It’s no surprise that South African wines will be poured at this weekend’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival, but the name of one line takes you aback: Mandela, as in Nelson Mandela, the nation’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning former president.
The elder statesman’s daughter Makaziwe and granddaughter Tukwini, who began immersing themselves in grape culture 2 1/2 years ago at the suggestion of a family friend, will introduce House of Mandela wines to the U.S. market at the 12th annual festival.
“In the beginning, it wasn’t something we were esteemed to do,” Tukwini Mandela said in a telephone interview. “South Africa is essentially a brown-bag, Foster’s [beer]-drinking country.”
Now the label’s marketing director, she was previously the marketing head of Absa Wealth and Private Bank. Her mother, an anthropologist, is chairwoman of House of Mandela.
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While their professional backgrounds aided them in researching the South African wine industry, the legacy of their forebear’s pivotal role in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid empowered them to dig beyond the soil.
“Look at the vine. It doesn’t grow in a straight line. It winds around, which is really about the challenges of life,” Makaziwe Mandela says. “Yet it produces good fruit. The struggle for freedom is just like that.”
Mother and daughter hired a team of wine experts to help them choose the wine farms (the South African term for wineries) that would produce their grapes. They interviewed 70 producers, selecting Fairview, Hartenberg, Thelema and Villiera.
House of Mandela has a two-tier line. The Royal Reserve collection includes Fairview shiraz, Hartenberg cabernet sauvignon, Thelema chardonnay plus nonvintage and vintage sparkling wines made by Villiera. The Thembu collection has three whites — sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and chenin blanc — and three reds – cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and pinotage, a South African grape that is a cross between French pinot noir and cinsaut. Prices range from $12.99-$15.99 for the Thembu wines to $48-$51 for the Royal Reserve shiraz and cabernet.
“Wine is not glamorous,” Makaziwe Mandela said. “Even though you do everything you have to do — plant, tend the soil, protect the vines and trim them at the right time, you have to have courage to take the risk.”
Nelson Mandela, now 94, took countless risks during his four-decade battle against the racist policies of his nation’s minority-white government. His 1990 release after nearly 28 years of imprisonment was instrumental in lifting trade sanctions that had prevented South African wines from being imported to the United States. As export markets opened, so did the industry. Hartenberg winemaker Patrick Ngamane is one of several black South Africans pursuing careers in wine.
But South Africa still struggles with its unsavory past. In 1658, the Dutch brought 200 slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique to work in the Cape vineyards. Three hundred and fifty-five years later, many of their descendants still struggle for fair pay, habitable housing and basic worker rights. Fairview is part of the Cape, which is reported to have some of the lowest-paid farm workers in the country, but Makaziwe Mandela says it’s an ethical operation.
“We were specific from the beginning that we want to work with family-owned wineries that have good affirmative-action practices,” she says. “We are vigilant about this, and if anyone violates these practices, we will not work with them anymore.”
A percentage of proceeds from the Thembu collection will directly benefit farm workers, mother and daughter say.
“There is a fair-trade premium that goes toward the worker’s salary and housing, and some of the workers have a stake in the wine farm itself, so whatever profits they make from selling their grapes or their wines goes back to the farm and the workers,” Tukwini Mandela says.
There are nobler roads ahead, as House of Mandela plans to produce a special vintage sweet wine in honor of their patriarch, a sweet wine lover. But Makaziwe and Tukwini Mandela are taking this endeavor one grape at a time.
“Even with wine, there are setbacks” said Makaziwe Mandela. “You cannot control the weather.”
Dinkinish O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.