Groot Expectations: South Africa Confronts the Wine Bottleneck Syndrome

People think that growing quality grapes and making great wine are big challenges — and they are right — but that’s not the whole story. There are a great many obstacles and complications that taken together sometimes make selling wine even more difficult than making it. I call the problem the wine bottleneck syndrome

The bottleneck syndrome is particularly troubling for South Africa just now, which looks to the U.S. to pick up some of the slack left by a stagnant European market. (The South African flag even looks a little like a bottleneck design, don’t you think?)

The largest wine market is the world is hard to ignore, but when I was in the Cape Winelands two years ago to open the Nederberg Auction I sensed great uncertainty about how to get the job done.  Realistic goals, but few proven strategies when it came to the U.S. market.

A lot has changed in two years and now I sense greater confidence and see concrete plans in place. I’ll use this column to highlight a few of the initiatives we discovered on our recent visit.

International Cellar Door Sales

Last week I talked about the importance of wine tourism and South Africa’s many advantages. If there is a better region anywhere in the world for wine tourism I don’t know what it is. But the Cape is geographically remote from both Europe and the United States. Wine tourists who are used to making purchases and taking them home run into significant logistical problems.

What you need is a bit of “Star Trek” magic where you taste and buy the wine in Stellenbosch or Robertson and it magically appears at your door in London, Paris, Seattle or New York.  This magic now exists in the form of drop shippers in Germany and the U.S. who stock the wines in their warehouses and then quickly and efficiently ship them to Europe and the UK and U.S. addresses respectively in response to South African cellar door orders. A logistical solution to the wine tourist’s problem. Beam up my Sauvignon Blanc, Scotty!

I discovered the program when I spied a special offer notice at the Durbanville Hills winery tasting room. Buy 18 bottles (mixed cases allowed) and get free delivery to your home in Europe within 5 business days. Wow, what a service. Albert Gerber explained that they use a German  firm called Red Simon that specializes in sale and distribution of South African wines and handles remote cellar door sales delivery for a number of wineries.

Adinda Booysen at  the historic Lanzerac Wine Estate alerted me to a similar program here in the U.S. Cape Ardor is associated with Red Simon and operates in much the same way, although with some difference in terms of participating wineries and subject to the peculiar restrictions of U.S. wine shipping regulations. These long-distance cellar door sales programs have the potential to more successfully leverage the wine tourist market and to make sure that follow-up sales can be efficiently managed.

Defining Brand South Africa

Image really isn’t everything (the old Nike ads were wrong), but it matters a lot in the world of wine and South Africa’s wine image is still being defined here in the U.S. and in other markets. I have argued elsewhere that building a regional wine brand is everyone’s business — it is not just the responsibility of Wines of South Africa or Wines of Chile, etc. — and requires a multi-prong strategy. I have praised a group called Australia’s First Families of Wines, for example, for taking the lead in the ultra-premium export sector of that country’s wine industry.

piwosa

We were pleased to discover a similarly focus effort called Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa (PIWOSA). Like the Australian group, these wineries span the most important regions and present many different styles of wines. What they have in common is a set of values and a commitment to quality, which they seek to communicate to define their niche in the  marketplace and that hopefully will help define South Africa’s position, too.

Prominent on their website (and in the shared goals of the producers, I believe) is an ethics charter. Interestingly, the charter includes not just a set of abstract commitments but a statement of what it means in practice. South Africa seeks to identify itself with sustainability and ethical production and this group makes a strong statement.

PIWOSA isn’t the only private group that is taking the initiative to raise the country’s profile on world wine markets. The Cape Winemakers Guild  and the Nederburg Auction have a long history in this regard, for example, and the recent successful AfrAsia Bank Cape Wine Auction used Napa-style flair to raise money for charity and raise awareness of South African and its wines.

Three of the PIWOSA members — Paul Cluver, Jordan (Jardin here in the U.S. because of trademark considerations) and The Winery of Good Hope — have taken the next step by collaborating on import and distribution in the U.S. market, gaining scale and exploiting their shared goals and diverse products lines.

Developing Distribution Channels

We were also impressed with several other positive initiatives to develop Cape Wine distribution in the U.S. market.  Some U.S. importers and distributors have really embraced the potential of South African wine. For example, we found ourselves in frequent conversation with clients of Broadbent Selections, one of the leading importers with an impressive Cape Wine portfolio that includes A.A. Badenhorst, Cape Point Vineyard, De Wetshof, Delaire Graff, Dorrance, Sadie Family Wines, Savage, The Curator, Vilafonté, and Warwick Estate.

Broadbent (and they are not alone in this)  seems to be making a major investment in developing the South African premium wine market here in the U.S. and these wines are a great foundation. Our discussions with Mike Ratcliffe (Warwick and Vilafonté), Danie De Wet (De Wetshof) and Duncan Savage (Cape Point and Savage) revealed both distinctive wines and strong brand identities, both of which are surely necessary when taking aim at the cluttered and competitive U.S. market.

Some ambitious export projects are still in the development stage.  Distell, the South African wine, cider and spirits market leader with a portfolio of brands that includes Nederberg, Durbanville Hills, Two Oceans and Fleur Du Cap, is putting resources into a  focused assault on the U.S. market. I am hopeful that Distell’s initiative when it is fully implemented will be successful for its own select brands and will also help elevate awareness of  South Africa and its wines more generally.

When Size Does Matter

Volume is valuable in the U.S. market if only because the fixed costs of market penetration are high, so we were impressed by multi-tier programs, with higher volume premium wines paired with ultra-premium products. At Stark-Condé, for example, their limited production Stellenbosch and  Jonkershoek Valley Cabernets and Syrahs (which I compare to wines from Napa Valley’s Stags Leap AVA) share a distribution channel their more popularly priced M-A-N Family Wines, which are made from grapes sources from 30 farmers in the Agter-Paarl region. The resulting scale is a market advantage.

The M-A-N wines are both delicious and very good values — the Cabernet, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage have been selling for less than $10 recently in my area. The Pinotage will surprise any Pinotage-haters in your circle. The fruit comes from low-yield bush vines and the easy-drinking wine can give popular Argentinean Malbecs a real run for their money.

Although the market strategy is a bit different, Antonij Rupert‘s Protea brand is another developing success story. Rupert’s fine wines and its very distinct vineyard specific Cape of Good Hope brand are necessarily smaller production propositions. So having Protea with its ever-so-memorable bottle (Sue, who is a fiber artist, really loves the designs)  and wide distribution to lead the way is a plus.

Excelsior Wine Estate is currently the best-selling South African brand in the U.S. market and so they already have that useful volume that the M-A-N and Protea wines are growing into, but that doesn’t mean that they are standing pat. Sue and I recently saw Excelsior Hands Cabernet Sauvignon at a local Total Wine store. It is part of Total Wines’ “WineryDirect”  portfolio of directly sourced wines, which seems to now be a key element of that retailer’s business model.

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South African winemakers are trying many different approaches to breaking through the wine distribution bottleneck. Not all will be equally successful and some will surely fail, but I think the net result will be very positive, both for South African producers and for U.S. consumers, too. I plan to revisit this topic in the future to see what lessons can be learned.

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2 responses

  1. Mike,

    We arrived in Stellenbosch late last night and your most recent post was the first email I read! Excellent insight, information, and suggestions to the RSA wine industry. Tomorrow I have breakfast with the new ED for WOSA; I’ll see what her reaction is and report accordingly.

    Carry on ~

    Dave Jefferson President, Burdell Properties & MD, Silkbush Mountain Vineyards email: Dave@Burdell.com website: http://www.silkbush.com cell phone: 415.342.3141

    >

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