So Prohibition is over – at least for now. However, when it comes to buying your favourite tipple, be cautious about assuming that the National Control Command Council (NCCC) has permanently abdicated its self-appointed role as the guardian of the nation’s appetites. Time will tell: meanwhile, for the first time in nine weeks – and as long as you comply with the Monday to Thursday trading hours – you are free to exchange your hard-earned Rands for wines, spirits and beers traded legally.
One of the kindest gestures from the NCCC has been the decision to permit all on-consumption licensees to operate as off-consumption outlets during level three. This means that restaurants, taverns and shebeens will be able to accrue some income from the sale of liquor. While the motivation for this decision was primarily to ensure the widest possible distribution (and therefore to minimise the risks to social distancing) there’s no doubt it has thrown a lifeline to those traders hovering dangerously near the brink of insolvency.
After that first mad dash to your favourite wine merchant, it’s worth contemplating how to make your ongoing expenditure work as well for the more valuable and vulnerable parts of the industry as it does for you. After several months of lockdown, every single producer and retailer will be battling to survive. Few businesses anywhere have the cash resources or the credit lines to survive three months of no income.
Perhaps consumers should be looking at what products and brands most need their support. Amongst wine producers there are hundreds of cellars whose total production runs to less than 7000 cases: they are the sectoral equivalent of the mom-and-pop stores which bring nuance and personality to a neighbourhood. Many produce unique expressions of a variety or style: if they go under, it’s tantamount to an extinction.
Hopefully the best established of what was once called the “new wave” will be able to trade their way out of the trough. But it’s less certain that all the members of the “newer wave” will have accumulated enough capital (and enough of a trading record) to survive the crisis. Let me emphasise that I have no particular insights into the financial position of the wineries I’m commenting on. I’m more concerned about ensuring that whatever happens, in 2021, they’re still there and making wines of the quality I’ve come to admire.
We don’t want to lose what is being produced by Lukas van Loggerenberg, Craven, JH Meyer, Wade Metzer, John Seccombe (Thorne & Daughters), Jocelyn Wilson (Hogan), Berene Sauls (Tesselersdal), Hannes Storm, Ginny Povall (Botanica), Bernhard Bredell (Scions of Sinai) Erika Obermeyer, Reneen Borman (Patatsfontein) and Martin Smith (Pasarene), to name but a few.
Much of what they produce makes use of South Africa’s extraordinary resource of old chenin. This means that if they give up, and if they’re not immediately replaced by another generation of vinous adventurers, there’s a risk that the growers could abandon a portion of these low yielding vineyards. A few also work with cinsaut and carignan in pursuit of a pre-modern South African vernacular. There are also pinots and chardonnays in this line up, and several thoughtfully assembled blends.
Support of local craft should not stop at wine: we have fabulous gin producers, including Pimville, Inverroche, Unit 43 (The Prospector) and Craft Link (Ginologist and Jin Gin), several of whose products won gold medals at the inaugural Old Mutual Trophy Spirits Show last year. There are also rum producers such as Copelyn and Whistler (whose dark rum was last year’s trophy winner), mezcal (tequila) producers such as Leonista, based in the Karoo, and a number of estate brandy distillers.
All of them have had a few tough months, and are in for a long lean season after the initial sell-in following the move to Level 3. Now is the time to support the artisanal producers who have played such an important role in redefining the wine, spirit and beer landscape in South Africa in the past decade.