South African vintners breathed an immense sigh of relief yesterday. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government began allowing alcohol sales again, albeit with some limitations, after a months-long ban.
Unsurprisingly, vintners are pretty excited. "Stoked!" exclaimed Cape Town winemaker Duncan Savage. "[We're] releasing the new vintage on the 27th [of August], so we're pretty relieved about the ban being lifted."
The coronavirus pandemic has put South Africa’s small winery owners on a roller coaster. A ban on domestic sales and exports of all alcohol was imposed in March as lockdowns began. Exports were removed from the ban in May. And on June 1, the government allowed domestic sales. But only a week and a half later, a sales ban was enacted again. Trading and the distribution of alcohol of any kind were completely prohibited.
The government said the measure was an effort to keep hospital beds available for COVID patients by reducing the number of alcohol-related injuries. But the ban and the ever-changing rules sowed confusion and frustration among vintners.
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"I understand the government’s sentiment," said Anthony Hamilton Russell, proprietor at Hamilton Russell in Hemel-en-Aarde. "In tight conditions, in poorer homes, there was a concern that abuse of alcohol would lead to an increase in violence." He added that he and his fellows face a challenge of explaining that it isn’t the wine industry that is contributing to the misuse of alcohol, while acknowledging that it is hard to separate the categories.
A partial reprieve as cases decline
This week’s end to the ban came as the country has seen a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and is entering the next phase of easing restrictions. However, some limits remain. Alcoholic beverages may be consumed in restaurants and bars until 10 p.m. only. Stores can sell alcohol for off-premise consumption from Monday to Thursday, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Gatherings of more than 50 people are still restricted and a nighttime curfew is still in effect.
Vintners can now resume operations and work through the backlog. "[We’re] packing orders like crazy," Chris Alheit of Alheit in Hemel-en-Aarde told Wine Spectator.
But although many are happy, they believe the ban’s full effects have yet to be felt. "There is no doubt that the sales ban hangover is far from cured," said Hamilton Russell. He believes there will be discounting, job losses, accelerated reduction in acres planted and other impacts they haven’t even imagined.
Some of those effects have already begun. Some brewing and spirits companies have canceled planned investments and expansions in the country. Heineken, the Dutch brewing giant, announced that it would shut down its entire production in South Africa. As for wine, Vinpro, a trade group representing 2,500 vintners and other wine companies, estimates the industry has lost more than $400 million since March.