South African vintners have been on a rollercoaster during the COVID-19 pandemic, with their nation's rules changing by the day. While they understand the need to protect the health of everyone in their communities, they worry that rules banning all wine sales and exports will lead to bankruptcy.
The ban on exports is particularly frustrating. On March 15, officials halted bottling, wine tourism and all alcohol sales. On April 7, the government made an exemption for exports. However, there have been roadblocks. "They say that we can export, but all the government offices that issue our export documents and do inspections are on lockdown," said Samantha Suddons of Terracura in Swartland.
On April 16, the government reviewed exemptions for essential business activities and removed wine exports, once again stopping all sales. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister, announced the change, saying that the only alcohol that can be transported is for sanitizing and related commercial purposes.
The eight-day opening for exports didn't help much. "Producers with wine already at the ports for shipment can make those shipments. A blessing for some, but for most in the industry, all wine sales have been shut down during lockdown," said Anthony Hamilton Russell, proprietor of Hamilton Russell in Hemel-en-Aarde.
Chris Alheit of Alheit Vineyards in Hemel-en-Aarde reported that he had a shipment ready to leave, but that it is now on pause. "WoSA is trying," said Alheit.
WoSA (Wines of South Africa) is the wine industry body that represents all producers who export. The organization has been actively lobbying against the decision. "As an industry, we are deeply disappointed and shocked at this sudden change of direction, following extensive lobbying with various government agencies to relax the lockdown measures pertaining to the export and sale of alcohol," a spokesperson told Wine Spectator. "The livelihood and long-term future of our industry is in grave danger."
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According to WoSA, the South African wine industry creates roughly 290,000 jobs directly and indirectly, contributing US$2.6 billion to the country's GDP. "As South Africa's second-biggest agricultural export product, wine earns close to $500 million worth of foreign revenue each year through exports of roughly 50 percent of total production," said a WoSA statement.
The decision puzzles South African vintners, as the estimated lost revenue reaches $53 million for the five-week ban, according to WoSA. Other countries are allowing export of wine during the pandemic. Across the world, wine is classified as an agricultural product and agriculture is deemed essential.
"At least—unlike our unfortunate colleagues in the restaurant business—a sale lost today is not a sale lost forever. We still have the wine," said Hamilton Russell. "And it will sell later if we can't sell it at present. Financing the delayed receipt of sales revenue is, however, a deep concern for many."
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