Soweto wine festival opts for an upbeat mood in sober times

In 2015, the Soweto Wine Festival moved from the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus to Walter Sisulu Square near Kliptown. Wine writer and festival veteran Len Maseko says the move presented a culture shock for the exhibitors, who had complained that the festival was attracting too many binge drinkers who did not care for the specifics of wine tasting.

“Now they have brought in a cultural element, which you see today, in terms of fashion and other things,” says Maseko of the outdoor exhibitors’ section.

“So some of the winemakers weren’t too happy with dilution of the message. They want it to be wine, wine, wine. So that [the dilution] happened when the festival moved to Kliptown. As a result, there was no festival last year.”

Festival cofounder Mnikelo Mangciphu says, with finding a new home at the Soweto Theatre, the festival has returned to quality after indulgences in quantity.

A wine trader in Soweto for over a decade, Mangciphu says the venue is a good way of promoting the intimacy that was missing in other venues. It offers such dynamic use of space, with various alcoves and niches and an indoor live performance space that the festival has signed on for two more years, anticipating the further opportunities that the under-construction amphitheatre will present.

Mangciphu, who started the festival with Marilyn Cooper – who was the chief executive of the Cape Wine Academy – says the trick for him has been to try to balance an educational opportunity for the aspirant consumer with a vibrant experience.

“If you go to other wine tastings, it is so sombre there,” says Mangciphu. “So we try to remove that aspect with this festival.”

In the main exhibition area, the balance seemed to tip in favour of the DJ and the exuberance of a dancing crowd.

Conversation about the wines happened to the backdrop of hip-hop and R&B, with Mangciphu admitting that attracting black winemakers remained a problem because of meaningful support from the industry.

This year, the festival had the feeling of having been scaled back, with a smaller venue, perhaps serving to camouflage the shrinking attendance.

Others pointed to the timing of the festival (at the tail end of summer) to account for some of the winemakers’ absences, pointing out that this year’s festival had come a little after harvesting time when the farmers could suffer little diversion.

Having previously peaked at about 80 wine producers, this year the festival brought in about 23 wine producers.

“The wine industry is under immense pressure,” says organiser Sharon Cooper. “If you understand that it would cost about R20 000 to be here at the festival, not just the tables but by the time you have flown here. These are family-owned businesses. The industry is at a decline but there is also limited space.”

In reference to Treasure Chest, a travelling wine show focusing on female-produced wines, Mangciphu says he feels the producers were being encouraged to try international markets “because as much as you want to be present in Soweto, you won’t be getting the same volumes you would if you were exporting”.

The tone and the level of the wine and food pairings pitched for beginners, provided much laughter and will probably go a long way into boosting an awareness into the etiquette of wine drinking.

The lack of pairings pitched to the wine connoisseur is probably a reflection of how the festival sees its clientele.

If Mangciphu and his organisers truly believe that Sowetans – and indeed black South Africans’ – attitude and knowledge of wine tasting is developing, something in the curation of the festival should reflect this growth.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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