Groot Expectations: Is South Africa #1 for Wine Tourism?

P1070944Sue and I returned from our visit to South Africa with many strong impressions and great memories.  Maybe the single thing that struck us the most is this: the Cape Winelands are a wonderful wine tourism destination. The best we have ever visited? Perhaps!

And this is important because wine tourism is now widely seen as playing a critical role in the industry. It is not just a way to sell wine at the cellar door (with direct sales margins), although that can be important to the bottom line. And it is not just a way to fill hotel beds and restaurant tables, although that is clearly important from an economic development standpoint.

A Sophisticated Industry

Wine tourists are also wine ambassadors, who carry a positive message back home with them. They sell the place, the people, the food, and of course the wine. That’s why Australia is betting so heavily on wine and food tourism to turn around its image on international markets. My friend Dave Jefferson of Silkbush Mountain Vineyards has recently called for more attention to promoting wine tourism in South Africa and I think he’s on the right track.

The South African wine tourism industry is very sophisticated as you might expect with people like Ken Forrester and Kevin Arnold involved. Forrester has made his restaurant 96 Winery Road a key element in his winery’s business plan and Arnold says that he sees filling hotel beds as a primary objective.  If the hotels are full of wine tourists, he is justifiably confident that his Waterford Winery will get its share of the business. They are two of a growing list of South African wine producers who have invested in the wine tourism strategy.

The variety of wine tourism experiences is striking ranging from vineyard safaris at Waterford to a stately home visit at Antonij Rupert to luxurious spa facilities at Spier. We loved the lush gardens at Van Loveren in Robertson and the warm Klein Karoo feeling at Joubert-Tradauw in Barrydale.  The opportunity to sip Riesling during a children’s theater performance in the forest at the Paul Cluver Estate in Elgin was memorable.  There is always something new around the corner.

Our photo collection from this trip seems to have an equal number of images of beautiful scenery and mouth-watering plates of food. I think wine tourists will be struck both by the physical beauty of the Cape Winelands and by the high quality restaurants that a great many of the wineries feature.Jordan lunch

A  Sticky Experience

The splendid winery restaurant opportunities in South Africa may come as a shock to many Americans who are used to touring at home since in the U.S. the rule seems to be that food and wine should not mix – at least not at wineries. That’s wrong, of course, but the result of America’s archaic alcohol regulations.

I think the restaurant at Domaine Chandon may be the only one of its kind in Napa Valley, for example. And of course in some states including New York wine sales in supermarket settings are forbidden. Wine and food — a dangerous combination!

One key element of the wine tourist business is to create an experience that makes visitors slow down, stop and take a a little time to let the impressions sink in – a “sticky” experience if you know what I mean. Vineyard and winery tours can do this and various sorts of specialized tasting and pairings experiences work, too, but maybe nothing is quite as effective as the opportunity have a great meal  in a fabulous setting along with the wine you have just sampled.

The list of great winery restaurants in South Africa is very long – some of the highlights from our brief visit are Jordan (where Sue enjoyed the beet salad above), Diemersdal,  Stark-Condé, Lanzerac, Glen Carlou, La Motte, Kleine Zalze, Fairview and Durbanville Hills (the view shown in the photo at the top of the page  is of Cape Town and Table Mountain at sunset as seen from the Durbanville Hills restaurant).

So what are the keys to being a wine tourist in South Africa? Well, first you have to get there, of course, and I think many people wish that there were more direct flights to Cape Town. Our SEA-LHR-CPT route on British Airways was long and tedious as you might imagine, but pleasant and efficient by contemporary air travel standards.

Wine Tourist Checklist

Once you are on the ground, will  need a couple of essentials. Here is my short list.

First, a rental car with a GPS unit. You can do a little wine touring without a car, of course, booking one of the many day tours out of Cape Town. The historic Groot Constantia winery is actually on one of the routes of the hop-on hop-off tourist bus that shuttles visitors to all the main scenic location. But renting a car opens many more doors. The roads in the Cape wine region are mainly quite good and and the region itself is fairly compact, so driving is certainly an attractive option.

South Africa drives on the same side of the road as Britain and Australia but the adjustment if you have to make it is relatively easy. You will need the GPS because many of the wineries are a bit off the beaten path and while GPS units all have their quirks, they are extremely useful here.

Second, buy a Platter’s Guide as soon as you hit the ground in Cape Town. You can get a physical copy or a digital subscription, but be sure to get a Platter’s Guide.  Most people will buy this guide for its ratings and recommendations of the current release wines of just about every South African producer, which we found very helpful even if subjective ratings need to be used with care. But the wine ratings are not the whole story.

I especially like Platter’s  for its detailed factual information about each winery, which I see as a necessary prelude to a successful visit — plus the practical contact and visit details, including GPS coordinates. Many wineries are on unnamed roads, so it is necessary to have the latitude and longitude coordinates and Platter’s data is very up to date.

These resources, plus a sense of adventure and a curious nature, are the essential equipment for a successful South African wine tourist trip (common sense helps too — as the sign at Groot Constantia says, don’t feed the baboons!).

If you would like to go beyond the basics, I heartily recommend Tim James’s excellent 2013 book Wines of the New South Africa, which provides more depth and detail concerning the history of South Africa wines, the grape varieties, the regions and many of the wineries. I studied this book before our trip and the effort paid off.

I love maps, but I could not find a wine atlas of South Africa here in the U.S. As we were leaving the Cape area Cobus Joubert gave us a lovely Cape Winelands wall map that he has produced and I wish I knew about it before we came. It is an impressive and beautiful document with a map of the wine regions on one side and basic information about the wineries (including those critical GPS coordinates) on the other. Not essential, I suppose, but very useful and very desirable and it is a great addition to my collection.

What if you can’t travel to South Africa? Then I guess they have to get their wines to you. I’ll talk about the new wave of export plans that will make South African wines more widely available in the U.S. market next week.

>>><<<

P1070630I am known to love the braai, South Africa’s national feast. Meat grilled over wood coals, salads and veggies, wine and friends. Can’t beat it. Nothing brings South Africans together like a braai.

Special thanks to Albert and Martin at Durbanville Hills, Meyer at Joubert-Tradauw and Johann at Kanonkop for inviting us to join their braais!

Groot Expectations: South Africa Wine Report

P1070420South African wine is not as well known as it should be (and soon will be) here in the United States, which is both surprising and not. You might think that South Africa would have a higher profile given its long history and large wine production, for example.

Cape winemakers produced about 10 percent less wine than Chile in recent years, about 10 percent more than Germany and about four times (!) the total wine production of New Zealand (according to OIV statistics).

That, my friends, is a lot of wine. Given those figures and how ubiquitous Kiwi, German and Chilean wines are, you might expect to see a South African wine on every shelf or nearly so.

South Africa Surprises

But numbers aren’t everything in this case. South Africa produces a lot of wine and much of it is consumed at home or shipped off to Europe, the traditional export market for more than three hundred years.

The lack of a strong presence in the U.S. market is due to this and to other factors. The South Africans like to say that Americans don’t seem to know very much about geography and I think this is true although not exclusively a Yankee trait.

Some Americans are surprised to learn that South Africa is a country and not a region, for example, but even my friends who follow soccer and therefore know that South Africa is the country that hosted the 2010 World Cup are often surprised to learn about South African wine.

The Invisible Wine

Ignorance is therefore one reason why South African wines are not better known but there are others. South Africa reentered the global wine market in the 1990s, which in retrospect was a critical moment for the world of wine. Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina all had “coming out” parties within the span of a few years. It wasn’t always easy to get noticed with so much new wine on offer.

Easy to get lost or forgotten — ask Bulgaria, which had previously had an important presence in UK supermarkets! South African wines were among the replacements in the UK, but had less success in the US market, which is structurally difficult to penetrate and hotly contested by both domestic and international firms. Add to that logistics issues and some early problems with consistent quality and you can begin to see why South Africa got off to a slow start.

But times have changed and Sue and I wanted to see how South Africa was changing, so we flew to Cape Town where I gave the keynote speed at the NedBank VinPro Information Day program, a meeting of more than 500 wine industry leaders, and tried to learn as much as we could in a short (three week) period of time.

Intense and Extreme

It was quite an intense (and extreme) experience as we visited 30 wineries, talking with owners, winemakers and export and marketing executives. I will paste the list of wineries at the end of this post to give you some idea of who we met and where we went. This was Sue’s first visit; I was here in 2012 to open the Nederburg Auction (click here to read about that visit and to see all the columns about South Africa).

A lot has changed in just a short period of time and I will be writing about what I learned in the next few Wine Economist columns. Perhaps the biggest change I found was in a clearer sense of direction.

When I visited two years ago many winemakers knew that they needed to explore new paths (entering or reentering the US market was the most common topic of conversation but perhaps that’s because of my American roots), but when and how were usually questions without answers. They had some idea of what had not worked in the past, but no clear sense of what to do differently this time.

Great Expectations

Fast forward to our many conversations this year and the change is dramatic. Many perhaps most know what they want to achieve and they have developed clear strategies to get them there. The plans are not all the same (nor should they be) and they probably won’t all succeed (that’s the wine business for you), but there is a certain confidence as they put their best feet forward. We were impressed!

Next week I will tell you more about our reasons for optimism about South African wine. And then, since I am an economist, some necessarily dismal science perspectives since wine is such a difficult game and dark clouds and silver linings are difficult to separate.

Finally, we want to tell you about a few of the extreme wine people we met on this trip. Wine is a people business as most of you already know and it is the people of South African wine who are the greatest reason to be optimistic about its future.

>>><<<

The image at the top of the page is a painting of four seasons of wine at Klein Constantia Estate.

Here is a list of most (but not quite all) of the wineries and winemakers we visited on this trip. Special thanks and deep appreciation to everyone who took time to meet with us!

Groot Constantia

Klein Constantia Estate

Cape Point Vineyards

Lanzerac Wine Estate

Glen Carlou

Paul Cluver Estate

Spioenokop Wines

Iona Vineyards

Joubert-Tradauw

 De Wetshof Estate

Excelsior Estate

Springfield Estate

Van Loveren

Durbanville Hills

DeGrendel Wines

Diemersdal Estate

Fairview Winery

De Toren Private Cellar

Jordan Winery (Jardin in the U.S.)

De Trafford Wines

Warwick Estate and Vilafonte

Waterford Estate

Backsberg Wine Esate

Stark-Condé Wines & MAN Vintners

Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons

Anthonij Rupert Wines

La Motte

Kanonkop Wine Estate

World Tour Update: VinPro and the Unified Sympoisium

The “Wine Economist World Tour” (my calendar of talks and book signings) is starting to fill up and the end of January 2014 looks like a particularly interesting couple of weeks. Lots of frequent flier miles — and maybe a bit of jet lag, too!

On January 23 I will be in Somerset West, South Africa to give the keynote at the Nedbank VinPro Information Day program. VinPro is a key service organization for 3,600 South African wine producer members. It strives to both represent the wine sector and to further its development. I’m pleased to be invited to speak to South African growers and producers at this important event.

Fast forward a few days and I will be in Sacramento, California at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the western hemisphere’s largest wine industry gathering speaking in two of the sessions.

On Tuesday, January 28 I will be moderating an afternoon panel on “Using Data for Better Decision-Making.” The premise is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure and many in the wine industry would benefit from a more systematic approach. Here is the official description of session.

This session will explore how to use data to better understand and run your business. Presentations will include operating and financial benchmarking data and how these data can be applied to your business for improved decision making. Attendees will hear how benchmarking data are gathered and analyzed, and what it means. A winery and a grower representative will provide examples on how they started measuring various forms of data, what tools they acquired or developed, and lessons learned. They will also share best practices and identify the biggest problem areas for good data measurement and use. The session will end with key takeaways to consider in implementing better data tools for your business.

Then on Wednesday I will be one of three speakers, along with Jon Fredrikson of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates and Nat DiBuduo of Allied Grapegrowers of California, at the “State of the Industry” session (Extreme Wine readers will recall that I wrote about this event in Chapter 6).

The State of the Industry session will provide a comprehensive look at every aspect of the wine industry, from what’s being planted to what’s selling. This 2½ hour session features highly regarded speakers and delivers incredible value for attendees who need to understand the market dynamics of the past year and are seeking insight into the market trends that will define the year ahead.

My job will be to bring a global perspective to the discussion. It’s an honor to share the stage with Jon and Nat, who have both earned the respect of those of us in the industry. Looking forward to hearing their remarks!

Hope to see you in Cape Town or Sacramento or any of the other stops on the world tour!

Elephants Optional: Two New Reports on South Africa’s Wines

President Obama’s recent trip to Africa (including his much publicized pilgrimage to South Africa) presents us with a good opportunity to reassess our views. Africa has its problems and challenges (don’t we all!), but also successes and opportunities. This is true generally and, thinking specifically of South Africa, about wine.

Two new publications ask us to remember what’s old about South African wine even as we embrace the new. I’m talking about James Molesworth’s cover feature in the current issue of Wine Spectator and Tim James’s just-published book Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution (University of California Press, 2013).

Wine Spectator Showcase

The Wine Spectator report gives South Africa the full glossy wine magazine treatment (over 30 pages of text and photos), starting with James Molesworth’s “At a Crossroads” essay then continuing with a tasting report including ratings for more than 500 wines, a short list of wine recommendations, selected producer profiles, and brief travel recommendations for Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, Paarl and Swartland.

Molesworth does a great job capturing a sense of South Africa’s dynamism — this s a country that is moving quickly into the future. It was interesting to compare his ratings with my own experience when I was in Cape Town last year. I am not an expert taster and I always defer to those who are, but I was pleased to see some similarities in our reactions, particularly regarding the many fine Syrah and Rhone blend wines as well as the Bordeaux-style reds. And we seem to agree that many of the white wines are both extremely delicious and present extremely good value.

If there is one place where we differ just a bit it is Pinotage. I went to South Africa a Pinotage skeptic based on my early experiences with the grape variety back in the 1990s, but I have become a convert. Molesworth correctly notes that many of South Africa’s early post-Apartheid exports were not up to snuff and that’s when U.S. consumers like me got their first tastes of South African wine and their first (and sometimes last) experience of Pinotage.

Pinotage has certainly changed along with the wines more generally as the industry has caught up with international standards  and I found many favorites among wines made from old bush Pinotage vines and with careful use of oak, so I might put Pinotage a bit higher on the scale than Molesworth, but I wouldn’t want to press too hard to make it a “signature varietal.” South African wine is diverse and can’t be captured in any single wine, region or style.

I guess Molesworth just didn’t find the quality he was seeking in Pinotage. Or maybe the South Africa story is easier to tell Americans (at least for now) with Pinotage in the background. Either way, this useful survey of the territory is recommended Wine 101 reading for anyone who wants to discover (or re-discover) South Africa’s wines.

Wines of the New South Africa

But of course Wine Spectator only scratches the surface — it is impossible to do more than that in a few dozen pages. So if Molesworth’s fine feature makes you want to learn more, head straight for Tim James’s new book, Wines of the New South Africa: Tradition and Revolution.

James digs down a good deal deeper into South Africa’s wine story in his 300+ pages of text and simple maps. The heart of the book is a collection of chapters on ten key wine producing areas with both general regional information and detailed profiles of the major wine producers. The profiles are very much up-to-date and capture effectively the dynamic nature of South African wine today.

The regional discussions are preceded by exceptionally informative overview chapters on history, grape varieties and wine styles and South Africa’s Wines of Origin system. The chapter on grape varieties and styles surprised me — I didn’t think an analysis of the grapes and so forth would be so interesting and teach me so much about South Africa and its wine industry.

This is a fine book  — well-written, detailed and interesting — that deserves your attention. What could make it  better? Perhaps James (or another author) will publish a colorful wine atlas of South Africa to supplement this volume. South Africa’s terroir is so complex and interesting — it would be great to see it explored (and illustrated) in equal depth.

Follow the Wine to South Africa

South Africa is one of the world’s top ten wine producing countries, so it more than fills the 300 pages available here. Want do learn even more? I guess the next step is to take a trip, which is what Sue and I are doing early next year.

I was hoping that the Wine Spectator’s travel section would be useful in making plans, but perhaps I was expecting to much. The collection of brief restaurant and hotel profiles whets the appetite, that’s for sure, but the luxury lodging choices are pretty  much outside my budget range.

Wine Spectator publisher Marvin Shanken says that Johann Rupert nagged him for years to visit South Africa and now that he finally has done it he urges us all to follow his lead. Molesworth and James give us a road map. Start packing you bags. And don’t forget your corkscrew.

>>><<<

About that Wine Spectator cover photo. Elephants? Really? With all the beautiful Cape winelands vineyard and winery scenery, I wonder why they fell back on a cliché like African elephants? Oh well, if elephants are good enough for Wine Spectator 

Extreme Wine South Africa: VinPro Information Day 2014

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be returning to South Africa early next year to speak at VinPro Information Day on January 23, 2014. (You can read the agenda for the 2013 Information Day program here.)

VinPro, the service organization for 3600 South African wine producer members, announced yesterday that it will merge with Wine Cellars South Africa, creating a unified wine industry organization.  I’m honored to be invited to speak at the first Information Day program for the combined group and I look forward to meeting everyone and sharing what I know about global market developments while learning more about the dynamic Cape wine sector.

My previous visit to South Africa (to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote at the Nederburg Auction) was eye-opening — my only regrets were that I didn’t have more time to visit and study the different regions and that Sue wasn’t able to join me. Both of these concerns will be addressed this time as we will spend a couple of weeks touring before Information Day. Still not enough time to do justice to the Cape Winelands, but a big improvement!

We are just beginning to plan our visit. Use the comments section below or write to Mike@WineEconomist.com if you have suggestions of where we should go and what we should do.

Thanks again to VinPro for this opportunity. Looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones at VinPro Information Day 2014.

Busting the Big Tank Myth: Durbanville Hills

dhwThere are easier ways to get to Durbanville Hills Winery than aboard a snorkel-equipped Land Rover, but I don’t think there’s a better way to go.

They brought out the 4×4 vehicles (snorkel-equipped — who knew? — so the engines can breathe even in deep water crossings) so that we could experience and appreciate the hills, the vineyards and the rugged terrain even before we came to the winery itself and the braai lunch that was planned for us there.

My visit to Durbanville Hills Winery started as adventure and became a learning experience about the diverse nature of wine in South Africa. Now it is also Exhibit A in the case against the One Big Tank myth that I wrote about last week.

The Big Tank theory is that giant wine and drinks companies with dozens of brands in their portfolios offer consumers the illusion of choice, not real choice. It’s as if all the different wines came out of one big tank.  Although there is a grain of truth in this idea, I think it is fundamentally bogus and Durbanville Hills is a case in point.

From Oom Tas to Nederberg Noble

Durbanville Hills Winery is part of the Distell drinks empire. As I wrote last week, Distell is South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer and is a global power in several beverage categories. They superficially fit the Big Tank stereotype, but within their range of brands you will find choices over a wide range starting with very basic wines such as Oom Tas (described as “an inexpensive, dry, golden, unsophisticated wine of constantly good quality and taste”) and Kellerprinz (” an unpretentious, fun wine, its quality is nevertheless good and consistent, offering value for money”) and moving on up the ladder to the rather special Nederberg Noble Late Harvest wine I wrote about last year.

Durbanville Hills Winery is a relatively new addition to the Distell group.  The winery is beautiful in a modern way that does not seem out of place for its setting. The public spaces are welcoming, the restaurant gets good marks and you can’t beat the views looking out over the vineyards or on to the city. It looks like Distell has put a lot of time and money into the operation and the result is impressive.

Even Lettie Likes It

The wines are impressive, too. I especially liked the Sauvignon Blanc, which seems to do especially well in these hills. And the Pinotage is good enough to get a nod from self-confessed Pinotage-hater Lettie Teague, wine critic for the Wall Street Journal.

Durbanville Hills’ wines are distinctive (which runs counter to the Big Tank myth), but in fact the whole operation is unusual and not what you would expect from a “drinks company” winery at all.

Durbanville Hills was founded in 1999 as a partnership between Distell and seven wine farms in this region and the first wines were released in 2001. This area has a long history of wine growing — the youngest of the farms was founded in 1714 according to the winery website.

Triple Bottom Line

Distell’s representatives sit on the winery board, as I understand it, along with the farmer partners plus a workers’ representative. The wine farm workers have a 5% equity stake in the business that is administered through a trust that provides a number of social and economic benefits to workers and their families. Durbanville Hills was one of the first wineries to be accredited by the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association. 

Cellar master Martin Moore is an enthusiastic promoter of a particular brand of sustainability that is sometimes called the “triple bottom line” approach (although he never used this term when talking with me). Businesses need profits to sustain themselves in the long run, of course, but economic sustainability doesn’t mean much if the environment is sacrificed (true for all business, but especially for wine), so you have to add that factor into the equation. And what are planet and profit without people? Communities must be sustained along with business and the environment. So true sustainability is the intersection of the three spheres of life taken together.

To quite intentionally organize a wine company around these values is a long term commitment and not the sort of thing that you associate with a corporation nervous about quarterly earnings reports. But it seems to me that everyone at Durbanville Hills is in this for the long run and the structure of the business is meant to keep it that way. It’s an impressive achievement and it makes a glass of Durbanville Hills wine a particularly satisfying drink.

Not Free Range

Clearly there are values and principles beyond a simple short-term profit motive behind the Durbanville Hills project, but they are usefully balanced with a sense of realism — you have to be pragmatic to make the triple bottom line work because this idea of business  isn’t about avoiding trade-offs, it’s about confronting them and making effective choices.

I saw this in a sort of sustainability manifesto that Martin Moore gave me at the end of my visit. Moore writes that, “We farm responsibly … not organic, not biodynamic … but sustainably.”  I think his point is that it is difficult to balance all three bottom lines if you swear off potentially important tools. “I would not even claim that we have free range vines,” he jokes, “as most of it is stuck in a trellis system.”

But I do believe that if we continue improving strengthening our 3 pillars of sustainable farming Durbanville Hills, our producers, our farm workers and community will hand over a successful business to the future generation without having to apologize.P1040576

Myth and Reality

Clearly Durbanville Hills Winery doesn’t fit the Big Tank theory and I think it is an indication that Distell and other giant wine and drinks companies are capable of offering wine consumers real choice — choice in both the wines themselves (which is the point after all) and in the entire wine experience.

It would be easy to make the case that Distell and Durbanville Hills are special cases. South Africa has a unique wine history that stretches back for hundreds of years and a unique social history, too, which motivates many there to address directly issues of race and inequality.

And then there is the Rupert family’s influence on Distell. If anyone understands the the benefits of product differentiation and avoiding a Big Tank syndrome, it is probably the Ruperts, whose broad holdings control many luxury brands including Cartier. They would certainly appreciate the business value of distinctive products compared with Big Tank uniformity.

Distell is a unique wine company in many ways, but I don’t see it as unique in terms of the Big Tank myth.  While I don’t deny that there are a few Big Tanks out there, in general I believe that even giant wine companies have strong business incentives to provide consumers with diverse choices (and even in some cases to take seriously the triple bottom line).

It is a sad fact that some of the great potential diversity of wine production does get filtered out by the logic of distribution and retail economics, and the vast scale and scope of the wine giants indirectly contributes to that problem. But, as I said in my last post, it takes a village to raise a child and it takes an entire supply chain to deliver diverse wine choices … or not. But it’s not just a Big Tank problem.

>>><<<

I realize that one example, even a really good one like Durbanville Hills, isn’t enough to bust a myth (n=1 is a pretty small sample size). But there are lots of examples if you only take off the “Big Tank” glasses and look around.

Thanks to Cellar master Martin Moore and Managing Director Albert Gerber for taking the time to answer all my questions at Durbanville Hills and Cape Wine 2012. The images up top are from the winery’s website.

The “One Big Tank” Myth

My recent post about How Much Choice Do Wine Drinkers Really Have? made the point that true diversity in wine choice is complicated. Although there are constellations of wine brands that are theoretically available, from a practical standpoint the choice available to you depends on your price point “comfort zone,” how you shop (on-line or wine club versus bricks and mortar stores), where you shop (local shop versus national chain store), where you live (state regulations vary enormously) and many other factors.

It takes a village to raise a child, they say, and it takes an entire product chain to raise up a diverse selection of wine … or not!

The Illusion of Choice?

A persistent concern is the influence of giant wine companies with dozens of wine brands in their portfolios. The conventional wisdom seems to be that these big firms merely create the illusion of choice, not choice itself. I guess the idea is that all of these different wine brands actually pour out of the spigot of one giant wine tank. If they all come from Gallo (or Constellation Brands or Treasury Wine Estates, etc.) then they must all be the same — or so similar as to make choice irrelevant.  I call this the “One Big Tank” theory and I think it’s a myth, although like all myths it contains a grain of truth.

The reality is that giant wine companies can and often do produce distinctive wines. And smaller operations sometimes pump out quantities of relatively terroir-free negociant wine to pay the bills. Size matters in wine, but it’s not the only thing. My motto is still “think global, drink local,” so I am not arguing against small terroir-driven producers, but I think at least some of the big wine companies have an undeserved poor reputation from the wine choice standpoint.

Giant wine companies have many advantages: access to capital, technology and vineyards, for example, and economies of scale in purchasing, distribution  and some aspects of production. What matters from the consumer choice standpoint is how these advantages are employed. You can aim to fill that one big tank as cheaply as possible or you can leverage the large scale advantages to create real quality and diversity.

Big Tank Stereotypes

A good example of how the myth unravels at least some of the time comes from my visit to South Africa. I was a guest of Distell for part of my visit (Distell owns Nederberg and I gave the keynote at the Nederberg Auction) and this gave me an opportunity to learn about the company, which is South Africa’s largest wine and spirits producer.

If you go strictly on stereotypes, Distell has got to be one of those “big tank” operations because it has most of the defining characteristics. It is, first of all, a “drinks company” and not a “wine company,” to use a distinction I first heard from a New Zealand winemaker (who worked for a “wine company,” of course). Here’s how the wine vs drinks dichotomy works.

Wine companies make wine (and only wine) and are often family owned. Drinks companies, on the other hand, manufacture all sorts of alcoholic beverages and are usually public corporations.  Whereas wine companies think tradition and  terroir, the story goes, drinks companies think marketing and product positioning.  Wine companies sometimes stay in the founding family’s control for generations. Drinks companies often get acquired, merged and traded back and forth like properties on a Monopoly board.

Distell fits the drinks company profile pretty well. It dominates the market for brandy in South Africa and is the leading wine producer, too. It is the world’s #2 producer of cider, another “drinks” category. Distell has strong international interests and owns  both a French Cognac house (Bisquit) and an Asian distributor. It has over 30 spirits brands in its portfolio and an even larger number of wines, wine apertifs, ciders and “ready to drink” beverages.

Distell is probaby best known in the U.S. for its Two Oceans and Fleur du Cap wine brands, but its hottest product is a cream liqueur called Amarula, “the Spirit of Africa.” It is the #2 best-selling cream liqueur in the world according to the company’s 2012 annual report.

Circumstantial Evidence

Distell also has a complicated business history.¹ The current firm was created in 2000 with the merger of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery and Distillers Corporation, but the history stretches back a ways. Key players include the South African billionaire Rupert family, which controls a diversified multinational business portfolio (they own the  Richemont  group of luxury goods companies, for example), the South African wine giant KWV and the big beer player SAB (think SABMiller — SAB stands for South African Breweries).

So, Distell fits the big tank  stereotype pretty well and some of its products have the classic “drinks company” profile, too. But the evidence that wine choice at Distell is an illusion is what Perry Mason would call “circumstantial.”  Can a “drinks company” like Distell offer consumers wines that give then a real choice and not just an illusion of choice?

Inside the big drinks company I found a good deal of counter evidence to the big tank theory. Join me in my next post as I climb into a snorkel-equipped Land Rover 4×4 and visit Distell’s Durbanville Hills Winery.

>>><<<

The top image is an historic example of a great big tank: the famous Heidelberg Tun, made in 1751, with a reported capacity of 220,000 liters. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about it in A Tramp Abroad (1880). 

Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.

¹ Most of what I think I know about Distell’s business history I learned from the company’s investor website and from Nick Vink, Gavin Williams and Johann Kirsten, “South Africa” in Kym Anderson (editor), The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work (Edward Elgar, 2004).