Last week’s column was evidently a little silly. That’s okay as I, and others, like a bit of silly. One reader, Domsie, was not that impressed by the silliness and commented:
Harry, as an avid wine drinker I always like reading your inputs.
However, I feel that with this article you’ve let yourself down.
You can do better.
The worst part wasn’t the criticism, but realising on a second reading he wasn’t an “avid reader” but an “avid drinker”. I’ve always wanted avid readers. Being a decent chap, instead of telling him that he, “let his mom down”, or any number of suitable internet style retorts, I thought I would make it up this unhappy reader by letting him/her decide this column’s topic. Domsie obliged:
Although you have the usual old wine farms which have been in certain families for generations, you still get the odd ‘garagista wine farmer’ giving it a go. Without any brand name or track history (of what I’m aware of) they have to compete with the rest of the big boys in the industry. My question & the topic of your next article (should you choose to accept the challenge), is thus: In a crowded wine market such as SA, is there still space for any new entrants? And if so, how should / could you approach things to ensure you aren’t destined for the scrapheap of failure?
This comes across as more of an SA Wine Academy exam question, and is slightly less exciting than I had hoped. I was secretly wishing for a more Std 5 detention style question, you know, “Write five pages on the inside of a ping-pong ball,” that sort of thing. Oh well. Here we go.
Let me answer the first part of the question: Yes, but no. Let me explain. We already have far too many kak-boring wines on the market, wines that simply blend into the crowd, wall-flower wines, wines that wear bad ties and have nothing to say at dinner parties. So if you start producing exciting, really good wines, then there is definitely space for you in a market crowded by the average.
(Sir Mix-a-Lot will enjoy this.) There is however, a big BUT (and I cannot lie – ed). But, I don’t think there that much room in South African wine because wineries don’t make money. Look at many of the exciting smaller labels emerging today, and you will see that most of the young winemakers are working for bigger brands while producing their own wine on the side. Sometimes it feels as though profitability in South African wine leads to average wine. This implies that the average, standard, million-bottle-a-year stuff is more profitable than the more exciting stuff.
I am going to assume the question was asked about smaller wineries looking to produce fine wines, rather than a new supermarket player. So, let’s talk about fine wineries. I see them as producers who are aiming for very high quality, who are trying to produce wines of complexity, balance, nuance and substance. Authentic wines, not spoofulated ones; wines that are about fruit purity rather than winemaker ego. Wines to last, wines that will improve South Africa’s winemaking reputation. I’ll stick my neck out here and make a big generalization – this applies, I would imagine, to most if not all wine producing regions – the majority of wines on the market are not fine wines, but simple consumer products, with about as much complexity and interest as a bag of Fritos.
There is room for better wine in this country. Acres of it. But the question that has to be asked is, is there a market for it? Small wineries with the ambition to make fine wine are fighting for a tiny portion of the wine drinking market. The business is very expensive to run, you have to rely on the elements, and you are competing globally (for a couple hundred bucks I can now buy very fine imported wines). Your returns, if any, are going to be small.What are they to do?
The first rule is simple: don’t be kak. This may be a little subjective – and sound simple. (Domsie, I’m sorry, I hope this isn’t too silly – but there are experienced people in the industry who will be able to tell you if your wine is kak or not.) Don’t be precious, don’t assume that your plan is foolproof, that your wine is the best. Talk, share, find out. There is so much shit spoken to the consumer around the more expensive local wines that it’s no wonder the market is difficult to grow, they can smell the bullshit a mile off.
Tightly knitted around the first rule is the second, be authentic. I believe that fine wine is authentic wine. All of the advice that follows is based on the assumption that the winery is making interesting, exciting, authentic wines, and the winery itself is a reflection of this. If you are not being honest about the wines you are producing, and the wines you are producing are not honest, what are you doing trying to make fine wine?
A tool which these sorts of wineries need to use more to their advantage is social media. I don’t think that it’s going to make or break the winery, but there is a level of engagement that is hugely lacking when it comes to these sorts of wineries. Fine wine makers, I think, are sometimes a little arrogant, believing that only wine people will get their wines. And as such they seem to focus all their marketing on the same old wine writers through the same old channels. What I believe they are missing is the chance to grow the market they are trying to sell their wine in.
I have heard that Eben Sadie, whose top wines sell for around R400-R500, says the size of the local market for his wines is around 400 people. Now while this may be a slight exaggeration, but the point he is making is clear. The number of fine wine drinkers in this country is tiny. So for the new winery, aiming to make interesting wines, the challenge is to grow that market by making new fine wine drinkers.
A good way to do this that I have not seen executed, is to start with the influencers. The new winery has to define who they are targeting, and then determine who are the influencers in that group. Forget chefs, restaurants, and wine people. Think online influencers, think people with an audience. Turn them into fine wine drinkers. How? Simply by providing them with the opportunities to taste really fine wines. Wines that they would not normally bought or drunk. Don’t make it all lifestyle with extravagant food, and fancy decor. Focus on excellent wines from around the world. Get those people excited about wine. Most importantly though, make sure that the message is coming from your brand.
Our wine drinking market is far from mature. Our fine wine segment is tiny. It is the area in the industry where the most amount of growth needs to happen. I think that this has to come from the wineries themselves. Remember, that I am not talking about existing brands making shitty wines trying to convince drinkers that they make fine wines, and as such should fork out an extra R100 bucks for their top-end stuff which is basically their bottom end stuff with more oak and a heavier bottle. That’s not authentic. I am talking about real wine. Real wine from real wine makers that will be the vehicle for a new generation of South African wine drinkers to start paying more for wine. And the wine is worth it. It is worth buying, it is worth discussing, it is worth getting excited about. If wineries can do this there is definitely room for more of them. If not, well, have you tried making beer? We are terribly short of beer producers.
What can you do? Buy wines made by interesting producers. Spread the word. Where to start? Start with the guys featured in this video.
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