Having done several projects in and for South Africa, I had been tracking the development of black ownership in their quickly emerging wine industry. The business model typically involves an “apprenticeship” with one of the larger producers, with ownership distributed in part (typically 20-30%) to the workers or village which provided the labor, the entrepreneurs, and the established wine company, which could hold no more than about 20% for their assistance in development, cultivation, and distribution. With this model, there are a small but encouraging number of black wine producers now in South Africa. As of this writing, there are only 34 black owned producers in the US, and four from South Africa which are distributed to the US – Seven Sisters, M’Mudi, Highberry, and House of Mandela.
One for the nascent problems for black vintners in South Africa, is that the black population (80%), only about 5% drink wine (beer is by far the favorite beverage). Which mans that these new companies are heavily dependent on exports.
It was at the very first Soweto Wine Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2005 when Vivian Kleynhans offered Selena Cuffe a glass of Seven Sisters wine—the strawberry-colored rosé named after Kleynhans’ sister Twena.
“She is a flirt,” says Kleynhans (née Brutus), the fourth sister and namesake of the sauvignon blanc. “That wine flirts with you—be careful.”
The rosé was so tempting, Cuffe gathered $75,000 in savings and credit cards after returning home to Cambridge, Mass. to import Seven Sisters in the United States. She hardly knew anything about wine.
“We ran out of product in the first six weeks,” says Cuffe, CEO of Heritage Link Brands, the company she founded with her husband a month after meeting Kleynhans, which is also the leading importer of black-produced wines from South Africa and the African diaspora.
With Cuffe’s help, Seven Sisters gained the interests of restaurants, liquor stores and specialty supermarkets across the United States. Vivian, the elegant sauvignon blanc, became the first South African wine ever served on American Airlines.
Then Walmart came knocking in 2013—that is Walmart’s now-retired executive vice president of global sourcing, Ed Kolodzieski, literally showed up at Kleynhans’ door in South Africa with an offer to distribute five of the seven wines, created to match the style and personality of each sister, in more than 650 stores.
The deal firmly planted Seven Sisters as the largest black-owned South African wine brand in America, and put the Brutus sisters, from the small fishing village of Paternoster, on the map in 42 states.
On December 15, Seven Sisters will open the doors of the first—and only—black-owned and woman-owned tasting room in more than 350 years of South African winemaking.
It is a dream come true for seven siblings, who grew up without electricity or a bathroom in a two-bedroom cottage shared between a family of 10.
But the road from wine to riches hasn’t always been sweet—for the Brutus sisters, or the long lineage of black farm workers who pruned vines before them.
South Africa is among the largest wine producers in the world, exporting more than 414 million liters in 2014. While black people make up 80 percent of its population, less than 2 percent of the $3 billion industry is black-owned—a statistic the African National Congress vowed to improve after the country’s first democratic election in 1994.
Socioeconomic disparities is something the Brutus sisters know too well. When their father lost his job during apartheid, the family was forced to split up and live with different relatives—most of the sisters dropped out of school. And they were left with nothing after their parents died.
“The only riches left for us was ourselves,” says Kleynhans, who celebrated her 51st birthday in October.
From a young age, Kleynhans was always the sister who solved everyone’s problems. It was her idea to reunite her siblings after twenty years to create a new legacy with fine wines, albeit an unlikely calling.
Because of its exclusivity, wine was hardly the beverage of choice for the majority of South Africans.
“With apartheid, blacks drank beer, as there were only beer halls in the townships, owned by the government,” says Marilyn Cooper, co-founder of Soweto Wine Festival. “There was no exposure to wine.”
Cooper has seen consumption increase since the inception of Soweto Wine Festival, but says only 5 percent of the black population drinks wine.
Not only that, the relationship between black people and wine in South Africa has been complicated since Dutch settlers planted the first vineyard on indigenous peoples’ land in 1655.
Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch, have controlled the wine industry for generations, while the descendants of slaves, who were trafficked from African countries, developed the farms, much like African Americans developed plantations in the American south.
Under the apartheid-era “dop system,” farm workers were paid in cheap wine, which exacerbated alcoholism, and kept them dependent on white farmers. Thecolored population, a mixed-race group that includes the Brutus sisters, still suffers from the social damages of alcoholism to this day, which includes one of the highest levels of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world….Read the Rest Here…