Stories like that of Epicurean Wines provide hope for Africans such as Johannesburg-based wine writer Tshepang Molisana. This continues our series of personal accounts of those working in South African wine. See last week's from Elton Greeve.
In 1994, when South Africa was declared free and democratic, it would have been hard to imagine that within a decade, three Black South Africans, one of whom had served time on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, would rise beyond the dreams of most citizens into the realm of epicureans who would write a new history, heralding a new dawn.
Founded by Mbhazima Shilowa, Mutle Mogase, Moss Ngoasheng and Ron Gault, Epicurean Wines was established, based on good taste and fine friendship, in 2003. Alongside epicurean ideals, the founders are egalitarians. Ron T Gault, former CEO of business development and client relations of an international investment bank in Johannesburg, has since returned to Massachusetts. Mbhazima Shilowa has a long and significant political career, including roles in the trade union movement and underground work towards a democratic South Africa, and in 1999 was appointed as Premier of Gauteng, the province that is the economic heart of South Africa. Mutle Mogase is currently the executive chairman of Vantage Capital and has held various roles in finance. Moss Ngoasheng is the CEO of Safika Holdings, a former presidential economic advisor and a former Robben Island political prisoner.
The founders are committed to releasing wine that is representative of their own tastes and histories. Every year the founders and their wives spend time in the Western Cape with their winemaker in pursuit of the blend that they will cellar and age. Each vintage is informed by the international wines that they have cellared, their individual travels, life experiences and by the time that is invested in both friendship and wine.
‘Epicureans are passionate about the pursuit of beauty in all its forms and nowhere is this devotion more pronounced than in their love of food and wine’, Mutle Mogase told a group of fellow epicureans at a private lunch in Johannesburg.
Mogase and the remaining proprietors of Epicurean Wines aspire to espouse one of Epicurus’ ideals, to ‘look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink, for dining alone is leading the life of a lion or a wolf’.
Each Epicurean Wines vintage is blended according to the proprietors’ joint tastes and preferences. So far the wines have been bordeaux blends, with varying ingredients for each vintage since 2003, although only 80 magnums of the 2007 were made. This year saw the release of the inaugural Epicurean Chardonnay, a 2018 that had, like many of their dreams, been long awaited.
While pouring the 2012 Epicurean bordeaux blend, Mbhazima Shilowa added that as South Africa began to open up to the international community, opportunities for South Africans who had been shut out of her beauty and economy opened up. It was in this spirit that the founders sat down and dreamed together. The founders release each vintage only after a few years of cellaring; the 2012 was still being introduced to Johannesburg’s wine-curious public in 2019, for instance.
Considering the business decisions behind which grapes, barrels and bottles to buy; how long to cellar their wine; where to cellar it; how to sell, market and distribute it – the friends’ venture continues to keep them in constant conversation.
Like most oenophiles, it is ultimately the joy of finding a good wine and sharing it with a good friend that drives Epicurean Wines, founded on equal parts of friendship and pleasure, towards each new vintage.
For people used to seeing a group of people in one position, subjugated by supposed inferiority, stories like that of Epicurean Wines are a beacon of possibility for Africa and the diaspora. They are also a powerful echo of the words of South Africa’s second democratically elected president Thabo Mbeki, in his ‘I am an African’ speech in 1996: that the pain of the Black African is a pain that no others have been made to bear. The path to healing that vicious pain lies in reparations and in restitution. Healing the wounds of the past is tied to both symbolic transformation and empowerment programmes which work towards fair and equitable representation of previously disadvantaged people, across the value chain. The problem is that that symbolism has yet to be accepted as legal tender. It has never paid a bill and never will.
The wine business is ultimately a business, built on the backs of labour from whom land was stolen, kept stupefied by the dop system of dispensing free alcohol, and still today living in deplorable conditions on too many farms. For South African wine, transformation and economic inclusion is as urgent as the fermentation process is for making wine.
Fairtrade is much more than a label on a heavy glass bottle; it brandishes the hope that puts children through school, removes shame, and elevates the dignity of farm labour.
This noble ideal requires equity, transparency, integrity and egalitarianism.
Even though the economic empowerment of formerly disenfranchised Black people has become a political hot potato, it has resulted in far too little real action and genuine improvement. It’s frankly an insult to the memory of the violence and poverty that so many have been subjected to.
It should be a blight on the conscience of every wine consumer, looming so large that it emboldens them to ask more of their producers. It should encourage the consumer to assess the impact of each link and cog along the value chain. It should give pause to considerations of the shelf price of a bottle of wine. The empowerment and economic inclusion of workers should inform how wine is priced and sold. Indeed, high ethical leadership is the responsibility of producers, but consumers too should be critical.
Despite the many difficulties of the past, Black South Africans in wine ultimately want to explore sensory pleasure, to create exceptional products such as wine, and to share those pursuits with their friends. Sadly, racism too often serves as a distraction from that pursuit.
As the writer Toni Morrison explained, ‘the very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.’
In this present moment in history, we should be celebrating the gains we have made, while pausing to consider who we have made those gains alongside, not justifying our existence or desire for the pleasures of life. Epicureans, while pausing to consider the moment, are invested in good food and wine and the good friends who they pursue these pleasures with.
The current seminal moment in history allows us to respond to it with what wine ultimately brings to so many: pleasure.
Tshepang Molisana holds a WSET Level 2, an Advanced Brandy Certificate from the Cape Wine Academy and won the Veritas Young Wine Writer of the Year Award in 2016.