Bulk and bottles and bunkum

On a family visit to Johannesburg this past week-end, mixing with more non-winos than usual, I was surprised by the level of interest in this question of increasing exports of bulk (as opposed to bottled) wine. (See Melvyn Minnaar’s comment.) So, being asked about it, I’ve had to consider the matter pa bit.

I suppose the first point to be made is that it’s clearly an international trend, not one peculiar to South Africa – I saw a report recently that the same thing is happening to Australian wine.

Secondly, if one is concerned with environmental issues, this is a trend to be welcomed even more than the move away from those dreadful ultra-heavy bottles that are now starting to look rather old-fashioned. It’s a much more energy-efficient way of transporting wines long-distance.

As to quality, thirdly, I don’t see that there needs to be a problem. Not long ago I noticed that a particular bulk-exported wine made for Paul Boutinot (the British importer who owns the fine Waterkloof estate) was getting very good reviews from English critics. He told me that he’d originally exported in bulk for technical reasons, but was sticking to it for reasons of cost (though his Waterkloof and cheaper False Bay wine are still bottled here). Modern transport systems can do bulk wine very efficiently if care is taken.

And cost is, of course, a crucial point. Thanks to Consul Glass, which has a virtual monopoly, bottling costs are higher in South Africa than anywhere else I know of. This is the issue that the government, if it is going to do or say anything about the matter, should deal with. In fact, given the national government’s notorious lack of interest in helping the wine industry, I’ve been wondering if it is not actually responding to the need and greed of the packaging industry rather than the needs of the wine industry – not for the first time (it was once cynically claimed, with regard to the old regime, that the wine industry in South Africa is basically an adjunct to packaging). Because a switch to bulk exports would probably affect employment in the bottle-producing plants more than at the wineries – even the big ones, many of whome export a large proportion of their wine in bulk already.

It has sometimes made me wonder, these high prices charged by Consol, why there is no competition for them. Someone did tell me that a Chinese company not long ago investigated the possibility of opening a new glass-making plant, but abandoned the idea on discovering that Consol had one of those cosy deals with Eskom, meaning that it paid vastly less for its electricity than everyone else. Which is horribly plausible. And clearly a vital issue in an energy-intensive business like glass production.

I’m sure the government is genuinely concerned about a loss of jobs consequent on a big shift to bulk exports. Of course, there’s another side to it which is that if decent quality Cape wine becomes cheaper internationally because producers don’t have to pay an extra tax to Consol Glass on the way, then more might be sold. Or if there was some creative government support for wine. Perhaps. But anyway, this jobs issue is partly a matter of politics. If you’re a nationalist you will obviously deplore the loss of jobs here; if you’re an internationalist (permit me to raise the mere possibility) you will note that it means increased employment somewhere else and try to find other (international) answers to problems of unemployment and poverty.

Either way, I think we must expect the trend for more bulk exports to continue – and not think that it’s going to be countered by suggestions of bulk imports of whisky. For one thing, given how much Consol would charge for local whisky bottles, it would push up the local price of whisky substantially – and whisky is quite possibly of more personal interest to many government members and influential supporters than is wine, sadly.

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