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Marthélize Tredoux: What’s really wrong with SA wine exports

April 7, 2016
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 5 Comments

ShipSince Michael Fridjhon asked why South African market share isn’t increasing internationally (specifically UK and USA) when our wines are receiving such high scores from renowned critics (see here), I’ve been chewing on the question, his article and the comments it attracted. Actually, I’ve been mulling this question over for much, much longer than that. My day job is getting South African wines into the hands of US customers. Not retail. Not wholesale. Direct-to-customer sales, exclusively SA-to-USA and directly from the tasting rooms. So I think about the US market all day – and all night, sometimes (because my boss is in San Francisco so thank you, time zones).

A single sentence from last week stuck with me: “…we’re probably not yet ready – as an industry – to step onto the vinous equivalent of the stage at the Met.” and I wholeheartedly agree with it; but perhaps for different reasons the ones regularly cited.

Here’s the thing: when the question about our struggle to increase market share is revisited, it always returns to two aspects: 1) the discussion around the wines themselves (price, quality, variety, style) and 2) discussion around the country in question (their critics’ scoring of our wines, the preferences of the average wine consumer etc.). All important. All relevant. But these broad points do not exist in isolation.

When you think of wine exports as a linear process starting at Point A (the wine in the bottle, at the winery in South Africa) and moving towards Point B (the consumer pouring the wine in the glass on the other end, e.g. the USA), there is a complex chain of many links (under the control of various players) joining the two. In this chain, these links all play a role in the success – or lack thereof – of our exports.

The links of the chain represent every person, company and pair of hands (literal or figurative) that handle, move or influence the path of the wine from Point A to B. These include (but are not limited to) the tasting rooms, sales manager, marketing managers, export managers, shipping companies, importers, agents, distributors, sales reps and retailers.

I work with many of these links. I AM one of these links. And I know many people who are involved in various parts of the chain. We are not only part of it, but we also observe it – every day. We see how the chain fails in different places. And we can’t figure out why nobody else seems to see these failing links – or seems to care.

Weak links could be a tasting room offering lackluster service from underpaid, under-appreciated employees. Or perhaps a sales manager, that sours a relationship with a distributor through poor service. Maybe it’s an importer only bringing in wines that fit their fattest profit margins, but with no interest in adding any SKUs reflecting the better quality offerings. I’d even go so far as to point to winery owners (or MDs or CEOs) who – despite being involved in the day-to-day running of the winery – seem to be rather inept at what they’re doing.

I see the root of the problem as the eyes-on-the-horizon approach that I’ve encountered more times than I can count. Management so intensely focused on the spectacular vision of their wines on foreign shores that they completely overlook the sorry state of affairs inside their own wineries. Bad administration, poor decision making and generally a stubborn refusal to make even the tiniest change because it costs money or effort and they are entirely unprepared to spend either

So perhaps we just aren’t ready to take our place in the spotlight of the international wine stage. Not just yet. Not while our own house is in disarray. The machine isn’t completely broken, but critical parts of the mechanisms simply keep ticking over; functional but rarely efficient. We don’t like taking a hard look at what goes wrong. We don’t really deal well with criticism. We definitely don’t like change and we don’t always play well with others.

I genuinely believe that we are on a path to something incredible – I would not choose to work in the industry if I did not. And I am prepared to put money on the fact that we could be darlings of the global wine scene. But there is work to do and attitudes to change before we get to be the glamorous débutante at cotillion. There’s no fairy godmother waiting to magically transform this Cinderella. If the princess wants her happily-ever-after, she’s going to have to ditch the glass slippers and get to work.

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won the Veritas Young Wine Writers Competition in 2013.

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5 Comments

  1. Michael FridjhonApril 8, 2016 at 4:01 pmReply

    The admirable and anonymous Davey either does not read what other people write – perhaps because he/she knows everything – or else doesn’t grasp the point. In my comment in response to his/her comment to my piece of last week about the structural changes in the UK market I said the following: “So we have the supermarket share shrinking and it is true that the smart end of the trade is growing (but not at the same rate). We should be growing in the convenience stores (because they’re the guys stealing from the supermarkets) – but we’re not. And as the supermarkets shrink, they’re ditching us faster than they’re disposing of the others.”

    Put another way, Davey, if the issues were about the structure of the UK trade rather than about SA wine either we wouldn’t have been on the cull list of the supermarkets or else another sector would happily have picked up the slack.

    As for the other remarks – about foreign commentators and about imported wines (neither of which come with any substantiation – which suggests that Davey has issues of his/her own), I hope the following will serve as a rebuttal: I have been friendly with several of these international critics for upwards of 20 years and have facilitated and funded their travel to SA on more occasions than could easily be counted. These are not the actions of someone paranoid about their views. As for facilitating wine imports – it’s a safe bet that SA wine would not be where it is today if the imports had not been available for our winemakers and our wine drinkers to benchmark with and to enjoy.

    Where we do agree is that these critics – over time – may contribute to a changed perception of SA wine in general, but for this to translate into sales many of the concerns expressed by Marthelize will have to be addressed.

  2. MarthelizeApril 7, 2016 at 1:47 pmReply

    Thanks for the comment, Davey, but as you are basically elaborating more on Michael’s original post, I’m not convinced you read mine at all.

    • DaveyApril 7, 2016 at 5:45 pmReply

      Of course I did Marthelize. I just don’t agree with the linear chain analysis, or pointing the finger of blame at the producers. The biggest issues are strategic marketing ones. In the case of the UK, it’s being caught out by the consumer retail restructuring. Of course there are other challenges, but this is the main one.

      • MarthelizeApril 7, 2016 at 6:32 pm

        Thanks Davey. I don’t mind you disagreeing (at least someone cares enough to have an opinion!), but I honestly didn’t see any connection between your first comment and what I wrote in my piece. And I disagree with you disagreeing, by the way, because I see the problems I listed every single day, ad nauseum. The issues you highlight are simply on one end of the chain.

        I never implied that the issues I touched on were the only relevant ones (even though it’s a pretty long list…). Also, I specifically focused on my experience with wine sales to the USA. I have no experience with the UK. But frankly, expecting that better marketing will be the silver bullet is a bit wishy-washy. Couldn’t hurt, of course, and it’s likely to improve the situation in numerous ways but it’s not a fix all. Lots of messes that should really be cleaned up at home base before we go on to take over the world.

        Last note: USA and UK hardly our only export markets, so consumer retail restructuring in one country probably has little bearing on the problem as whole, no?

        I’m curious, you know a lot about the UK situation. What’s your background/position? I’m assuming you’re not just a Joe Soap consumer, but work in wine somehow?

  3. DaveyApril 7, 2016 at 1:13 pmReply

    He got his facts wrong Marthelize, (and he did only mentioned the UK). He failed to recognize the enormous structural change that has happened in the UK with range culling. This is the single biggest factor affecting SA wine market share in the UK at present. It’s not just one link in the chain, it’s the Mother Pin, bolting the chain to the export pier. This situation will not go into reverse. The strategic challenge facing the SA wine industry is enormous. It has long term implications for all producers who think that supermarket shelves in the UK are the future. In his follow-up reply he suggests chasing the convenience stores who are swiping share from the supermarkets. He does not realise these are the same people (Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s etc) who are attempting to hoover up all the retail food and drink business as consumer behaviour changes. He is distinctly uncomfortable with the recognition top end SA wines get from the likes of Atkin, Goode, Robinson etc. I don’t know why, as he imports Johnny Foreigner wines to South Africa. The reality is that the top brands the critics praise will be responsible for changing the negative perceptions of SA wines. This is the long term brand marketing future for South African wines. And finally, he mixes up the UK and Britain in virtually the same sentence. What hope is there?

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