The pandemic’s painful impact on the SA wine industry

by | Jan 27, 2022 | Article, Covid-19, News, Wineland

Covid-19 has affected millions of people worldwide, whether through illness and death or mental conditions like anxiety and depression. The serious consequences of stress, fear, loss and sadness cannot be ignored. Never before has it been so important to listen to the voices of those impacted by the pandemic. – By Wanda Augustyn 

When a family business that provides an income for both spouses is handicapped by a ban of 196 days on the sale of the product that keeps its doors open, you use your common sense and quickly learn that less is more.

This was the case for Celeste Truter, co-owner of Truter Family Wines, the winery in Wellington she has been operating with her husband Hugo for the past 10 years.

When the first lockdown and total ban on the sale of alcohol was announced in March 2020, Celeste thought, how bad could it be? Today, almost two years later, “growth” and “profit” are words they haven’t used in a positive sense for a long time. “We are in a survival phase, but we try to think out of the proverbial wine box every day,” she says.



These two winemakers, known for their courage and innovation, had to quickly find an alternative form of income and were lucky to come across opportunities to export their fruit. It was a hard and fast learning curve. “We had to get our website user-friendly in a flash and enter the wild world of social media,” she recalls.

“We’re still deciding whether it was a good plan, and we hope that it will ultimately help our business to grow. Fortunately Hugo is pedantic about our cash flow and we kept a constant eye on our banking app to make sure we balance the books.”

The wines of Truter Family Wines were mostly sold internationally and in Cape Restaurants pre-Covid. But the business lost a huge  share of the restaurant market with the collapse of the hospitality industry. “We put in a lot of effort with our international buyers and managed to mostly maintain this market share, while the increase in e-commerce was also encouraging,” says Celeste.

It wasn’t only the business that was cause for concern however. Celeste and Hugo have a son, Chris, with co-morbidities which dangled the sword of Covid over their heads daily. Chris (15), one of twins, underwent a heart transplant a few years ago and uses an immunosuppressant to prevent the rejection of his new heart. This obviously placed him in a high-risk group for Covid-19.

“We were worried about how Chris would fare in this new normal,” says Celeste. “But fortunately our family is adept at pulling together, protecting each other and living day to day. We therefore started to keep him and this brother Basson, at home a week before the lockdown was even announced. I had to get my algebra up to scratch in a hurry to give them home schooling, while Hugo kept his contact with other people to a minimum.

“It is difficult not to live in fear, but we decided a long time ago that we would live every day to the full and not wait for the president’s next announcement or until lockdown levels change. We’re blessed to live and work in a beautiful town, and to have access to many bike and hiking trails where we try to spend as much time as possible. In the meantime, much more information has become available about transplant patients and we have been able to make more informed life decisions.”

Today Celeste and Hugo are involved in more projects than ever. They help other cellars to make wine, sell buyers’ own brands and also help wine start-ups and businesses to get their projects off the ground.

“Nowadays we are much more focused and our products are also more streamlined,” says Celeste. “Sadly we have had to retrench some of our staff, but on the other side, we’ve also had the opportunity to ponder the future. To reflect on the 10 years of doing our own thing, and imagine new dreams for the next 10 years.”

The whole family has since been vaccinated. “I sought advice from two people who I have known for years and whose informed and professional opinions I trust – not the internet. We also considered our family’s road with vaccines and other medication. We know that the vaccines can’t only be good, but the same goes for something like cancer treatment. We live consciously with our decision.”

For these two wine enthusiasts, the future looks exciting. “Naturally,” says Celeste. “We determine it. It was our dream to have a career that is not office bound, meet new people, start new projects and spend time with our children and friends.”

“I survived Covid”

 “The darkest moment of Covid-19 was to sit in an isolation ward and wait to be examined while I struggled to breathe,” says Marisah Nieuwoudt, a familiar face in the wine and tourism industry, and manager of wine tourism at Vinpro. She was slightly dumbfounded, but not surprised when she received the positive result via SMS on her cell phone.

Marisah Nieuwoudt, manager of wine tourism at Vinpro.

True to her calm nature, her first instinct was to make a list of everyone she had been in contact with before she started to show symptoms and self-isolated – the waiter at the restaurant who gave their table such friendly service, friends who were with them at the venue – everyone was contacted and asked to be mindful of their health and possible Covid-19 symptoms.

Marisah’s five-year-old daughter, Stella, contracted the virus at the same time and, because Marisah had serious symptoms herself, her husband Philip had to take care of both of them. But 10 days later he too tested positive and altogether they had to spend more than 20 days at home isolating.

For Marisah, who plays an important role in the wine industry, especially in the midst of the pandemic, it was an extremely challenging and uncertain time. “It was a difficult patch for our household having to balance three Covid-19 patients and two demanding full-time jobs. I had to represent the wine industry in important discussions during this time, while our trade was suspended once again on 12 July last year. And my job also required that I handle time-bound actions for our projects. One has to prioritise the most important duties and work in short chunks as your body is able to manage.”

But ultimately she was too sick to work. “I did not expect to escape Covid-19 and wasn’t surprised by my diagnosis, but I was very surprised at how sick I was and how quickly my condition deteriorated. I don’t have any morbidities and am still relatively young, but nevertheless ended up in the casualties unit of my local hospital within five days of my diagnosis with lung problems and hypothermia. It was undoubtedly my darkest moment to sit and wait in the isolation ward and wait to be examined while struggling to breathe. I have enormous appreciation and respect for the medical staff who treated me with great care and empathy while I actually posed a threat for their own health.”

Today Marisah is fully vaccinated. “I counted down the days until I could go for my first vaccination – I had to wait for 30 days after I had Covid-19. I felt very vulnerable until I received my second vaccination and it gave me a degree of protection.”

After her Covid-19 experience, she is especially thankful for the commitment and expertise of the doctors, nurses and scientists worldwide who developed a vaccine within such a short space of time. “I am also grateful for the incremental personal freedom that we’re able to win back as more and more people get vaccinated. And for a local supermarket chain that delivers food items to your door within 60 minutes – without them it would have been a miserable 20 days in our house!”

Her advice to others after her experience? “Please take responsibility for your health and the health of your loved ones. It is almost impossible to predict how Covid-19 will affect your system – take my word for it – and too many people have already lost family and friends in this sad time.”

“I saw people younger than me die”

Dr. Zane Stevens, endocrinologist at the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital.

Dr Zane Stevens is an avid wine connoisseur and collector. He is also an endocrinologist at the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital and tends to Covid-19 patients as volunteer in the hospital’s high care unit. After two years of the pandemic, he admits that it has had an impact on all aspects of his life.

“I think, like for everyone, it is very difficult to live with the feeling of your movements being restricted. Through my work I see the terrible impact of this virus first-hand. It has made me more hesitant than others to go to restaurants with large numbers of people, something I always enjoyed – to spend special time with friends and family over a nice plate of food and glass of fine wine.

“Travelling is also a big passion – the experience of learning new things and to see how others live, has always energised me. It is probably the thing I missed the most over these last two years. How quickly things can change makes me especially anxious however. The thought of being stranded somewhere, whether due to infection or borders closing, is an even more frightening prospect. That is why I have avoided international travel thus far.”

Apart from the mental health aspect of Covid, Zane’s personal life has also been affected – his wedding has already been postponed for two consecutive years. He is also very nervous to visit his older family members for fear that he might be asymptomatic and can transmit the virus, and so harm his loved ones unknowingly.

As a doctor who works with Covid patients in the high care unit, it was probably unavoidable that he too would eventually be exposed to the virus. “I suspected I had Covid when I started to feel sick, but to see the result with my own eyes was terrifying. I couldn’t help to think about all my other relatively younger, fitter patients who had started to deteriorate a week after their positive result. Luckily I recovered fully without any of the long-term complications some survivors struggle with.”

“Yet Zane’s darkest moment wasn’t his positive test result, the fact that he couldn’t travel, or his concern over the whole situation the pandemic had brought about. As medical doctor he knows patients sometimes die. “But the feeling of helplessness over the past two years, while you watch people die around you, is something I’ve never experienced in my career previously.

To tell someone his wife died in another hospital were she was admitted because we didn’t have enough beds to admit them together, or to put both parents on a ventilator and know that their chance of survival is very small while two young children are waiting at home for mommy and daddy to get better, took a heavy toll. The worst thing is to accept the death of people younger than oneself, perhaps because it forces you to come to terms with your own mortality.”

In the meantime Zane tries to manage and balance his career and personal life with all the challenges of Covid. “I am vigilant and avoid big gatherings. Life goes on and I have a responsibility toward my patients. We take all the necessary precautions at work to protect ourselves and our patients. In my personal life I have a small group of friends who I see regularly and try to enjoy short getaways, which do my mental health a world of good.”

As a medical worker, Zane was among the first people to be vaccinated in South Africa, and he recently received his J&J booster vaccination. “I cannot emphasise enough how important vaccination is. It is our best tool to return to a more normal life. This pandemic will not end without the majority of the world’s population getting vaccinated. Vaccines do not only protect you, but also the people around you by slowing the spread of the virus and decreasing the risk of new variants developing.”

His message to the wine industry and those working in the value chain? “Get vaccinated. It allows our society to stay open so we can sensibly enjoy the things we do and want to do.”

“I lost two of my loved ones to Covid”

 “Riaan was admitted to the hospital on 18 July last year. On 20 July he was moved to the high care unit. On 21 July he was connected to a ventilator. We lost him on 26 July.” This is the tragic story Riana Ehlers tells about her husband, Riaan, who was a well-known figure in the Cape Winelands.

Riaan and Riana Ehlers with their two children, Elri and Riaan-Louis.

Along with their children, Elri (6) and Riaan-Louis, the couple travelled to their family farm 180 km outside Upington for a well deserved break in the July school holidays. Shortly after their arrival Riana developed mild cold symptoms, but she wasn’t sure whether it could be lingering effects of hayfever or the car’s heater during their trip in icy cold weather.

Riaan also felt a little unwell and spent some time in bed on the Wednesday. When he woke up on Thursday with a tight chest, they drove to Upington where he tested positive. They went back to the farm, but Riaan felt it was better to return home to be close to good medical care. They packed up and went home to Paarl on Sunday, with Riana’s father Japie, who meanwhile also tested positive, joining them.

Upon their return to Paarl, Riana took her father and Riaan to a doctor. His news was paralysing: There was only one bed available in the Mediclinic and as Riaan’s oxygen levels were so low, he would receive preference. Riana would have to take care of her father at home in the meantime. What followed was the darkest week in Riana and her children’s lives.

Her father got so sick that he too was admitted when a bed became available, and Riaan was transferred to the high care unit where he had to be put on a ventilator a day later. “I was allowed to see him, but we couldn’t talk. I could only hold his hand.”

Five days later Riaan died at the age of 42. “The worst part is the loneliness that descends on me at night after the kids have gone to bed, and doesn’t let go,” says Riana. “Every morning when I wake up, it feels like someone rips my heart from my chest, and squeezes the lifeblood from it. We did everything together in our marriage of 12 years.

We had the perfect marriage. I was the introvert, he was the extrovert who could easily turn a stranger into a friend. We loved socialising with friends, and enjoying good food and wine of course. Riaan was such a beloved person, and he was crazy about his kids.”

Just after Riaan’s death, Riana had to convey the dreadful news to her father in the hospital where he was still fighting the virus. She also had to arrange Riaan’s memorial service. “I think my dad realised that I needed him. He really fought against this virus. And defeated it. I picked him up from the hospital and took care of him at home for three months before he was healthy enough again to go back to the farm. And he wasn’t even back there for a month…now I have to bury him too.”

For Riana it is the everyday things that knock the wind out of her. “I have to be everywhere every day for the kids. I have to suddenly make all the decisions on my own. Reprimanding the kids is hard. Riaan was the breadwinner and I always joked that I earned a charity salary with my hair salon. Now I am the breadwinner and the primary caregiver. I wasn’t ready for this.”

Her salon has become her haven. “Working keeps my head and hands busy and the memories at bay. Because when I think back, I sometimes get angry. There are people who get divorced or cheat on their spouses, but our marriage was made in heaven. Why did it have to happen to us?”

“We went to the farm before we were eligible for our vaccinations. Today I am vaccinated, but if only we were able to do it earlier… Yes, I support vaccination. If you can do something to prevent losing a loved one, why wouldn’t you do it? It makes no sense. Things could have been so different.”

Friends and family have kept her standing during this dark time. “Everyone loved Riaan so much, which is probably why we’ve received such incredible support. We also just recently bottled the Amivino friendship wine. It is a blend of Cabernet and Shiraz, and this year we dedicate it to Riaan.”

The back label reads: The hearts of the Amivino circle of friends don’t always just know joy, laughter, sarcasm and friendly banter. Sometimes there is also hurt, adversity, loss and goodbyes. This special red wine blend is dedicated to a great friend, legend and founder of the Amivino circle of friends. “The Riaan Ehlers Collection blend has unlimited ageing potential, but is best enjoyed now, tomorrow and every day you have breath in your body,” says Riana.

* The day WineLand chatted to Riana was precisely four months after Riaan’s passing and five days after her father’s passing. Our sincere condolences go out to Riana, Elri and Riaan-Louis. Riaan certainly was much loved in the Cape Winelands and we will always remember his smile.

*This article first appeared in the January-February 2022 print issue of WineLand Magazine.

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