May has brought good to news to South Africa's winemakers. The national government has lifted a ban on wine exports, allowing foreign sales again. What's more, vintners are also permitted to resume wine "manufacturing," meaning bottling, labeling and packaging can begin again, under strict health and safety protocols. Only vineyard work had been allowed since the country enacted strict shutdowns of nonessential activities in March.
The response was one of elation. "Hallelujah!" exclaimed Hemel-en-Aarde vintner Chris Alheit.
But the erratic changes over the past two months have left many vintners skeptical of the government's regard for their industry. "The more things change, the more they stay the same," said Stellenbosch vintner Ken Forrester. What's more, all domestic sales of alcohol remain illegal.
The uncertainty has been tough. On March 15, officials halted bottling, wine tourism and all alcohol sales. On April 7, the government made an exemption for exports. Eight days later, the exemption was revoked. Vintners and the agencies that represent them, including Wines of South Africa (WoSA) and Vinpro, petitioned President Cyril Ramaphosa for relief. On May 1, the ban was lifted.
The new rules in place will allow wine exports and all related activities, from certification to transport. According to WoSA, producers will enact strict safety protocols, including wearing facemasks, using sanitizer, social and physical distancing during transport, in the workplace and during breaks. Finally, it asked that the producers act swiftly if an infection is identified and follow quarantine regulations.
While vintners are glad to have some sales options, the continued unpredictability of the rules and the pandemic are not helping. "It's really hard to know where 2020 will take us," said Samantha Suddons of Terracura in Swartland.
Many markets around the world have yet to reopen, and there is a concern as to whether foreign customers will continue buying. "We are moving—we've packed a container for delivery to New Jersey. No orders or clients; just ensuring that we have stock in the market," said Forrester.
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Others have to go through the backlog and ship out orders that have been delayed because of the shutdown. "We are going to message all our [foreign] customers and ask what they are willing to take this year and stick to that," said Suddons.
Handling of the wines for export represents another issue. Because of the backlog, some warehouses are only processing orders that have already been certified and ready to go. "Exports will happen again, but it is not easy. Our warehouse that stores the wine is limited in what they can do," said Craig Hawkins of Testalonga in Swartland, which exports 96 percent of its production.
While the news might benefit those who focus mainly on exports, it doesn't change the ruling on domestic sales. "Still no local sales, which is frustrating," said Suddons. But while this remains a hindrance, she is among the many vintners who are grateful to be at least partially back in business. "At least we can fulfill orders we already had on the cards."