August 29, 2005

Soweto fest to cultivate black wine connoisseurs

By Andrew Quinn

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Soweto, once famous for bitter
anti-apartheid violence, launches its first annual wine
festival this week as South Africa's wine industry seeks to
cultivate a new breed of black wine connoisseur.

"Wine is discerning, aspirational, sophisticated," Thami
Xaba, one of the organizers of the September 2-4 festival, told
journalists on Monday.

"Black people now are enlightened. People are educated. We
have to dispel the myth that people don't like wine. It just
hasn't been available before."

Drawing on black-owned wine labels such as Ses'fikile,
Yamme and Black Grape, organizers say the Soweto festival marks
a turning point for South African vineyards which despite
rising popularity overseas have yet to make inroads in the huge
black domestic market.

"(The) establishment always believed that the majority of
South Africans are beer drinkers. We'd like to prove them
wrong," said Gavin Pieterse of the South African Wine Industry
Trust, which aims to promote more black involvement in South
Africa's wine industry.

More than 10 years after the end of apartheid, South
Africa's wine industry remains dominated by white vintners.

While exports soared with the end of South Africa's
international isolation, the industry has faced new competitive
challenges as South Africa's rand has more than doubled in
value against the dollar since the end of 2001.

Organizers say the Soweto Wine Festival is the industry's
first concerted effort to woo domestic black drinkers -- who
could number tens of millions -- and to promote black wine
growers in developing their own brands.

"We need to demonstrate that this is not an industry just
for the few," Pieterse told a news conference.


Soweto -- a vibrant set of black townships outside
Johannesburg far from the wine-producing regions of the Western
Cape -- is regarded as a trendsetter for South Africa's new
black middle class and the perfect testing ground for South
Africa's black wine market.

"It is a market that is still untapped," said Vukile
Mafilika, chairman of the newly-formed South African Black
Vintners Alliance.

"It used to be taboo for a family to sit down and drink
wine together, but with modernization that is changing."

Organizers have already taken the first step toward setting
up a distribution network by identifying 10 popular bars,
locally known as "shebeens," that will carry the festival's
featured wines and sell them to Soweto consumers.

Black wine growers are also giving their labels African
names such as "Ses'fikile," which means "we have arrived" in
the Xhosa language, to promote brand awareness with black

Black vintner Jeannie Ratshikana Fletcher said her group
had called its label "Yamme" -- which means "my mother's" in
the language of southern Africa's Tswana people -- to show that
wine is also part of Africa's heritage.

"People think the name is Italian or French, but it's
Setswana," Fletcher said. "In terms of black-owned
establishments like shebeens, there is a great willingness to
carry black-owned wines."

If the Soweto festival is a success, organizers say they
hope to stage similar events in other black communities around
the country to introduce South African wines to South African

"What we are saying is, don't buy them because we are
black. Buy them because they are good quality wines," said
Mafilika of the Black Vintners Alliance.