Saturday, July 3, 2010

M’hudi (Ibrahim)

South Africa is the seventh largest producer of wine in the world. The industry is nearly as historic as the first European settlements, having been in production for 351 years. And thus, almost as long as there have been racial distinctions and separations in South Africa, there has been wine.

And just as the government of South Africa had long been the refuge of whites, so has the wine industry. The Western Cape, which is the historic wine producing region, has a centuries-long history of white family-owned vineyards and the most famous area within the Western Cape, Stellenbosch, has historically been an Afrikaner stronghold (the University of Stellenbosch produced a long list of apartheid-era prime ministers).

So I was surprised to hear that this last Sunday we would be going to what was likely the only Black family owned vineyard in the Western Cape.

M’hudi is the only black-owned vineyard in Stellenbosch and, apart from the area’s history and demographics, it is unique in a number of other ways as well. The father of the family, Diale, originally wanted to own a cow farm, despite being a professor of English literature. But when he ended up with a vineyard in historic Stellenbosch he convinced all of his children, many holding advanced degrees, and his wife with her masters in psychology that they could be successful in viticulture, despite knowing nothing about it.

The family was incredibly warm, talkative, and hospitable. As their presentation began, they told us about the massive learning curve they were up against, how they tried to learn viticulture from books on the Northern hemisphere and then how they tried to take the advice in these books and just do the opposite (since it’s the southern hemisphere). It’s probably safe to say that they may have underestimated the winemaking process and why so many vineyards are established from a family tradition of passing down experience. I was really impressed with how dedicated the family was to breaking into this historically white industry and breaking the stigma associated with local wine among the rising black middle and upper class (if they drink wine, they prefer foreign wine without the associations to apartheid that Stellenbosch carries).

Even more than all of this, it was most interesting to hear about the amount of cooperation and assistance they received from their neighbors. Diale mentioned how one afternoon two casually dressed white men appeared at their door and offered assistance and a mentorship. He described how he had fears of similarly dressed apartheid era security forces but was relieved to hear what they were actually there for. And while I’m sure this gesture doesn’t signal the general attitude of the average Stellenbosch resident toward black-owned vineyards, I thought it was still an interesting attitude shift in the new South Africa.

Some of my colleagues mentioned that it’s not every day you hear SWOT analyses, Paulo Frieri, and Abraham Maslow at a vineyard tour but it’s definitely not every day you go to a black owned vineyard in the Western Cape.


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