Shortage of viticulturists: A cause for concern?

by | Aug 30, 2019 | VIP Only

Viticulturists are becoming a scarce commodity in South Africa, and the decline in this profession in worrying. So, why are students and younger people reluctant to consider a career working in the vineyard? Lisa Lottering investigates.

Although viticulture may not seem as glamourous as winemaking, there can be no wine without grapes and there is still a need for young blood in the industry. 

There appears to be a growing trend of students pursuing oenology instead of viticulture. “However, there is a need for viticulturists, not only at a diploma and graduate level but also on postgraduate level,” says Hanlé Theron, lecturer and head of agriculture at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Wellington. 

Hanlé has noticed a decline in students studying viticulture over the last few years. Viticulture is the successful growing of grapes to make wine. “Students who reject agriculture and viticulture, focus on primary production and don’t consider the complete value chain.” She says there are many opportunities in the industry even if you’re not directly involved with the day-to-day cultivation.

Anne Alessandri, liaison officer for viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University (SU), says students don’t have a choice when completing their degrees. “The course is 50/50 and students are required to learn about both.”

Conrad Schutte, Vinpro’s head of consultation services, says it was concerning when only four students (out of 60) showed interest in viticulture. 

Recognition and young blood required

There are several reasons why students tend to focus on winemaking. Anne, Hanlé, and Conrad all agree that there’s a perception of winemaking being more “glamorous”. Anne says this stems from competitions where winemakers are recognised. “Viticulturists should be recognised for playing an equal role in the production of wine.”

Jamie-Leigh Overmeyer, former student and assistant winemaker at Elsenburg, says she still considers going into viticulture. “The vineyard is where the art starts. If you nurture your grapes, the vine will provide wonders.” 

Conrad says the industry needs young blood and the aim is for students to work with experienced viticulturists before taking over the reins. “If no one takes over the reins, we are just heading towards one big problem.” Hanlé reiterates that industry role players are aging, and their knowledge and experience should be transferred to the new generation. “It will be tragic if hard-earned knowledge and experience are lost to the industry due to insufficient mentorship and guidance.”

Anne says there’s a demand for viticulturists and wine farms are employing more viticulturists compared to farm managers. “People are realising the importance of quality viticulture and what can be done to ensure good quality wine.”

Conrad believes targeting primary school learners could make a difference. He recently learned that Zambia created a public holiday where schools were invited to attend an agricultural expo. “We don’t have to copy and paste this but we could take the principle and learn something to get youngsters involved.” 

Hanlé says CPUT uses open days and school information days to advertise courses and opportunities. “There is a perception of exclusiveness of the wine industry to certain learners. Should the industry be successful in breaking down those barriers, I’m sure the interest will grow,” she says.  

The future of viticulture – people, planet and profit

Conrad says the industry should focus on sustainability, training and development, and profit. “We must look after the planet and ensure we adapt and adhere to changes and challenges within the industry.”

Jamie-Leigh believes that viticulture is a “booming industry” with a demand for young, innovative viticulturists. Young people are aware of environmental issues and will find ways to balance conventional, organic and biodynamic farming, she says.

The younger generation will provide new technology and innovative ideas. “Influencing yields, techniques and many practices that could make the act of farming grapes easier, more appealing, fun and interesting,” she says.  

According to Hanlé, the industry can only move forward if knowledge and understanding are expanded and improved. “Technical skills can be taught but only people with knowledge and understanding of the grapevine will be able to adapt practices based on science.”

“Agriculture is currently produced in a changing climate and the industry should be able to adapt. Business-as-usual will not be sustainable in the long run,” Hanlé concludes.

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