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Fair trade in the wine world

The fair trade label applies to wine, too, especially wines from South Africa, which has produced world-class vintages since the 1700s.

Buzz: Hey Marnie, what does "fair trade" mean on a wine label? I've seen it on coffee and thought on wine it meant the wines were made for fairs and conventions.

Marnie: No, Buzz, it's a social-justice movement that promotes sustainability and equality for the communities that produce the goods we buy, especially in the developing world.

Buzz: Wow, that sounds like something started by the hippies.

Marnie: Not really, Buzz. A number of organizations provide certification on ethical standards and grant the right to apply a "fair trade" seal on packaging to inform consumers. Many agricultural goods are sold as fair trade, from cotton to wine.

Buzz: Third-world cotton, maybe, but wine? Wine country is always rich, isn't it?

Marnie: You'll see more fair-trade chocolate and coffee from truly disadvantaged regions in the tropics. Grapes need temperate climates to thrive, though, so the countries that export fair-trade wines tend to have less extreme climates. These tend to be places with low land and labor costs in the southern hemisphere. South Africa is the largest exporter; the fair-trade movement has played a big role in that country's postapartheid economic restructuring, but there are a few from Chile and Argentina, too.

Buzz: Can wine grapes grow in Africa?

Marnie: Most of Africa is too hot for wine growing, but at its southernmost tip, the small Western Cape region of South Africa is cooled by ocean currents. World-class wines have been made around Cape Town since the 1700s, but it's the quality improvements of the last 30 years that are most relevant to wine drinkers today. While most farmland remains in the hands of white landowners, many are making earnest efforts to help their largely black workforce through the fair-trade movement. Fair-trade South Africa also enforces sustainable agricultural practices. Doing more good in the world can taste good, too.

Buzz: I love that idea. And not just 'cause I was a hippie in the late 1960s drinking Boone's Farm.

More on local sommelier and wine author Marnie Old at Buzz's musings are interpreted by Gar Joseph.