The Treasure Chest Collective: Changing the identity of SA wine

Cheers: The Treasure Chest Collective wine producers cut the ribbon at the Johannesburg launch of their 100 wine varieties. (Photo: Perfect Directions)

Cheers: The Treasure Chest Collective wine producers cut the ribbon at the Johannesburg launch of their 100 wine varieties. (Photo: Perfect Directions)

The story goes that the first grapevines were brought to the Cape in 1655 by European traders. Although Portuguese, French, English and Dutch ships had passed through and interacted with the Khoikhoi, San and Xhosa natives of the Cape from as early as 1488, the Dutch settled in the Western Cape in 1652 to set up a permanent garden that would serve as a station to provide fruit, vegetables, meat and other supplies for passing European ships en route to and from Asia.

The Company Garden-turned-station was a solution to the antagonism that too much naval traffic at the Cape had caused between the Europeans and the native Khoikhoi and San people, who for years had been supplying passing ships with fresh food, meat and medicines for little in return. 

Four years after he arrived at the Cape, Van Riebeeck’s swelling crew would import slaves from Madagascar and Indonesia, in addition to the “bastards” (children born of European and Khoikhoi heritage, who were bred and used for labour) and indentured labourers that they had made of the native Khoikhoi and San. 

The first successful bottles of wine were made in 1659. Upon discovering the fertility of the land, especially for grape growing, the Dutch workers wanted to go further than the boundaries that the Company had stipulated for farming, for their own reasons.

At the time, the Dutch East India Company was in financial decline and tensions and small battles had already broken out between the natives and the Dutch and workers from other parts of Europe. 

Van Riebeeck famously hated the Cape, to him a wretched place he had been sent to as punishment for financial misdeeds in the East, and he couldn’t wait to leave. Ten years after his arrival, as a result of the Company’s bankruptcy, tenuous relations at the Cape and overseas prospects, Van Riebeeck and the Company left, but nine company employees campaigned to remain.

These rogue characters, a thorn in the side of the Dutch East India Company, would become the first permanent settlers outside the Company Gardens, later relinquishing their Dutch citizenship to become “free burghers”, or free citizens, of the Cape, charging off east and north, eventually meeting the Rharhabe of the Eastern Cape.

These were the first wine farmers.

For more that 360 years, the Cape has prided itself on producing some of the most sought-after wines in the world, pride that is given credence by the fact that today 50% of all the wine produced is exported.

Although the Cape region can boast the best sauvignon blanc in the world, it’s difficult to ignore the slow transformation of an industry that is notorious for having once paid its workers using the dop system, in which indentured labourers, including children, were paid with the very wine they produced after slavery ended.

Because of apartheid and its colonial predecessor, black and coloured South Africans’ relationship to wine mostly began and ended in producing and serving it. Bar some coloured communities in the Western Cape, drinking wine was illegal for black people during apartheid, although the government did allow “white man’s liquor” to be sold to Africans in 1961. 

At this point, I should take a page from Sheila Hlanjwa’s book: when you’re trying to sell wine, you don’t need a sad story. 

Hlanjwa is a 50-year-old wine producer from Cape Town, with a bleached blonde ampur chiskop. She’s the first wine producer I meet at a seemingly inconceivable event: the launch of the Treasure Chest Collective — 13 black wine producers who each have wines that they are introducing to the Jo’burg market, the media and the wine community at the Sandton Convention Centre in February. 

We are seated at a round table of about eight people — in a room full of other round tables with half-empty bottles of wine by 1pm. There’s a palpable spirit of new South Africa in the room, a throwback atmosphere to the 1990s, when blacks and whites were still excited about the prospect of being together and free. 

I shouldn’t drink because I have to go back to work in an hour, so I concentrate on Hlanjwa.

She corrects me when I ignorantly call her a winemaker. “No, there’s a difference. A winemaker is the person who works with a viticulturalist. They work with the grapes and the filtering and mixing.”

Another name I later learn for this is a vintner.

“I’m a wine producer. We choose the blends that we want for a particular brand from different suppliers. So I have my own brand.” 

An empty bottle of 2015 shiraz from her brand Lathitha Wines sits between us as she explains that she launched it in 2007 after studying wine management at Stellenbosch University, studies that were funded by a group of white men she met at an expo in Cape Town in 2002. 

After years of serving wine and food at her house on weekends, she acted on her interest in wine — she walked into an unmarked room at the entrepreneurship expo Vukuzenzele, where everybody who looked like her was standing in queues to join catering, construction and mining sectors.

“When I got into that room, they called me to come to the front to ask what I’m doing there. There I was, shivering, but I went up and explained that I want to be in business, I want to vuka ndizezenzele, and I know that, if it’s you people in here, then there’s something big. Bayihleka balalala [they laughed] but, in the end, even though they were shocked, they supported me and paid for me to go to Stellenbosch,” says Hlanjwa.

As a frequent buyer of wine, I’m surprised that I have never seen or heard of wines from the Lathitha range, a beautiful isiXhosa word that describes a sunrise. I have actually never seen most of the Treasure Chest wines in shops, no Lerato Sweet Red, Philippi Sauvignon Blanc made by the Township Winery, no Libby’s Pride, Cape Dreams, Bayede, Thokozani, LC Kenned, The Bridge of Hope, African Roots, Ses’fikile or Thembi Wines at many of the retailers my friends and I frequent. 

Why is this? I asked Malcolm Green, the principal of the Treasure Chest Collective and wine producer of La RicMal wines with his son Ricardo, who together have 45 years in the wine business.

“If the market had accepted us, there would be no need for the Treasure Chest,” says Green, in a phone interview in which he meticulously and passionately gave me the lowdown on the wine industry.

“As a group of black wine brand owners, we found difficulty in getting our brands in the local market. Retailers didn’t have an appetite to support black wine brands. It was a daunting task individually, so we became a joint action group. 

“Over the years, as members of the African Vintners’ Alliance, we became like family to each other but the initial idea to start Treasure Chest was in 2013. We started building a marketing plan, which was simply to grow the market locally and target the untapped black market.

“In 2016, we received funding and launched a roadshow, and we have toured Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and next month we are in Pretoria.”

But many of the wines had already been trading for a number of years before the collective was established, some of them even becoming household names, such as M’hudi Wines.

But the wine industry is difficult to break into for black winemakers, despite government mandates that state the need for white-owned companies to be black economic empowerment (BEE) compliant.

“The field is changing slowly but progressively,” says Brian Anderson, the chief executive officer of Wine Solutions and a consultant to the collective, who was one of the speakers at the launch.

“How do we share in a bigger cake? The problem with sharing a cake is the willingness to share and secondly the size. Some of the frustrations that the Treasure Chest Collective have found is that they have had difficulties selling brands that markets are not used to. Some of the solutions that have been proposed are amendments to the BBBEE [Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment] Act, transformation initiatives, criminal sanctions to companies that don’t comply.

“Fronting is still a big issue,” says Anderson. “Ownership, management control, skills development, enterprise and supply development — the largest chunk is enterprise and supply development.’’

This is where Anderson believes the role of black-owned brands could make a huge difference in traders improving their BEE score.

Globally, wine consumption is shrinking and Anderson warns against anybody going into an industry that is this slow to grow but says the solution is to grow wine’s market share in South Africa, where only about 20% of the market drinks wine, which is struggling against competitors in the beers, ciders and spirits industries.

The main consumers of wine are predominantly white females and coloured consumers. For black people, wine is not a traditional drink, according to Anderson. “Everything suggests that the black middle class is the solution but they are still not buying wine.”

His research on wine consumption by black South Africans reveals that more than 50% of participants don’t relate to it, 14% have never tried it, and some say they don’t like the taste or that it gets them drunk too quickly. 

Sales of the 4th Street range of sweet red wines and Four Cousins Rosé in the black market might challenge this but it’s a problem Anderson believes will be solved by a vehicle such as the Treasure Chest. 

Of the 566 wine cellars and 780 wine companies and brand owners in South Africa, less than 20 of these are black. The Treasure Chest Collective is unique by any standards, and not merely because it’s an unprecedented group of 12 black women, one man and a white woman — it’s because the owner’s story is told in each wine.

There are 30 different brands, 100 varieties of wine within the bouquet, and the wine is sourced from 11 different regions in the Western Cape, making use of more than 12 winemakers.

“We are not an industry body or some committee; we are entrepreneurs and we go to the heart of what South Africa stands for — transformation, economic development, quality supply and job creation. We are not a window-dressing collective.

“Our uniqueness is in our struggle and suffering from being marginalised by a 360-year-old white male-dominated industry. We have made history,” says Green.

But most of the businesses in the group are struggling to get their wines listed by popular retailers such as Tops, Pick n Pay, Woolworths and Shoprite where people can access them readily.

When I took the 12 bottles delivered to me out of their box, I placed them all next to each other to survey the branding, and felt emotional. There’s never been a time when I have not looked at my work through the lens of being black and a woman. So as a black person it was surreal to see wines named in isiXhosa and Sesotho and places related to many black identities in South Africa. 

Former teacher Nondumiso Pikashe’s Ses’fikile range of wines has already made a name for itself on Twitter, because of its name, which some have said is unsuitable for a wine brand, a comment that Pikashe has consistently and gracefully weathered in interviews, instead sharing facts about her wines, which include a chenin blanc/roussane, which can be enjoyed with umphokoqo (crumbed maize meal served with amasi). 

There was no way I was going to drink 12 bottles of wine alone so I organised a small wine tasting and invited 10 black women entrepreneurs and industry leaders to tell me what they thought of them. The tasting would be conducted by the sommelier at the Luke Dale Roberts Restaurant at the Saxon Hotel, the captivating William Riffel, in one of the hotel’s cellars. 

The fact that he is a coloured man from Franchhoek, who as a boy used to pick grapes for money, made the setting all the more personal: we were a group of black and coloured people drinking wine made by people who look like us. 

After Riffel’s introduction to wine­making and the rise of woman wine­makers, he started the tastings with the sauvignon blancs in the range: Libby’s Pride, Lathitha and Philippi, paired with tuna tartare and avocado, duck spring rolls and tomato and mozzarella canapes. 

Libby’s Pride, produced by Elizabeth Petersen on the slopes of Wellington, made a delicious first impression, not because she used to be a tea lady at a wine farm but because its tropical fruit, grass and yellow fruit flavours were light and relatable, inspiring some of my guests to come up with their own versions of wine names, like “sauvignon black and “chardonaai”.

The award-winning Philippi Sauvignon Blanc, produced in the township of Philippi near Cape Town by Nomhle Zondani’s the Township Winery, especially roused fervent reactions from the group, with guests expressing their surprise at its creaminess, cheesiness, lightness, smell and melange of flavours. This was a unanimous favourite, although the Lathitha won a close second. 

“The sauvignon blancs have a unique mix of complex flavours, combining rounded citrus overtones with deep earthen bases and nuances of spiciness and creaminess. They are delightful and exciting yet nostalgic and familiar, a real insight to the South African palettes,” said gemologist Buyisa Baduza.

The red blends came later in the evening, with the first introduction being opera singer Lynelle Kenned’s LC Kenned Cabernet Sauvignon, made from 60 different producers. The singer’s face on the wine bottle was a talking point at the table, with some saying it’s too R&B. 

The wine had mixed reactions, with some loving the result of the many blends, but overall it lacked a distinguishable identity.

Bayede’s soft vanillary merlot, made for King Goodwill Zwelithini by winemaker Altus le Roux and Bayede chief executive Antoinette Vermooten, was described by several of the tasters

as simply “a really good wine”, and it is, though the story attached to it is a bit brow raising and seeing PR images of a white woman posing in traditional Zulu clothing left us a little perplexed.

Next was Green and his son’s wine from their La RicMal’s estate, the Lerato Sweet Red Wine, a multilayered blend of shiraz, mourvedre and cinco, which only some of the sweet-wine-loving tasters really liked for its richness. This wine is exported to 11 countries, mostly on the continent.

Ses’fikile’s shiraz/cinsaut is a round and full-bodied wine, which was paired with dried meat and cashew nuts and had tasters requesting refills. 

Thokozani at Diemersfontein, launched by David and Sue Sonnenberg in 2006, is a perfectly smooth and gentle red. Theirs is the only broad-based BEE company in South Africa to sign exclusively with Woolworths, in 2015.

The evening’s last two wines were M’Hudi’s amazing cabernet sauvignon, produced by the Rangaka family,  and The Bridge of Hope Cabernet Sauvignon, produced by Rosemary Mosia and her family. Both of these wines are exceptional in taste with the wine’s appeal being that they are produced by family businesses who own both their means of production and the land. 

The evening was more than just a group of women connecting over wine; it felt like a conscious consumption of time, land and love.

“Not only were they delicious but I was delighted to drink wines created by black women. I loved the stories of the makers. These were the most important wines I have ever drunk because of the change and possibility for change they reflect in the context of South Africa’s odious history and how it’s reflected in the wine industry to this day,” said publicist and accessories designer Maria McCloy.

Entrepreneur Nandi Dlepu sent me this in a WhatsApp message a week later: “These wines had a surprising complexity. They each had an extra layer, a personal story that made the tasting special in so many ways. Each were a triumph in all the ways that mattered and more.”

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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