Researching Wine Farmworker Heritage Stories

Photo of a vineyard

I spent last week in South Africa’s Cape Winelands. This long-delayed trip is part of ongoing research on wine farmworker heritage: a collaboration with Mr Charles Erasmus (of the Wine Industry Value Chain Roundtable, a multi-stakeholder organisation reflecting the entire South African wine industry), and Ms Sharron Marco-Thyse (of the Centre for Rural Legal Studies). The trip had originally been scheduled for May 2020, with the purpose of carrying out two ‘storytelling workshops’ with farmworkers. Covid cancelled that trip, but it didn’t cancel the research: Sharron and Charles conducted the workshops, and I attended via Zoom. In January 2021 we completed the findings report (available here), and when international travel restrictions finally lifted in early 2022, I rebooked my flight.

The question driving the research emerged as an upshot of my work on super-premium wines around the world. For fifteen years, I have looked at how various actors—winemakers, retailers, sommeliers, distributors, writers and so on—create markets for organic, biodynamic, ‘natural,’ and other small-scale wines (or as some like to call them: ‘weird’ wines!). Key to the creation of value for such wines are provenance stories: narratives and representations that offer some degree of transparency as to where a wine was made (often latched to the language of terroir), by whom, how, and when. (For example, I’ve written about these issues in relation to how specialist wine media circulate new criteria of ‘good taste’ and how small-scale ‘grower champagne’ producers challenge established product conventions.) Stories about the heritage of the winery, the authentic rootedness of wines in their place of origin, and the winemaker’s artisanal ethos of hand-crafted viticulture are the lingua franca for such wines. And yet, there is a glaring gap in the weird wine storyverse. While the winemakers I’ve interviewed almost always underscore the essential contribution of farm workers to careful production, those same workers rarely if ever appear in winery marketing communications. While wine intermediaries consistently champion hand-picked grapes and machine-free vineyard management as markers of quality, the actual people who hand-pick the grapes and hand-prune the vines are almost entirely absent from consumer-facing wine stories. In taking note of that void, I started to formulate a question: What would (and could) it look like to include farmworkers as wine provenance storytellers?

With that question in mind, and informed by research on the silencing and/or problematic framing of agricultural labour in food and drink value chains more generally (e.g., excellent work by Maria Touri, Anelyse Weiler and others), I emailed Charles, who I’d first met in 2015 while researching South African organic and biodynamic wine producers. Was he interested in collaborating? Yes! We started to explore what sort of research would be an appropriate way forward. After two unsuccessful large grant applications in 2018 (for an ambitious cross-cultural comparison of farmworkers and provenance in the context of South Africa, India and Ecuador, working with wonderful colleagues Maria Touri and Emma-Jayne Abbots), I decided to scale the research back to a more feasible pilot. It was high time to get back to South Africa and get this research started, one way or another…

photo of Seven Sisters winery

On a Sheffield Hallam-funded trip in January 2019, Charles introduced me to Sharron, and we mapped out a plan. The resulting project design—centred on generating a compelling record of wine farmworkers’ heritage stories—drew heavily on Charles’ and Sharron’s immense experience in working with farmworkers, and Sharron’s expertise in facilitating workshops. On that trip, we also scoped potential case study wineries for the workshops, which led to us finding a ‘home’ for our pilot project: Seven Sisters, one of the very few black owned wine farms in South Africa. Seven Sisters is owned by Vivian Kleynhans. As a black woman winemaker, Vivian is an exceptional, inspiring pioneer; gaining her support for the pilot was truly critical.

The pilot project aimed to:

  • develop a multi-stakeholder perspective on South African wine farmworkers’ heritage stories (reflecting wine farmworkers and wine producers, and export market (UK) wine consumers and intermediaries);
  • demonstrate the potential of farmworkers as active co-creators of winery ethical brand value, and of farmworker heritage stories for ethical value creation in a major export market (UK).

The pilot was made possible through funding from the UK & Ireland Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) Seed Funding Scheme and Sheffield Hallam University (the Developing International Research Funding Opportunities (DIRFO) Scheme); through collaboration with, and contributions in kind from, Seven Sisters, WIVCRT, and CRLS; and through the research assistance of Ms Nikita-Marie Bridgeman, who carried out some of the UK-based components of the study as part of her dissertation for her MSc in Food Consumer Marketing and Product Development at Sheffield Hallam.

photo of author and rental carLast week, two years after those original storytelling workshops, I was back in the Winelands to explore next steps with Charles and Sharron. In a Renault Kwid (a rental car of dubious stamina and fuel efficiency), I covered 609 km in six days, travelling between Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, Paarl, and Somerset. I met with a range of wine industry stakeholders to present a summary of the pilot, gather responses to the findings, and solicit views on the value of extending the research. (When and where appropriate, I also asked the pragmatic funding question!)

One of the most important meetings of the trip was the first, which took me back to Seven Sisters. A few hours after my arrival in Cape Town, Sharron and I had a feedback session with some of the original participants in the 2020 farmworker storytelling workshops. It was super to see Vivian again, and to witness first hand that Seven Sisters had not only survived the pandemic (Covid-related restrictions hit the South African wine industry hard), but was thriving. It was also brilliant to finally meet participants in person (and to recognize each other, despite my previous workshop attendance having been limited to that of a floating head on a laptop!).

A central concern of the feedback session was to hear what taking part in the storytelling workshops had meant for participants. What stood out in their memories about the day, and what happened after the workshop? The participants reflected on how the workshops had taken them back to childhood memories of growing up on farms, feelings of freedom to roam and the openness of the space, and amusing tales of high jinks and mischief. They also returned to the theme of expertise, which had come up in the workshops: the intimate knowledge of and attentiveness to the health of the vines; the skilful techniques of pruning and harvesting. Particularly striking were comments about how there had been considerable storytelling after the workshop, both among participants and within their wider farm communities.

To be clear: such feedback does not suggest that farmworker memories, experiences, and everyday conditions are unfailingly positive. The opposite scenario is as (or more) likely, given the glacial rate of transformation of the post-apartheid wine industry and the continued marginalization of farmworkers (see, for example, Agatha Herman’s work). Rather, the feedback session underlined that having a space expressly focused on farmworker stories—happy and heart-breaking, optimistic and tragic—was a validating experience: these memories matter; these stories warrant sharing. In turn, the resulting stories offer a platform for fostering recognition (in Nancy Fraser’s sense of the term) of farmworkers as legitimate contributors to the narratives of South African wine. Such recognition requires a changed perception of farmworkers (on the part of farm and brand owners, the government, the domestic and global wine industry), which is critical for addressing the persistent, unequal distribution of resources and opportunities in South Africa.

Responses at the meetings across the week were overwhelmingly affirmative. This is welcome encouragement as we now seek funding to scale up the pilot, which is likely to involve storytelling workshops oriented to a wider range of wine farmworker contexts (e.g., those working on state-owned, black-owned, and traditional wine farms, and those involved as shareholders of black-owned brands). In the meantime, check out the Farmworker heritage stories pilot study summary and keep your funding fingers crossed for us!

Jennifer Smith Maguire is Professor of Cultural Production and Consumption at Sheffield Hallam University, and leads the CHEFS research cluster. Her research on fine wine cultural producers and intermediaries explores the construction of markets, tastes, and forms of legitimacy and value. She is slowly writing a book about provenance.


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