of South African wines were – and the responsibility or accountability that local wine farmers have!” said Christian Oggenfuss, the head of the Wine School. That was on day two, after the group had a morning’s lecture with the Cape Wine Academy as a scene setter, followed by a tasting and presentation at Spier. The wine farm’s journey to zero waste, carbon neutrality and waste water treatment programme were all touched upon – as was the appreciation for the excellent quality of the overall hospitality offering. “Everyone in Napa thinks they’re so great… Our wineries should come over here and see what’s on offer. They could learn a thing or two about the hospitality. It’s truly excellent,” said Oggenfuss.

The sustainability seal formed a tiny part of the Cape Wine Academy morning, contextualising everything the group would see, taste and experience over the course of the next week – but it was an element which was constantly touched on wherever they went. At Hamilton Russell and Creation in the Hemel en Aarde Valley, Tokara, Boschendal, Aslina, Rupert & Rothschild, Klein Constantia and elsewhere. 

Yes, the Wine of Origin legislation has been in place since 1973 and the Sustainability Seal since 2010 but the intricacy and application is sometimes overlooked. That little green protea graphic ensures that all aspects of that individual bottle of wine’s production – in the farming and cultivation of the grapes, in the winery production process as well as in the final bottling and route to market – are logged and traceable. For that, much credit must go to the South African fruit industry which provided the framework and shared its experience dealing with export clients and their demands and requirements, long before sustainability and integrity became a thing within the global wine fraternity. South African wineries began applying elements of what was formally adopted as the Integrated Production of Wine about a decade before the seal was officially introduced.

But nowadays sustainability isn’t just about traceability or inputs. It’s also about the sustainability of the business as a whole. This point hit home when Ntsiki Biyela chatted to the group in her impressive new tasting premises at Devonbosch, a development of an old brickyard on the Bottelary Road.

“I’ve been here for more than six months,” Biyela said, just hours before flying overseas on a sales and marketing trip. “Everything physically was in place, the tables and chairs, the three staffers I employ to handle the admin and conduct the tastings – but my liquor licence was bogged down in red tape. I had done everything I needed to do – all it required was approval from the Liquor Board!” Not having official approval was effectively a restraint of trade and was costing Biyela money every month. “Every month that went past meant I was paying rent and salaries without being able to generate income through my shopfront or cellar door! I was in danger of losing the business!” she admitted frankly. It eventually took a single call to the Western Cape Premier, the impressive Allan Winde, who as a former provincial minister of finance, economic development and tourism knew the impact this was having. After months of waiting, Biyela was able to open her doors officially in February.

Another example of business sustainability came when this enthusiastic group of knowledgeable consumers wanted to happily spend their dollars buying the wines which so impressed them. “Your wines are almost ridiculously cheap for the quality that’s on offer,” was a common refrain. (Easy to say when one dollar gets you 19 South African rands…) Paying anywhere between $10 and $60 dollars per bottle had the group happily splashing the proverbial cash for cases at a time.

Getting the wine to the various individual states in America, however, remains a logistical challenge – but from the American side. Since each state has its own legislative requirements it’s not simply a matter of appointing a single US distributor and ‘hey presto!’ the wine is available in the States… For those producers which DO have representation and the purchaser lived in a state where the wines were available, the stars aligned and it was simply a form-filling exercise followed by a tap of the plastic card. It was again interesting to see when this was the case, how people volunteered assistance. “Are you wanting to buy some wine? Just ship it to me and we’ll make a plan to get it to you once we’re back home in the States!” It was either that or have the wine delivered to a willing friend, family member or business acquantaince in the relevant state.

But purchases were made – all of which contributed to the bottom line of local producers, and thus their continued sustainability.

Fiona McDonald