Diversity grows with grapes

Wine industry trying to reverse bias through training

Sun special report Mandela's Children

December 10, 2007|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,Sun foreign reporter

SOMERSET WEST, South Africa -- A few years ago, Howard Booysen thought "bouquet" referred only to flowers and that the mark of a fine wine was a big, fruity flavor.

Now, at 24, he is one of this country's most promising young vintners, praised for his calmness under pressure, his discerning palate and his knowledge of chemical processes so critical to turning grapes into a choice bottle of shiraz or chardonnay.

Booysen has another notable quality, given South Africa's bid to redress decades of racial discrimination and the wine industry's long history as a bastion of exploitation: He isn't white. He's "colored," as people of mixed race are called here.

Not that he dwells much on skin color. "This is what I want to do," he said, sitting in an office at Flagstone Winery overlooking giant metal tanks. "I enjoy it and can see myself going forward in the industry, just because I have a passion for wine. It's a plus that I might be able to make a difference when it comes to transforming the industry."

Transformation is the catch- phrase for the government's nationwide push to diversify middle and upper levels of corporate employment and ownership through a mix of legislation, public pressure and arguments based on everything from economics to morality.

The pace of progress is hotly debated, with government officials saying that it is too slow and corporate executives insisting otherwise. Statistics show that black representation in top management has risen from 13 percent to 22 percent since 2000 - a major advance, but still relatively low given the country's demographics.

Meanwhile, whites and low-income blacks alike complain that blacks are sometimes promoted mainly because of political ties. Advocates of affirmative action counter that preferential hiring has gone well beyond helping a relative few and has helped to jump-start the growing black middle class.

On another point, though, there is widespread agreement: Booysen's generation stands to benefit more than any since Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, formally ending apartheid.

Booysen and his peers have come of age since the demolition of racial barriers that stymied their parents and grandparents. They have opportunities, unheard of 20 years ago, to move into the middle class or higher.

Transformation is not revolution, however. The wine industry, like most, remains white-dominated in many respects despite a host of efforts that include scholarships, mentoring programs, profit-sharing plans and joint ventures.

"We've got a lot of catching up to do," said Bruce Jack, Flagstone's head winemaker. "We've got 300 years of history to sort out. It's not going to happen overnight. At least we're moving in the right direction."

Another winemaker, Carl Schultz of Hartenberg Estate, said diversity makes sense on many levels: morally, because minority whites dominated for centuries and owe a debt to the black majority; economically, because a larger nonwhite presence in the industry could help attract the rising black middle class to become wine consumers; and politically, because the government is going to make sure diversity happens one way or the other.

"What would be worse," Schultz asked, "to have highly skilled, qualified individuals there on merit in top-end companies driving quality or to have members foisted on you just to get the numbers right and they're puppets, not skilled or qualified?"

Earlier this year, the wine industry presented its "transformation charter" to the national government. It spells out how the industry intends to promote diversity, using a scorecard to quantify the progress of individual firms.

The wine industry was South Africa's first after the arrival of Europeans 350 years ago. In 1655, Jan van Riebeeck planted the first vines near present-day Cape Town, settled three years earlier by the Dutch. Over time, wine production grew on the backs of large-scale slave labor, a practice that lasted well into the 1800s.

A more recent legacy is the "dop" system, in which winemakers paid colored workers in wine, with predictable impacts on alcoholism, domestic abuse and fetal alcohol syndrome. The system, though banned decades ago, persisted into the 1990s, according to the South African Wine Industry Council.

Today, more than 300,000 people work in the $2.4 billion industry, mostly in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, and some of the best-regarded vineyards are a short drive from Cape Town. The vast majority of workers, including those who toil in the vineyards, are black or colored.

Until 15 or so years ago, the people actually making the wine were white. Statistics are hard to come by, but Bruce and Schultz said the percentage of vintners who are nonwhite is still in the single digits and that most are assistant winemakers in their 20s.

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