Under a bright blue sky on a cloudless November day, a tasting room in Stellenbosch features all the charm you’d expect from South Africa’s premier wine region.
Housed in a white Cape Dutch building with a thatched roof, it offers panoramic views of green hills, rows of grapes and mountains.
Inside, the vast, airy space is decked out with cushy midcentury modern chairs set in cozy nooks, with South African electronic music providing a soothing backdrop.
This could be just any other cozy place to sip and relax in this temperate heaven-on-earth about a 45-minute drive east of Cape Town. But there’s something unique and crucial about this tasting room. You have to look closely to see it.
The bottles behind the glossy wood-paneled bar carry Zulu names like Thokozani, which means “let’s celebrate”; or Bayede, which means “hail” and is proclaimed in the presence of the Zulu king.
And then there’s Ses’fikile, which means “we’ve arrived,” a seemingly spot-on motto for this space.
This is the Wine Arc, the only tasting room in South Africa that exclusively features Black-owned wine brands, with 13 labels for visitors to sample and purchase. It is a place to support and celebrate the growing presence — arrival, if you will — of Black owners in an industry built on the enslavement and dehumanization of people of color that remains dominated by the country’s white minority.
Black South Africans make up more than 80 percent of the population, yet Black-owned wine brands accounted for less than 1 percent of liters sold domestically and an even smaller share of liters exported in 2020, according to South African Wine Industry Information and Systems. Less than 3 percent of the country’s vineyard acreage is under Black ownership, according to a report by Vinpro, an industry trade group.
But despite the massive underrepresentation of Black South Africans in ownership, winemaking and other coveted roles (they are well represented in labor), it is growing increasingly possible to explore the wine lands in a way that focuses on and supports them.
Sampling wines and a “braai”
Tuanni Price, an African American expatriate, curates experiences that connect travelers with Black South African wine-industry professionals. Most of her clients are Black Americans, she said.
“They just think it’s important for them to spend their income with Black people in Africa,” she said.
Ms. Price, 50, ran a tour business focused on Black-owned wine brands in her home state of California. She brought her operation to South Africa in 2018 after visiting and becoming enamored of the relatively small but robust community of Black wine professionals.
Her company, Zuri Wine Tasting, offers cellar tours, tastings and lunches with Black winemakers and sommeliers. She also takes groups to Black-owned estates on tours that may include a conversation with the owner or a braai, a traditional South African barbecue.
There are now at least 82 Black-owned wine brands in South Africa — a more than 20 percent increase since 2019 — some of which can be sampled and purchased in a visit to the wine regions near Cape Town.
Beyond those who own wine labels or vineyards, there are a growing number of Black sommeliers, winemakers and viticulturists now playing vital roles at prestigious wine operations.
Some of Cape Town’s well-regarded restaurants, including Fyn and the Bailey, have Black head sommeliers. After years of running the wine program at restaurants, Penelope Setti opened her own wine bar, Penny Noire, in central Cape Town three years ago.
Ms. Setti, 35, offers an education with each pour. When my wife and I visited last November, we were a bit baffled when she gave us a nebbiolo — an Italian grape — when we were in the beating heart of South African wine. It turned out, though, that this nebbiolo was grown in South Africa, and it was delightful. She also introduced us to a cinsault, which she called a “poor man’s pinot noir.” The cinsault grape can be crossed with pinot noir to create a pinotage, a signature South African varietal.
The growth of opportunities for Black people in the industry can feel precarious, Ms. Setti said, because “Black people are sort of the flavor of month at the moment,” and they may be welcomed just for optics.
Ms. Setti recently had to close her bar after a change of management at the food hall that housed it. But she plans to launch several pop-ups and hopes to find a new permanent space by the middle of the year, she said.
Promise and challenge
The Wine Arc opened in late 2021 as an initiative of the Wine Industry Transformation Unit, a nonprofit created by industry organizations to promote inclusion. When my wife and I visited, we saw both the promise, and the challenge, for South Africa’s Black wine entrepreneurs.
We were guided through a tasting of 10 wines by Asiso Meji, 25, who became interested in wine in 2019 after taking a course at an academy designed to bring Black youth into the industry. After working on several wine estates for three years, she applied for a job at the Wine Arc and was shocked to learn during her interview that there were actually wine brands owned by Black people.
“I never knew that a Black person can have such opportunities in the wine industry,” she said. “But after seeing all of these brands, hearing their stories, it changed. I really would love to make my own wine, tell my own story some day.”
We arrived at 3 p.m., two hours before closing time. We were the first visitors of the day.
Very few people know about the Wine Arc, a metaphor, perhaps, for the struggle of many Black owners in the industry to gain attention.
“We are like the noise in the background, but nobody really hears us,” said Carmen Stevens, a winemaker who owns a self-titled wine brand and is believed to be the first Black person in South Africa to fully own a wine production facility.
Part of the challenge for a lot of the Black owners is they lack generational wealth that can be crucial for marketing, brand development and mass production.
Through an excursion arranged by Ms. Price, we ended up at Ms. Stevens’s cellar in a sprawling white building flanked by palm trees in an industrial park in Stellenbosch.
Ms. Stevens, 51, is small, energetic and blunt. She showed us around the space, with its high ceilings, massive steel tanks, and rows and rows of wine barrels that infused the space with a sweet, oaky aroma. We sat with her for a tasting, and she took us through her remarkable journey.
In 1993, the year before South Africa’s first democratic elections, she became the first Black person to enroll at Elsenburg College near Stellenbosch to study winemaking. But that was only after she had been denied entry three times because of her race.
Under the apartheid system, Ms. Stevens was classified as “colored,” a designation for people of multiracial background. Though colored South Africans got marginally more privileges than those deemed Black — or African — they still endured severe discrimination. Some are also the descendants of enslaved vineyard laborers. Today, in the wine industry and in other sectors, colored and Black people are both considered disadvantaged groups as they face similar challenges.
At Elsenburg, Ms. Stevens said, people called her racial slurs to her face and told her she was too stupid to succeed. She defied those doubters, graduating in 1995 and establishing her own brand in 2014 that makes award-winning wines including a sauvignon blanc, a merlot and a red blend called Nemrac.
Despite her accolades, Ms. Stevens said her brand, like others that are Black-owned, still struggles to break into the market. One problem is that Black-owned brands generally don’t produce high volumes, which are often required to get onto the shelves of big retailers, she said.
Visitors, especially those from abroad, can make a big impact, she said, by telling their favorite wine shops or restaurants back home about the Black-owned brands they tried and enjoyed. Ms. Stevens’s brand will be among several Black-owned South African brands represented at an industry exhibition in New York on March 8 and 9, attempting to get business from American buyers.
Making wines accessible
After visiting Ms. Stevens, we drove about 10 minutes to Stark-Condé Wines, a wine farm whose head winemaker, Rüdger van Wyk, entered the industry in 2014 through a protégé program for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. By 2018, he won an award for the best young winemaker in South Africa.
Over lunch, he showed us a chardonnay with a modern label that read Kara Tara. It was a wine brand that Mr. van Wyk, 32, created and owns, with investment from the owner of Stark-Condé. He named it after a river in his hometown, George, a city about three hours away where many families, like his, are colored.
Built like a rugby player, Mr. van Wyk is easygoing, witty and seems uninterested in the pretensions of the industry. As we sat in the tasting room — a Japanese pagoda in the middle of a pond — sampling a pinot noir, a cabernet sauvignon and a white blend that he made, he explained that he tried to make wines accessible to the masses.
After tasting, we hopped in his pickup truck and he took us on a steep, bumpy ride up into the sloping vineyards. At the top, we battled pounding wind, but it was worth the postcard-perfect view of the Jonkershoek Valley in Stellenbosch.
Mr. van Wyk has made a name for himself among these pristine hills. Yet he still encounters the occasional awkward moment at wine events, when people mistake him for domestic staff and ask him bring them ice or take away a spittoon.
“I don’t think I’m fazed,” he said. “If you can’t change the situation, the situation will change you.”
That desire to upend stereotypes and expectations is something we heard from many of the Black winemakers we met. A couple of days later, we settled in for a meal at Hari Kitchen, in Franschhoek, where Munashe Kwaramba, the chef and owner, proved to be a tour de force.
At 27, Mr. Kwaramba is a chef, sommelier, winemaker and entrepreneur — skills he picked up with little formal training.
A native of Zimbabwe, he moved to Stellenbosch in 2014 to study engineering and got a job at a wine estate to pay his bills. A Black sommelier at the estate encouraged him to take a wine course. After some hesitation, Mr. Kwaramba did, and he fell in love.
As a sommelier, he got access to high-end kitchens, where he would take notes on the chefs’ techniques and experiment with them. In 2019 he launched a food truck preparing what he calls Afro-fusion cuisine. He sold the truck the following year and opened Hari Kitchen at the Topiary Wine Estate, where we ate a four-course meal that was probably the best we had during our visit to wine country.
Only two other tables were occupied in the dining room, which has wooden rafters and tile floors giving it mountain lodge vibes. We gazed out onto vineyards as Mr. Kwaramba took us on a two-hour food and wine journey for lunch.
His all-around expertise shined in the careful attention he paid to his wine and food pairings. For instance, he tweaked the recipe for the crispy arancini balls — using a pumpkin and peanut butter purée as a base instead of the usual carrot and cardamom — so that it paired better with a new vintage of chardonnay, which had more acidity than the previous one, he said.
In 2016, Mr. Kwaramba started his own wine label, the Global Sip. He learned the art of winemaking, like cooking, by observing winemakers in action.
“I want to be the best chef and sommelier in the world one day,” he said, adding that he wants to be someone who other Black wine lovers can observe and imitate.
“The proof is in the pudding, particularly in me being the pudding,” he said. “I have watched other Black successful people. For me to shoot out as well and say, ‘Hey, look at what I achieved,’ I do believe it does have a big impact.”
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