The South African wine industry has been back in the media spotlight of late, following civil unrest in the Western Cape. The trade group Wines of South Africa (WoSA) has argued that the wine industry is not the reason for this unrest, but instead involves table grape farms. It is also working hard to up its ethical credentials. Here, just-drinks talks to WoSA chief executive Su Birch and Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Association (WIETA) head Linda Lipparoni about the current challenges and work being done. 

just-drinks: Can you give me an update on the latest unrest? 

Linda Lipparoni: We are monitoring the situation, and have spoken to the wine farms and sellers. They don’t seem to have been affected by it (the unrest). It’s largely still on the food side - table grapes, not wine grapes. 

Chief executive of Wines of South Africa, Su Birch

Su Birch: As far as I can see it’s quiet. But, there has been one small firebrand union run by Nosey Pieterse (Bawusa) running around trying to whip up feelings.

j-d: What’s your response to the recent Guardian newspaper article, suggesting a boycott of South African wines? 

SB: It’s appalling, it’s riddled with inaccuracies. It’s completely irresponsible reporting because most of the facts aren’t correct. I’m not aware of that call from BaWUSA (Building and Allied Workers Union of SA). Both (the report and BaWUSA) are irresponsible. It talks about wine farms, when it’s not. BaWUSA are getting attention out of proportion to their following. 

j-d: WIETA's stated target is to have 60% of South Africa's winegrowers accredited by the end of 2014. Are you on track for this? 

SB: The industry (companies) set that target, not WIETA, which is a difference. The industry looked at what is the best way to go through an ethical programme that will protect buyers and our industry from the bad eggs. 

j-d: Do you think that target is too ambitious? 

SB: I think it’s ambitious. Is it too ambitious? I don’t know, time will tell. Things were moving on at quite a pace, but the recent unrest has slowed things down. But, the big brands are very committed. We’ve had great support from our markets. 

We want most of the industry through it by 2015. But putting 3,600 famers through training programmes, accreditation programmes, that’s a big ask.

j-d: How supportive have international companies been of your efforts?

SB: Very. Tesco are very interested and are looking at ways to support it. The big brand drivers have been very supportive. The industry keeps getting hammered, for incidents that contaminate the whole industry. You’ll always have a bad egg. But if someone discovers a bad practice in one part of the world, it doesn’t contaminate the whole industry like it does in South Africa. 

j-d: The ethical seal idea was discussed ten years ago.Why has it taken so long to launch it?

SB: At that stage, there was the concern that, if you gave the seal to a winery, you could never get it off if circumstances changed. We wouldn’t be able to monitor it properly. At that point, we were also monitoring just the wineries and not the supplier farms. So, we couldn’t be sure everything was okay. We always had the problem that we didn’t have the funds to teach consumers to recognise the seal, so we took it off the table. This happened between 2002 and 2006. 

Then, we looked at the sustainability issue, and all we had to do was merge two databases. That programme was written and funded and worked. So then, people said why can’t we do the same for ethical. We realised we could do this.

So, now we can start putting the farms through the process. 

j-d: How many wines now on the market have the ethical seal?

LL: There are 64 individual wines that are qualified. 

j-d: You described it as an “interim” seal. What are the plans for it?

LL: There’s a plan to integrate the sustainability seal with the ethical seal, into one stamp.

j-d: How do you respond to criticism that consumers will confuse it with the Fairtrade stamp?

SB: I don’t think there’s confusion, we don’t see that. Fairtrade is a different scheme, it’s targeting consumers. 

j-d: But, can you see how there would be confusion from the consumers side?

SB: I think consumers realise there are other ethical models out there apart from Fairtrade. I mean, there’s Fair for Life, there are different programmes. I don’t think consumers will find it confusing, they’ll just see it as different.

LL: Also, I think consumers will understand with Fairtrade that they are paying a premium for that particular product. But, there’s no premium with this seal, it’s just an integral part of what’s going on. 

j-d: Do you still feel you are recovering from the Human Rights Watch report (released in August 2011) that was critical of the industry's behaviour?

Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Association chief executive Linda Lipparoni

SB: I think that report was, to some extent, the catalyst that set this whole ethical seal in motion, because reports like that do so much damage to our industry. Everybody gets tarred with the same brush. But, the problem is that it still gets quoted. People doing a bit of research find it, quote the report as if nothing has changed, or as if the report was accurate in the first place, which it wasn’t in its entireity. So yes, it remains an issue. 

LL: What's significant about the report is that the focus wasn’t on wine farms. Again, it was food farms and table grape farms. We didn’t have sufficient information to defend the industry, because we hadn’t done wide-scale monitoring on where our ethical performance levels were. Whereas a programme like this now provides us with sufficient information, as well as support where there are challenges on farms where they need to be brought up to a higher standard. 

j-d: And does the ethical seal tackle the issue of pay for workers? 

LL: Yes. At WIETA, we support a living wage and when we go out on the audit we don’t just look at the minimum. We look at things like incentives and bonuses and whether they cover things like housing, electricity, medical aid and support for children. All of those things get calculated.