Arts + Culture

The Black Women Leading South Africa’s Wine Revolution

For many years, South Africa’s blacks were excluded from wine-drinking, as well as wine-making. Now, companies like Seven Sisters are blazing a revolutionary trail.

12.05.15 5:00 AM ET

It was at the very first Soweto Wine Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2005 when Vivian Kleynhans offered Selena Cuffe a glass of Seven Sisters wine—the strawberry-colored rosé named after Kleynhans’ sister Twena.

“She is a flirt,” says Kleynhans (née Brutus), the fourth sister and namesake of the sauvignon blanc. “That wine flirts with you—be careful.”

The rosé was so tempting, Cuffe gathered $75,000 in savings and credit cards after returning home to Cambridge, Mass. to import Seven Sisters in the United States. She hardly knew anything about wine.

“We ran out of product in the first six weeks,” says Cuffe, CEO of Heritage Link Brands, the company she founded with her husband a month after meeting Kleynhans, which is also the leading importer of black-produced wines from South Africa and the African diaspora.

With Cuffe’s help, Seven Sisters gained the interests of restaurants, liquor stores and specialty supermarkets across the United States. Vivian, the elegant sauvignon blanc, became the first South African wine ever served on American Airlines.

Then Walmart came knocking in 2013—that is Walmart’s now-retired executive vice president of global sourcing, Ed Kolodzieski, literally showed up at Kleynhans’ door in South Africa with an offer to distribute five of the seven wines, created to match the style and personality of each sister, in more than 650 stores.

The deal firmly planted Seven Sisters as the largest black-owned South African wine brand in America, and put the Brutus sisters, from the small fishing village of Paternoster, on the map in 42 states.

On December 15, Seven Sisters will open the doors of the first—and only—black-owned and woman-owned tasting room in more than 350 years of South African winemaking.

It is a dream come true for seven siblings, who grew up without electricity or a bathroom in a two-bedroom cottage shared between a family of 10.

But the road from wine to riches hasn’t always been sweet—for the Brutus sisters, or the long lineage of black farm workers who pruned vines before them.

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One of the owners of Seven Sisters wine.

Garfield Larmond

South Africa is among the largest wine producers in the world, exporting more than 414 million liters in 2014. While black people make up 80 percent of its population, less than 2 percent of the $3 billion industry is black-owned—a statistic the African National Congress vowed to improve after the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

Socioeconomic disparities is something the Brutus sisters know too well. When their father lost his job during apartheid, the family was forced to split up and live with different relatives—most of the sisters dropped out of school. And they were left with nothing after their parents died.

“The only riches left for us was ourselves,” says Kleynhans, who celebrated her 51st birthday in October.

From a young age, Kleynhans was always the sister who solved everyone’s problems. It was her idea to reunite her siblings after twenty years to create a new legacy with fine wines, albeit an unlikely calling.

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Because of its exclusivity, wine was hardly the beverage of choice for the majority of South Africans.

“With apartheid, blacks drank beer, as there were only beer halls in the townships, owned by the government,” says Marilyn Cooper, co-founder of Soweto Wine Festival. “There was no exposure to wine.”  

Cooper has seen consumption increase since the inception of Soweto Wine Festival, but says only 5 percent of the black population drinks wine. 

Not only that, the relationship between black people and wine in South Africa has been complicated since Dutch settlers planted the first vineyard on indigenous peoples’ land in 1655. 

Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch, have controlled the wine industry for generations, while the descendants of slaves, who were trafficked from African countries, developed the farms, much like African Americans developed plantations in the American south.

Under the apartheid-era “dop system,” farm workers were paid in cheap wine, which exacerbated alcoholism, and kept them dependent on white farmers. The colored population, a mixed-race group that includes the Brutus sisters, still suffers from the social damages of alcoholism to this day, which includes one of the highest levels of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

“We kept the spoils of apartheid,” says Mark Solms, an esteemed psychoanalyst and custodian of Solms-Delta Wine Estates, known for its progressive approach to social transformation in the Cape Winelands. “And in my own personal case, here I am with the beautiful large piece of land with a magnificent manor house on it—you know, this is the land that was stolen, and I get to keep it. And [the farm workers] stay dependent on me and at my mercy, and that has to change.”

When Solms purchased the estate roughly a decade ago, the residents lived in cramped houses with no heat, hot water or adequate plumbing, among other necessities. The workers didn’t even have proper employment contracts. They earned unlivable wages, and if it rained, they didn’t get paid. Many were born on the farm, and had nowhere else to go.

“It sounds horrible, because it is horrible—the land comes with people,” says Solms, who established the Wijn de Caab Trust to benefit the farm workers in 2005.

The beneficiaries own 33.3 percent of shares in Solms-Delta, with Solms and his business partner Richard Astor (of the famous Astor family in New York) splitting the remaining shares.

All profits support social programs on the farm, which allow families on the estate access to a dedicated social worker, subsidized health care, and comprehensive educational and cultural programs.

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Seven Sisters wine at the bottling facility.

Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters wine at the bottling facility.

Kleynhans was assisting evicted farm workers with social services in the early 2000s, when the Minister of Agriculture encouraged black people, who were previously denied participation in the economy, to pursue industries like forestry, fishing and wine.

Aspiring winemakers, like Kleynhans, were paired with established wineries to develop new businesses. And so she founded African Roots Wines, the holding company for Seven Sisters, in 2005. But she wasn't exactly welcomed with open arms. 

“At the time, it was just foreign for those people. They didn’t understand,” says Kleynhans, who was confronted early on with questions like, “Where you coming from? You’re not part of the wine industry. What are you going to do with the wine? Are you gonna stand on the streets and sell wine out of a jug?”

An established farm supplied her with wine for two years, until she learned the crippling news at a wine competition in London that the wine was oxidized. The discovery bankrupted Kleynhans, who had been paying the supplier in all cash since banks denied her a loan, citing her wine business as a luxury. She took out a second mortgage on her home to stay afloat.

“I cannot trust and rely on other people,” she says, recalling the setback that led her to Stellenbosch University in 2007, where she learned the ins and outs of the wine industry. “I did wine pairings, tastings, whatever you can find out there, I did.”

With a new supplier, and Cuffe waiting to receive the first shipment in the U.S. that same year, Seven Sisters was back in business.

The Brutus sisters acquired the Seven Sisters farm in the Cape Winelands with money from U.S. sales through a land reform program in 2009.

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Over the past 20 years, the ANC promised to redress inequalities that stem from South Africa’s history of land dispossession by transferring approximately 66 million acres of farmland from white to black owners.

However, The Wall Street Journal has reported only half the targeted amount has been transferred as of 2015.

There are currently 52 land reform farms in South Africa. Most operate under an equity sharing model like Solms-Delta. Seven Sisters is one of only 10 farms that are 100 percent black-owned.

“Land distribution can’t just happen. It needs money to happen,” says Siobhan Thompson, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), a non-profit organization that promotes the exports of South African wine in international markets. “So, you need money to change hands of land, first of all. Second of all, you need skills transfer.”

WOSA has aided black winemakers with skills transfer, including marketing and development for its roster of 33 black economic empowerment brands, but with limited funding from levies and the declining value of the South African rand, the non-profit is financially stretched to do more.

Kleynhans agrees that skills transfer is a priority.  

“The majority of our people [have] been working on the land as employees, but they don’t know how to take the product past the farm gate,” she says. “They know how to work on the farm, but they don’t know how to build the business. And those kind of infrastructure things need to be put in place.”

When we met this past July, Kleynhans sat in the kitchen of her farmhouse, overlooking Seven Sisters farm, reminiscing on all the hardships she has overcome.

The land may not be as vast or developed as other farms in the region, but it's something the Brutus sisters, for the first time, can pass down to the next generation.

Although the Brutus sisters still need money to finance equipment for their soon-to-open restaurant and tasting room, they are not worried.

“We believe everything will work out according to God's divine plan for us,” says Kleynhans.