Wailing, Whingeing and Wine

To anyone who has ever thought that whales and wine are vastly unrelated – except perhaps to say that drinking wine always ensures  that a whale of a good time is had by all – a US-based conservation organisation has somehow made a connection which they hope would have extremely negative repercussions on the South African wine industry.

Canadian Paul Watson, the notorious and fervent environmentalist and animal rights activist who heads up the Washington state-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) from the helm of his eco warrior ship, has pleaded with the global public to boycott South African wine. His extreme call was prompted by the shooting earlier this month of more than 40 beached whales near Cape Town. The whales were euthanised as an absolute last resort after extensive, lengthy attempts to rescue them failed.

To make matters even more absurd, Paul has also issued a demand for local winemakers to band together and to somehow force the resignation or sacking of Mike Meyer. Mike, the director of South Africa’s Marine Coastal Management (MCM), apparently authorised the euthanisation of the whales.

Winemakers have greeted news of Paul and his ridiculous ban with outrage and disbelief. They justifiably want to know exactly how the killing of the beached whales is related to them and the wine industry.

Ironically, the South African wine industry has in past years made strides to adopt and adhere to greener and eco-friendlier guidelines. Earlier this year, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) even made it to fifth place on the 2009 Green List of the 50 most influential drinks companies, individuals and organisations that have “a strong environmental influence over many consumers”.

According to Decanter Magazine, one of the main missions of Paul and his CCSC is to stop illegal whaling. The society is especially fond of targeting Japanese whalers and Paul is notorious for his radical beliefs (such as that only those people who are “completely dedicated to the responsibility” of caring for the biosphere should have children) and for his encouragement of environmentalists to follow ‘monkeywrenching’ – which are tactics of sabotage, covert activity, and direct action – to get their point across.

Several respected industry experts, including wine industry commentator Michael Fridjhon, called Paul and the CCSC’s call for a boycott ‘outrageous’. “As I understand it they tried several times to get the whales back into the water but were unsuccessful. What were they supposed to do? Leave them to die in agony on the beach?” He also pointed out that the local wine industry has “impeccable credentials from a conservation point of view.”

After first denying the boycott, South Africa’s representative for CCSC, Herbert Henrich of Franschhoek later appeared in a televised debate about the issue, and responded to questions about why SSCS themselves didn’t get involved in the rescue of the whales. Wine.co.za cites him as saying that there were no protocols or equipment in place to ensure success of the rescue. “SSCS did not want to be part of a failed rescue where people could point fingers at SSCS and say they had stood by and done nothing.”

His words still don’t make it any clearer why exactly the SSCS, after their own deliberate inaction in the rescue attempt of the whales, decided to now point fingers at the wholly unrelated wine industry.

Ross Sleet, a winemaker at a well-known Stellenbosch winery, viewed the incident through rosé tinted glasses, but did say that it should be regarded as a warning of how quickly the industry could be threatened by unrelated events. He told Decanter: “I suppose it shows we are one of the most visible South African exports. Touch wood it hasn’t hurt sales…”

And hopefully it won’t!

Luckily not all the news this month smacks of sour grapes. A young Sommelier from the Western Cape has won the Chaîne de Rôtisseurs’ Jeunes Regional Sommeliers competition. Mortimer Bester (24) from Knysna, will represent South Africa at the finals in the United Kingdom this September.

Mortimer, who had never even tasted wine before beginning to work as a waiter at a well-known resort in Knysna in 2005, has clearly developed a taste for the industry. A quick study, he rose through the ranks and was promoted to Sommelier in 2007. His well-honed skill and talent also earned him the title of Best Wine Steward in South Africa during last year’s Diners Club International Wine List national awards.

Here’s to Mortimer for infusing this month with a touch of much-needed sweetness!