Ezekiel is Zimbabwean. He catches a dodgy, dinged out train into Stellenbosch every morning, wearing oversized gumboots and his stained, blue overalls. He’s softly spoken, and has a gentle, kind face. I met him one morning when the crush pad was littered with red picking crates and a mountain of spindly green stems. We shook hands, and I noticed he didn’t make eye contact with me, but there was a humility in his greeting that assured me it wasn’t rudeness. And then he turned around and dived straight back into the unenviable task of cleaning his surroundings to a spotless, military standard, but our brief encounter was to be an important moment in my wine making journey.
Far removed from the romance that everyone associates with wine, a functional cellar can be a very intimidating space. There are loads of moving parts; loud sirens indicating press loads rotating, miles of ribbed piping, whirring pump motors moving wine from one looming silver tank to another, bags of chemicals piled high, as well as pipettes, vials, measuring instruments and other science experiment-like paraphernalia. It’s a lot to take in.
And yet here, Ezekiel is at home. My friend very aptly knighted Ezekiel with the nickname “Il Dottore”, meaning “The Doctor”. He operates with little guidance, and executes everything clinically under a lot of pressure. I asked him one afternoon what he thought of the 2018 vintage.
“I don’t know,” he announced, “I don’t drink alcohol.”
It slapped me in the face. He has never, ever tasted a single drop of wine that he’d played such a monumental part in creating. This beautiful Syrah that was running dark and brooding out of the press, which had everyone else in the room twitching in anticipation, could not have meant less to him. It was simply grape juice.
The disparity between the Haves and Have Nots in South Africa becomes very apparent from the moment you arrive in the country. The drive from Cape Town International airport into the city takes you past several immense townships in the space of 15 minutes. They are huge sprawling masses of corrugated iron and twisted electric wires that look like Weaver’s nests. The shanty houses all stand lop sided and at awkward angles. I always want to hold my breath as I pass by because I worry the slightest breeze could flatten it all, like dominos falling in an orderly succession. In this environment, there is no space for the slow sipping of a chardonnay on a hot summer’s day. Wine is merely a source of income rather than pleasure, and Ezekiel was a reminder of the missing link between wine production and its consumer.
South Africa’s labour pool is deep and endless, and the agricultural sector still relies heavily on those that have very little to keep it ticking, particularly the wine industry. Ezekiel’s disconnection is a peculiar circumstance and based on a conscious decision to not drink. But it was the catalyst that got me thinking and considering the disconnect between gnarly, wine soiled hands, and the final, polished wine that fills our glasses. Many labourers who toil in sweat-soaked clothing under gruelling conditions, will likely never see a splash of the marvellous tipple they are fundamentally linked to.
It’s a difficult disconnect to mend. And it exists all over the world. I picked grapes in Northern Italy with a beautiful group of Punjabi Indians in the Veneto. In California, I watched Mexicans decimate vineyards sagging heavy under the weight of grapes in minutes, and be off for breakfast before sunrise. Cheap, agricultural labour is everywhere. And rather perversely, is key to the wine industry’s successes.
Knowing that many at ground level aren’t able to share in these wonderful creations beyond their menial tasks strikes me perhaps more as a philosophical problem, rather than one that requires the active sourcing of a practical solution. There will always be the likes of Ezekiel, grinding at the bottom, so that us lucky folk get to enjoy the fruits of their labour at exorbitant prices. This is an imbalance that might be a universal reality forever. But what could change is the consciousness of the wine-drinker: I’m always perplexed when huge, hyped up groupies swarm winemakers like rockstars, and elevate them to demi-God status. But then completely disregard where it all began.
Thankfully, there are many producers, both in South Africa and abroad, that are very actively pursuing social impact initiatives to both empower and incentivise. My hope is that we as the drinkers begin to stop, and consider the hardships and time put in behind the scenes. And that one day, it is Ezekiel who is celebrated for the wine he has helped create, as much as the name on the label is.