South African wine sales are up nearly everywhere in the pandemic except at home

A worker checks bottles of wine coming out of a production line at Nederburg Wine Estate in Paarl, South Africa, July 8, 2020.
A worker checks bottles of wine coming out of a production line at Nederburg Wine Estate in Paarl, South Africa, July 8, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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Vintners across South Africa may soon be searching for old bottles to hold new wine.

The latest in a series of bans on the sale of alcohol since the start of the pandemic has left winemakers with a surplus of 300 million liters (79.2 million gallons or around 400 million bottles) nearly half of last year’s harvest—in storerooms, with the latest annual harvest about to begin, according to an industry trade group which is threatening legal action to invalidate the nationwide edict.

The plea follows a decision by the South African government this month to extend the prohibition, which bars the tasting and selling of alcohol to the public by wineries, farms, and vineyards, as well as sales of wine and liquor in hotels, stores, and restaurants. The extension came amid a resurgence of the coronavirus in the country and formed part of a push to preserve hospital capacity for Covid-19 by lowering alcohol-related trauma that can overwhelm emergency rooms.

The winemakers contend that restrictions on the sale of alcohol should correlate with conditions in each of South Africa’s nine provinces, compared with the one-size-fits-all approach that the national government has followed.

“We do not support the continued outright ban on the sale of wine while alternative interventions are available to mitigate risks,” says Vinpro, which represents nearly 2,800 producers, sellers, and stakeholders in South Africa’s wine industry. It’s also calling on the government to delegate to provincial leaders the authority to limit the sale of liquor, based on conditions in local hospitals. If the national government doesn’t follow suit by Feb. 5, the group said it would ask the court to invalidate the edict.

The industry’s woes come amid a rise in popularity for South African wines around the world, including in the US, which in the past year has joined the UK and the Netherlands among top export destinations. South Africa is the world’s ninth largest producer of wine, which contributed almost $2 billion to the country’s $351 billion GDP in 2019.

The latest plea follows nearly a year of stops and starts to sales of wine and liquor in South Africa as the government has sought to preserve hospital capacity. In the first phase of lockdown last March, the government closed the country’s borders to trade. That halted wine exports from the country, which produces about 3.3% of the world’s annual supply.

Despite the closure, which the government relaxed five weeks later, exports of South African wine totaled 9.1 billion rand ($601 million) last year, up 7.7% from a year earlier. Still, the pandemic-related lockdowns have squeezed producers and led to an estimated 18,000 job losses in the industry, which employs about  300,000 people.

The top official in the country’s Western Cape province, which is home to South Africa’s wine country, has echoed the industry’s call. Sales of alcohol should be allowed from Mondays through Thursdays, says premier Alan Winde, who called on president Cyril Ramaphosa to reconsider the government’s approach.

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