Fruits of the Vine On-line

Wednesday, 18 February, 2004
Peter May
The power of the web

'Fruits of the Vine’ at is the first online exhibition by The National Library of South Africa. It is a work in progress but already there is a wealth of information on the history of wine in South Africa.

Wine is an appropriate subject for the Library as it was founded in 1818 on the proceeds of a wine sales tax.

The Fruits of the Vine’ exhibition, under the direction of Gabrielle Ritchie, is intended to highlight the Library’s collections related to the subject of wine in South Africa and to celebrate 185 years of library service. Gabrielle told me ‘we are still busy, but have some key sections up. We have tackled a range of issues from beginnings, labour (including slavery), empowerment, religious attitudes to wine, etc and will shortly be including a section on design packaging and labels.’

At time of writing, four of ten planned sections were on-line. ‘Cultivating in Good Hope’ tells the story of wine in South Africa from its first mention in 1595, when Cornelis Houtman’s east bound expedition traded Spanish wine for meat with Khoi herders at Mossel Bay, up to 2003’s Wine Industry Plan. Among the text are contemporary documents and engravings.

‘The Mystic Harvest’ examines cultural and religious attitudes to wine. The part wine plays in major religions is examined, including why Islam moved complete abstinence. ‘Lie of the Land’ tells how early vineyards were planted too densely for animals to till and thus triggered the importation of slaves to work the land. It took many years for vineyard workers conditions to improve and the exhibition doesn’t shrink from examining the effect of the DOP system and alcohol abuse.

‘Vineyard Vignettes’ contains some of the huge collection that did not easily fit elsewhere and some deemed simply ‘too enjoyable to exclude’. We see the modern concern about high alcohol levels is not new. The exhibition relates how at the 1873 Vienna International Exhibition wines from South Africa were ‘so charged with alcohol as to shock continental palates’.

And we can gaze at the flexed muscles of a tough guy in a 1970’s advert for ‘Good Pure Strong’ Virginia jug wine – ‘the wine for men who enjoy being men.’

This exhibition is a must for anyone interested in South African wine and shows the power of the web in making available documents and pictures that would otherwise be viewed by only a few who can visit the library in Cape Town. I’ve already added it to my Favourites list and will be returning regularly to see the exhibition grow. National Library of South Africa’s Fruits of the Vine on-line exhibition is at

Pictures: From Fruits of the Vine website:

Issued by: Peter May