Getting a Taste For Fair Trade Wine

For me, it started selfishly. I’d recently settled in the Okanagan, the heart of BC wine country, and I was delighted to discover how much the industry had evolved in the last 30 years. I met the local personalities behind our wine, the farmers and producers, and have become more invested in their success. I realized that the issues they face also threaten the things I love. The joy of scouting the best produce at our farmers’ markets and visiting local wineries, breweries, and distilleries for tastings, if taken for granted, could feasibly disappear.

Motivated by these concerns, I began to wonder more broadly about the future sustainability of our food sources and eventually joined the Slow Food Canada Thompson Okanagan Convivium, which is part of “a global, grassroots organization linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment.”

Slow Food was founded in 1989 as a non-profit, member-supported association “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”

It was when I got to know the local farmers and producers as individuals that I appreciated how my food choices could impact them—this is also true for farmers and producers around the world.

Which brings us to fair trade wine. While I drink more BC wine than imports, because buying local makes sense on so many levels, I still enjoy trying new products, and I believe that I have no right to extol the virtues of BC wine without comparison. That said, in exploring the BC Liquor Stores for imported fair trade options, I found limited choice.

In another province, however, Manitoba Liquor Marts (MLCC) stands out from other Canadian liquor boards in clearly identifying fair trade products. MLCC was honoured “in recognition of their ongoing commitment to fair trade” at the first-annual Canadian Fairtrade Awards in 2012. MLCC delineates ethically produced wines on its website and in product guides, clearly marking Fairtrade and organic selections that have been third-party certified.

So if getting a taste of Fairtrade wine is so challenging elsewhere in Canada, why bother?

As Sheila Nash, MLCC product ambassador, says, “Beyond recognizing the issues and trusting in the standards set for Fairtrade designation, it sure feels good to give back. Wine is mostly a luxury purchase. If we can go that extra step in ensuring the money is well spent to support people and build communities, why not?”

According to Fairtrade International (FLO), “small families cultivating wine grapes in Argentina and Chile are susceptible to low market prices that do not generate enough income to meet their family’s basic needs. This limits their opportunity to invest in improving farming systems, lowers their productivity, and threatens their livelihood. Fairtrade certification ensures that farmers are able to cover their costs of production, supporting grape growers to maintain ownership of their farms against the pressure of large business competitors.”

In South Africa, where the development of the wine industry depended heavily on slave labour, the legacy of apartheid has limited opportunities for economic advancement.

According to a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, farmworkers producing fruits and wine are some of the most vulnerable people in South African society. They are among the lowest wage earners in the country and are often denied legally entitled benefits. The report describes workers being exposed to pesticides without adequate safety equipment and having limited access to safe drinking water, handwashing facilities, or toilets. The remote locations of agricultural farms means that workers struggle to obtain health care and are often refused sick leave.

Nash says, “The good news is fair trade is making a difference. If you visit these wine producers, you see workers being looked after. It’s not just fair pay. You see hospitals and schools under construction. It goes beyond treating workers right, it’s about building communities.”

In South Africa’s Breede River Valley the Fairhills project, an association of 22 Fairtrade certified vineyards covering 750 hectares, has been marketing sustainable red and white wines globally since 2005, producing as much as 1.5 million litres every year. Fairhills provides safe working conditions and quality housing for workers, and Fairtrade premiums have funded the creation of child care centres, a craft co-operative, scholarships, and adult literacy programs.

Also in South Africa, workers at the Bergendal farm in the Piekenierskloof Mountains, certified since 2003, have used Fairtrade premiums to build a community hall, provide art supplies and a playground for children at their childcare centre, and install solar-powered hot water tanks in employee housing.

Globally, the largest market for fair trade wine is the United Kingdom, which, according to a Datamonitor press release, was worth over UK£26 million in 2009 with expected growth of 18 percent annually over the next five years. Datamonitor analyst Katrina Diamonon attributes this growth to “an increase in quality of Fairtrade wines as well as awareness of the concept as a whole.”

Fairtrade certified wine has been available in Canada since 2007, and demand is increasing. In 2012, Fairtrade wine made up less than 1 percent of total Canadian wine sales by volume from South Africa, Chile, and Argentina (the three nations currently exporting Fairtrade certified wine). While 2011 saw only 32,873 litres of Fairtrade wine sold in Canada, this number increased by 300 percent—more than any other Fairtrade product in Canada—to 151,590 litres in 2012.

MLCC started carrying fair trade products in 2009 and continues to expand its inventory. Part of the challenge is to find new products and carry a consistent stock. Nash described how MLCC is open to supporting small producers with limited supply, but remains mindful of the balance between price and quality. She recognizes that wine has to stand on its own in terms of value and taste, and adds, “I’m impressed with the increasing quality, and prices are competitive.”

Just as I witnessed BC wines improve—and the quality of grape varieties and blends match or exceed those of other regions—the same can be seen in the increasing recognition of fair trade wines, some of which have won prestigious awards. At the 2013 International Wine and Spirits Competition, a Fairtrade-certified South African winery, Place in the Sun, received a silver award for its 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. The UK-based wine magazine Decanter awarded a gold recognition to Tilimuqui’s 2012

Cabernet Sauvignon-Bonarda, which is produced by a Fairtrade certified vineyard in Argentina.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, so there’s no better time to taste fair trade wine and raise your glass to those who tend our vineyards.

Living wage amounts established for South African vineyard workers

As part of its review of minimum prices for South African wine grapes, Fairtrade International (FLO) recently commissioned researchers to develop methodologies for measuring living wages in the industry, a process that considered factors such as local food costs, nutrition needs, living arrangements, family demographics, and product availability.

FLO’s existing labour standards require employers to pay wages that align with national minimum wages, but as FLO has identified, these can be too low to meet the needs of basic living. According to FLO, “A living wage should do more than simply keep workers and their families out of poverty. It should also allow them to participate in social and cultural life.”

The new living wage amounts for the region have been set at R144 (C$14.54) per day—37 percent higher than current national minimums (R105) and 109 percent higher than what they were at the beginning of 2013 (R69). FLO will release its revised standards for hired labour in June 2014, which will require employers to provide annual increases to achieve livable wages, as well as provide the option for workers to spend up to 20 percent of Fairtrade Premiums on wage bonuses.


Author: Roslyne Buchanan

Roslyne lives in the Okanagan and contributes regularly to food, wine, travel, and lifestyle magazines and blogs. @RozDB

"Getting a Taste For Fair Trade Wine" was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2014 edition of Fair Trade Magazine.