Category Archives: provenance

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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Wine, terroir and doing things differently

Elmar* is an organic winemaker. His winery is about an hour’s drive from Cape Town in South Africa, at the end of a steep, rutted dirt track, which itself branches off from a small unpaved road. I feel as if I’ve left the rest of the world behind as I drive to meet him for our interview. His vineyards—2 hectares of which are planted with cabernet sauvignon vines—are incredibly verdant. He tells me that it’s a radically different scene from when he first bought the farm twenty-five years. Then, the land was denuded, and the soil was “dead;” now, every square inch is teeming with life and the ground feels springy under our feet.

photo of a verdant vineyard

Elmar is a small-scale producer, making only about 8,000 bottles a year of his award-winning wine. Working in alignment with organic methods means he can “feel good” about what he does. However, he tells me:

There’s a flipside to every coin. Your crops go down, you don’t get the same volumes, and I don’t believe the premium that you get on your product balances the reduction in the crops. So, economically, it makes more sense to farm conventionally. 

For many of us, wine is simply a matter of consumption, leisure and pleasure. However, wine is also a livelihood. The costs and benefits that follow from Elmar’s decisions about his production methods inform the daily realities of being able to feed and house his family and pay the bills. So, if conventional methods make “more sense,” why work organically? He says:

Because it’s sustainable. You can carry on doing this. Whereas the other way…the day of reckoning is going to come.

And would he consider scaling up his production to meet the potential demand for his award-winning wines? He answers without hesitation:

No. I am making a living, and there’s absolutely no need to go bigger at all. […] The bigger you go, the more people you need to employ, the more marketing you need to do, the more managers you need. And you know, all of those come with their costs. And in the end, what’s it that you take home?

On two fronts, therefore, Elmar is doing things differently. He uses organic rather than conventional farming practices, and his business orientation runs counter to the usual pursuit of profit, growth and market expansion. Nevertheless, his orientation to wine production is absolutely in line with the established culture of fine wine. As he says:

We’re not making wine that is the same as everybody else’s wine. We’re trying to…express place that’s unique. And the wines that you taste here will not taste like anybody else’s wine.

In the terminology of the wine world, Elmar is talking about expressing the terroir of his wines: the idea of a unique link between the place and culture of production (e.g. soil, climate, topography, heritage) and the resulting wine.


Over the past ten years, I have interviewed a range of winemakers in South Africa, France and Australia. Some of them (like Elmar) identify as ‘organic,’ others as ‘biodynamic’ or ‘natural.’ Regardless of their chosen label, they share a focus on making wines with minimal or no chemical and mechanical interventions. This tends to mean making wine from grapes grown without synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers and harvested by hand, using wild yeasts and little or no added sulphur. Thus, although the term ‘natural wine’ may be contentious in the wine trade, it nevertheless signals what these winemakers have in common: an attempt to work in concert with nature, in the vineyard and cellar. They also share a focus on making wines that express their place, or terroir. For Elmar, this goes hand-in-hand with working in sustainable ways; for most, sustainability is a happy consequence of their desire to give the purest representation of their unique place through their wines.


I discussed what we might learn from ‘natural’ winemakers in a SHU public lecture on Taste, Place and Why They Matter. In that lecture, I suggested how their shared commitment to expressing their terroir—what Amy Trubeck calls the ‘taste of place’—guided them in making wine, but also enabled them to do things differently. In a myriad of ways—including rejecting agro-chemicals, prioritizing lower yields, hand picking, and adapting earlier eras’ (nearly extinct) agricultural techniques—their practices differ sharply from the conventional methods of the global industrial agri-food regime. More so, their commitment to terroir was expressed not just in their wine but also through a long-term commitment to, and collaboration with the land and the vines: an alternative to the conventional quest for dominion over natural resources. The ‘normal’ methods of agri-food production, and dominant view of nature as a resource to be exploited have led to crises of food insecurity, land degradation, toxic agricultural working conditions, and threats to biodiversity. It is therefore critical that we understand how some producers come to adopt alternative methods, and how that might help to pave the way for today’s alternatives to become the environmentally-sustainable conventions of the future.

About the author:

Jennifer Smith Maguire is Professor of Cultural Production and Consumption in Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on the construction of markets, tastes and value, primarily in relation to food and wine.


*Elmar is a pseudonym.

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