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Bringing Equality to African Wines
Diplomatic Pouch / April 5, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Last year, wineries rang up $3.5 billion in revenues for South Africa, home to some wonderful up-and-coming shiraz, pinotage and cabernet sauvignon labels.

Yet blacks, who comprise the vast majority of South Africa's citizens, are far more likely to be impoverished grape pickers than winemakers or vineyard managers.

In fact, 20 years after the end of apartheid, the country's wine industry employs 276,000 workers in Western Cape province. Blacks and coloreds account for nearly 90 percent of the population, yet own less than 1 percent of the wine companies and wine-producing land a statistic that saddens Atlanta sommelier Stephen Satterfield.

"This is one of the most incredible cases of societal economic disparity you could find in any industry in the world," he said. "You have billions in wealth and revenue being created, but there's only one black family who owns a vineyard."

Satterfield's solution is "Drink Well, Do Good" a series of 13 concerts, tastings and art events across the United States and Canada that aims to raise $150,000 to establish a viticultural training center in South Africa.

Sponsoring that tour is the International Society of Africans in Wine (ISAW). To that end, the Atlanta-based Section 501(c)(3) nonprofiit group held a free promotional tasting Mar. 24 at Nando's Peri-Peri Restaurant off Dupont Circle that attracted about 50 people.

"All the wines we currently feature are from South Africa," said Katie Hunter, communications manager of ISAW's Washington chapter. "Our goal is to build a training center in South Africa's Stellenbosch wine region where previously disenfranchised vineyard workers will be able to learn skills like winemaking, viticulture and hospitality. That will raise their earning potential tremendously and inspire entrepreneurial ventures."

Wine importer Heritage Link Brands is the primary sponsor of this 14-city tour, which kicks off Easter weekend in New Orleans and includes stops in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Washington, among other cities, before finishing up in Cape Town just in time for the World Cup, which of course South Africa is hosting this year.

The tour's May 14-15 stop in Washington includes an event at newly opened Funxion at 13th and F streets. Hunter said at least 100 volunteers across the United States and Canada are working to make ISAW's campaign a success.

"People know about South Africa, and they know the World Cup is coming there, but a lot of people have misconceptions about South African wines," Hunter told Pouch. "Heritage Link Brands was founded five years ago by Selena Cuffe to import wines made by black vintners in Africa. She visited the first Soweto Wine Festival, loved the wines she tasted and was moved to act when she learned they were struggling with finding distribution and reaching customers."

Today, she said, Heritage Link Brands distributes Bouwland, Seven Sisters and M'Hudi wines to 41 states.

M'hudi is the only wholly black-owned vineyard in South Africa. Located in Stellenbosch, the brand is operated by the Ranganka family, which purchased the vineyard in 2003 yet needs additional human and financial capital to realize the full commercial success of their investment.

"ISAW views the success of this pioneering family to be paramount in an era of expanded opportunities for blacks in the South African wine economy. M'hudi cannot fail," said Satterfield, who says construction of ISAW's viticulture training center "is just one step in our journey to create a broader participation of indigenous African farmers within the growing African wine industry."

For now, the company deals only with South African wines, though Hunter said other African wine-producing countries with potential include Morocco, Egypt and Kenya.

Rita Blackwell, a Baltimore wine consultant who's participating in the ISAW event, says signing on to "Drink Well, Do Good" was a no-brainer for her.

"There aren't too many black Americans in the wine industry, so we're sort of like a needle in a haystack," she joked. "But South African wines are a very good value, and I like the story behind this."

Blackwell, who studied wine at New York's French Culinary Institute, started her company in August 2006. Her mentor was Andrea Robinson, one of only 16 women in the world who have been named master sommelier by the prestigious Court of Master Sommeliers in California's Napa Valley.

"I wanted to make wine accessible to other people," Blackwell explained. "People have this snobbery associated with wine, but it's just a beverage that should be enjoyed by all. Let's not pretend it's something so complex that everyone can't take part in it."

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