Monthly Archives: November 2015

Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 2)

This story is continued from “Wine is too cheap: Working Harvest in South Africa (Part 1)

Drew'sHandsRiesling

Cradling Riesling. Paul Cluver makes far too little of this wonderful wine.

As a tasting exercise during meals, Burger pulled two bottles of wine for me and the assistant winemaker Drew to sample blind and guess the grapes and origin. We could ask four strategic questions to narrow down the answer. Swirling and sniffing, we discussed the attributes in each glass. “This wine has the aromatics of a Sauvignon Blanc,” I’d comment, and we’d ponder whether it included Sémillon as a blend. The cellar hands, peculiarly, had little interest in tasting wine with us, despite spending all day in the pursuit its production. Only one team member extended his glass for a sample, although he contemplated the wine quietly at the other end of the table. The rest preferred to drink hard cider (a new Cluver product using their orchard apples.)

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The inside of the Cluver cellar.

In my mind, I could ascribe reasons for the local black employees’ lack of interest: they perceived wine as a white person drink or possibly it seemed complicated or expensive or maybe they felt intimidated to talk about it around their white, educated employers. Maybe they didn’t like the taste, or maybe working at a winery was as much a job to them as picking apples or working in a factory; a job they desperately needed in a country with 25 percent unemployment. Too desperate to worry whether the Pinot showed red or black cherry fruit. Whatever the impetus, their disinterest carried a tinge of sadness that seemed to allude to a larger socioeconomic dynamic within the country.

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Part of the cellar crew.

When I first arrived at the farm, I asked Burger if any other interns would be joining us. “A few months ago I had two German wine students emailing me about flying down” he said. “However, this season I decided to give the work to the local men who needed the position – and pay – more than a foreign intern student [interns are unpaid].” His decision demonstrated a smart and solicitous attitude towards the welfare of his community.

Speaking to some of the cellar staff over punch downs or mopping, they seemed happy for the work they had. But few believed moving up in the wine industry – beyond a cellar rat role – would ever be possible. Did they want for enterprise, or believe in the existence of an employment ceiling, knowing better than I with my American optimism, that black South Africans just don’t get assistant winemaker jobs? (It’s important to note that most winemaking positions require viticulture and oenology degrees, and have become scarce even for those holding one, due to increased competition. Of course, aspiring winemakers need money to attend school in the first place.) Clearly these are complicated questions with roots deeper than my time in South Africa afforded me to dig.

According to Burger, programs to provide training and certification to cellar staff interested in pursuing long-term employment in the industry are growing. Also, the Cape Winemakers Guild, of which Burger is chairman, instituted a protégé program to help young students with demonstrated aptitude, finish school and gain winemaking experience through a three-year paid internship at Guild member wineries. It seems there is progress afoot.

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Most gals sorted and cleaned, but she ran the forklift.

For two weeks, I aided a tight knit team of people in the process of moving grapes from vine to barrel (obviously I wasn’t there long enough to see any wine through to bottling). Ascending and descending ladders; lifting, bending, squatting, and standing all day on one’s feet. Winemaking isn’t for out-of-shape acrophobes afraid of injury and long hours. And, frankly, it is still a male-dominated industry, from the head winemaker, down to the cellar hands (at the majority of wineries I’ve visited around the world, not just in South Africa). It’s not that women can’t do the physical labor (yes we can, dammit), but it could be a limiting factor for some women when considering winemaking versus wine marketing, as a career path.

The experience also cemented my belief that consumers demand too much wine for too little money. The number of hands (and risks) involved in turning healthy grapes into a characterful, lively drink, let alone one with a soul that speaks of a singular time and place, are numerous.

Vines only bear usable grapes several years after planting. Pruning, pests, disease, weather, and now a changing climate: all these variables demand management and determine the quality of the fruit. Add training in proper picking and sorting technique, ensuring healthy ferments, keeping the power on so your temperature controlled tank stays cool. There are many critical points in the process where mistakes (not catching bacterial spoilage in the wine), accidents (falling into a tank and dying), and natural catastrophes (birds wiping out a vineyard), can lead to long-term consequences. Producers only get one vintage a year from which to earn an income.

Winemaking IS washing.

Winemaking is washing.

And what about the farm workers: the cogs in the wheel of the wine industry? Minimum wage for agricultural labor in South Africa is 130 rand a day (about $10 U.S. dollars). Many employees live on the farms of their employers; those that don’t, and can’t afford cars (most), are transported by trucks en masse from their villages to work and then home again at night. The Cluvers commendably provide education and health care for employees and their children, but these basic securities aren’t accessible to many others around the country. (Not to single out South Africa, the U.S. has a troubling reliance on cheap Mexican and Central American labor.)

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Fermentation cap on an ambient yeast Chardonnay.

The wine business is fraught with fragility, tenuously held together by people who share a common devotion to its cause, not big salaries and handsome margins. But that doesn’t justify forcing producers to price wine arbitrarily at $11.99 because consumers have decided that’s all they want to pay or because they perceive, to use South Africa as an example, the wines to be cheap because they historically were. Government and our three-tier distribution system all take big bites out of that figure, too. Writers that argue solely in favor of drinking cheap wine do an injustice to the industry at large by perpetuating the notion that wine should be inexpensive and accessible to all at all times, while failing to acknowledge that often the only way to achieve low price points is at the expense of someone else’s livelihood, or quality, or worse, both.

Shouldn’t the producer turn some profit to compensate for their risk and investment in the business? Shouldn’t winemakers afford to pay off education loans and save for their future? Shouldn’t a laborer earn a living wage to buy a $20 dollar bus ticket to see a sister in Johannesburg, the equivalent of two bottles of weeknight Merlot from the supermarket?

Before my sojourn to South Africa, I admired winemakers for their labor of love, but mostly as a notion, an ideal. After spending two weeks with one – especially one making wines of purity and finesse (now that I’ve tasted Burger’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), while balancing the well-being of his team and minding the pesky bottom line – I’ve found that ideal chiefly congruent with reality. While I’m not sure I want to follow in his footsteps permanently back up that ladder, I might work another harvest; after all, in their line of work, I’m cheap labor.

PCTeamPhotoVV

Drew, Andries, Me, and Dr. Cluver

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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 1)

Looking at its narrow frame and spindly rungs, lashed to the top of a seemingly skyscraper-high steel tank by a single, knotted rope, I was briefly prompted into panic. But winemaker Andries Burger’s comment echoed in my head: “the two French girls we had last season did everything the men did. They carried buckets up those ladders.” With my right leg trembling, I fought the instinct to remain grounded and clambered to the top, balancing the metal handle of my plastic container of nitrogen addition (to keep yeast happy and functioning), awkwardly in the crook of my elbow.  It would be a small, short-lived victory. By the end of the day, ladders posed no more challenge than climbing into a car. I had a new problem: how to punch down Pinot Noir grapes without falling into the tank (and suffocating from CO2).Winemaking is a physically demanding job. Particularly during harvest when hours are long and grapes are waiting; days can start as early as five in the morning and continue well past the last rays of light for months. As a writer on the topic, I felt understanding the finer details of the process, set within the broader framework of the wine industry as I already knew it, would make me a better, more insightful journalist, and possibly more sympathetic to the challenges and choices winemakers face.
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Riesling grapes waiting to be sorted.

To sample the experience, I elected to join Paul Cluver in Elgin, South Africa for an unpaid, two-week internship during the recent 2015 vintage. My participation was part of a larger initiative aimed at encouraging women to work in the wine industry, the brainchild of Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
The “women in wine” mentoring program elicited applications both from around the world and locally, in conjunction with the support of Jancis Robinson (the world’s most notable woman wine journalist), to join harvest with a member winery of PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa, a collection of likeminded producers pooling their marketing dollars and power.) Applicants needed to hold either a winemaking degree or the WSET Diploma. I carry the latter.My résumé was selected by a winery nestled in the cool-climate Elgin Valley. Burger, the longtime winemaker, earned a reputation for producing elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with one of the finest sought after Rieslings in the country. Not being available in the New York market, I banked on the Cluver reputation by flying to the southern hemisphere to work at a winery without having first tasted its wines.

Tall and burly with vivid blue eyes, I figured Burger for the winemaker as I exited Cape Town airport. We drove off in his bucky (South African for truck) and 45-minutes later arrived for lunch at the local Elgin farm stall/bakery/pie shop Peregrine. Eager to jump into the rhythm of the country’s meat-hearty diet, I opted for a taste of the native game and ordered springbok pie (antelope-gazelle, ubiquitous around southwestern Africa).

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Zebras and an ostrich sharing a feeding bowl in the sanctuary. Likely a tenuous friendship.

My accommodations (like many of the winery employees, as well as the entire Cluver clan) sat two kilometers deep into the family farm, a sprawling property of apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, defined partially by mountain borders. The Cluvers carved out space for a wildlife sanctuary (home to two zebras and two ostriches, comically fed from jumbo bowls) and built a challenging mountain biking course to tempt ripped athletes in colorful Lycra from around the world. A natural amphitheater set within towering ghost gum trees drew a large domestic audience for monthly summer concerts.

I was assigned a modest cottage, an old laborer’s dwelling that sat at the base of several vineyards (the same Pinot grapes I’d be fighting with later in the week). A rondavel formed the attached bedroom. It had a conical thatched roof like those that capped traditional dwellings in the bush or luxury safari properties mimicking the experience for well-heeled tourists. My temporary home fell midway on the spectrum between the two (I had hot, running water, but lacked a dedicated gin and tonic butler.)

That first night, I collapsed on the bed; I hadn’t lain down in nearly thirty hours since departing New York. Peering into the shadows of the cone-shaped ceiling, I wondered if I might find a bird (or a bat) nesting in its cavity. Outside, the wind surged and retreated, beating at the hut’s walls like the pounding of ocean surf against an intruding rock. At that point, the reality of my location finally switched from dream state to “on.” I was alone, in the dark, on a wine farm, in Africa. Mercifully, sunlight washes clean the dramas of the nocturnal mind and I awoke fresh for the start of my first day.

Mornings at the winery started just past seven. One facet of the harvest experience I would escape was grape picking. Hand harvesting of bunches occurred in the chilled air of night. Local workers were trucked out to designated rows at ten o’clock P.M. where they snipped with shears and headlamps until dawn.  It looked difficult; exhausting. But the grapes, ranging from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, remained cool, plump, and taut for pressing the following morning, while the workers avoided the grueling daytime heat.

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The ladies found me hilarious for a number of unfavorable reasons.

The days took on a fairly predictable, labor-intensive routine. After the dawn delivery of fruit (the pickers would head home to snooze until dusk), grapes were hand-sorted to pull out rotten, infected, shriveled, or generally defective specimens. Pictures posted near the table reminded workers what flaws to identify. The female team, composed of permanent and seasonal employees, always sorted. Never the men, who made up the core team of cellar workers. The ladies chatted and laughed about the daily soap opera viewed the night before (so they said). Speaking Afrikaans, their dialogue was inscrutable, but they seemed amused at teaching me words so they could snicker at my atrocious pronunciation.

After the sorting table, grapes went through the de-stemmer (unless left intact for whole bunch pressing, e.g., Chardonnay). White grapes then went to the Vaslin press, and red grapes went into tanks to start cold maceration. The rest of the day was spent monitoring the progress of presses, cleaning, tasting and recording the development of ongoing fermentations, cleaning, punching down red grapes (the act of puncturing the thick “cap” of grape skins and solid matter that float to the top of a tank so as to integrate it back into the juice below), cleaning, making additions with buckets on ladders (like the aforementioned nitrogen), transferring wine between tanks, cleaning, and then washing down equipment, followed by cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I started to believe winemaking was 50 percent cleaning. (Another winemaker I met estimates it at 75 percent).

We spent lunch as a family, or at least I felt like I carried the Cluver surname given the warmth they extended and interest they took in my city life back in New York. Burger actually is family: he married Inge Cluver, the eldest daughter of Dr. Paul Cluver (the patriarch and a former neurosurgeon), who works in the office alongside her brother Paul (the managing director), Karin (production director), Inge (financial manager), and sister Liesl (marketing director). For a family that lives a short stroll away from each other, and works an even shorter distance apart, they maintained a remarkable harmony.

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Night picking by headlamp to avoid the heat of the day, for both worker and grapes.

Repast discussions toggled between updates on the vineyards to updates on the orchards. The other hot topic: installation of a new solar panel system. South Africans have endured a year of “load shedding,” a polite term for the equivalent of rolling power blackouts scheduled (and sometimes not) around the country, instituted by the mismanaged, national power company to deal with an aging, overloaded grid. With many more years of blackouts projected, the Cluvers had the foresight (and wherewithal) to reduce their carbon footprint as much as to protect their investments.

The energy at dinner was different. The cellar staff and winemaking team gathered for evening family meal (exclusive of the women who cleaned and sorted). Offerings cooked or purchased by the daytime staff, were simple and hearty — sausages, chicken, hot dogs, and salami sandwiches. Most nights, dinner only provided a break in the work before the men returned to the floor to finish the last press and then, of course, clean.

Continued tomorrow in Part 2: The life of a cellar worker.

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Harvest ink.

 

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