I’m a day late to the theme of the Labor Day holiday. But, heck, why don’t we make it Labor Week? In the wine world, the efforts of those who prune, spray, and harvest go mostly unheralded as we tend to focus on glamorous vintners or winemakers. Perhaps nowhere is the labor situation as acute as South Africa.
There, wine farms, as they are known, have been around for centuries, making South Africa possibly the oldest “New World” wine countries. Sadly, the “dop” system, now illegal, of paying workers a portion of their pay in wine also spanned centuries, bringing with it devastating health consequences for the farm workers. A recent report from Human Rights Watch contends that the industry still has a long way to go for meeting a suitable minimum standard for worker conditions.
Still, there are signs that the industry in the racially divided country is changing. The NYT recently ran a terrific profile of Ntsiki Biyela, originally from KwaZulu Natal who had never tasted wine before learning to make it on a scholarship at Stellenbosch University. Now she is the wine maker at Stellakaya Winery and was hailed as the country’s Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009.
Mark Solms, a psychoanalyst, left South Africa during Apartheid. When he came back to later take control of the family farm, he did so by mortgaging his own property so that the black workers could become one-third owners in the adjoining property and set up a museum trace the history of workers on the farm. He talks about it in the below video at a TED conference in London. “The answers are obvious–it’s not brain science. You only really have to want to.”