Tim James: Do consumers inevitably trade up?

April 14, 2015
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 3 Comments

Van LoverenIt would probably be read as a confession if I say that, as a wine critic, I am neither a nationalist nor a patriot. My delight in the improving quality of Cape wine is partly a satisfaction in seeing advances anywhere, partly that this is a revolution I can enjoy close-up, partly that I now have to spend less money on imported stuff. An international economic system which means that better sales of Cape wines means better local profits and jobs but equivalently fewer jobs for workers elsewhere doesn’t thrill me. I want better wine and decent employment – everywhere.

I want more people to become attuned to the joys of lovely wine of the kind that I think is interesting, satisfying and delicious, rather than vapid. Arguably there’s arrogance and elitism in that position, but, equally arguably, wanting people to have the best stuff is the opposite of arrogant and elitist. I also want wineworkers to have decent and fulfilling jobs – in Chile and Spain too, not just here. I don’t care about anyone making big profits, especially out of cynical stuff.

An inevitable consequence of this is that I don’t identify personally with some called “the South African wine industry” as some of my esteemed journalistic colleagues do when they use “we” when referring to the local wine industry. This position played its part in my reading of a characteristically interesting and informative piece by Cassie du Plessis (former editor of WineLand) on wine.co.za about the recent growth in domestic wine consumption.

Cassie quotes a report on the Sawis website, titled Liquor Consumption Patterns in South Africa (July 2013 – June 2014) which states that “of note in the Super Premium sector (more than R30 a bottle) is the emergence of more and better Chenin Blanc wines and new white blends, as well as the growth of Sweet Red wine. We believe this trend is driven by new consumers and this aug[u]rs well for the wine industry”.

He adds that “the sugar levels have been raised in certain red wines of trendy brands like Tall Horse, Obikwa, The Saints, Fourth Street and Van Loveren (and its Four Cousins) to about 8 grams/litre to find more acceptance among new and younger consumers – resulting in plenty of action around the R30 price point.”

Now this is great news for Van Loveren and the big wine merchants who are already making a great deal of money out of the sort of wine that the vast majority of readers of this website would never drink, and that Christian Eedes has never deigned to review and his partnering wine merchant has never deigned to carry.

It is good news, if you like, for South African wine – for “us”. If those are your references.

Is it great news for wine (as maybe the growth in interest in Chenin Blanc wines and new white blends is)? The answer to that might be guided less by your patriotism than your belief in the “ladder” theory of cultural appreciation. This suggests that you begin by liking Enid Blyton as a child and inevitably end up excited by Thomas Mann and Proust. Etc. It’s quite convincing when it involves progress from childhood, but I’m not sure that most adults enjoying Enid Blyton will get much further than (or regress to?) Dan Brown.

Or that an adult addicted to Four Cousins Rosé or Van Loveren’s African Java Pinotage (apparently a recent beneficiary of the local sales boost – there’s no faulting this winery’s sense of the depths of the market) will be impelled to ascend a ladder and grow to be wild about Mount Abora Saffraan or Porseleinberg Syrah. More likely, at best, you’ll grow to a taste in sweet “serious” reds (witness the success of, for example, many grand and expensive Australian and Californian wines and a few locals.) I really hope I’m wrong in being doubtful about the likelihood – doubtful, that is, except in a tiny number of cases which wouldn’t anyway have required being offered the lowest rung of the ladder.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.



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  1. SmirrieApril 15, 2015 at 9:26 amReply

    I did trade up. I am even now every year trading up.

  2. Cathy MarstonApril 14, 2015 at 5:11 pmReply

    I have to say that I share Tim’s scepticism about whether or not people trade up at a later date – maybe they do, maybe they don’t. But I think there is generally value for everyone in having people drinking more wine – whether it is considered quality by the cognoscenti or not. A culture that normalises wine drinking, takes it away from the ‘special occasion only’ category and makes it something not naughty, just nice is one in which people can learn and grow in their tastes. Maybe this generation of Van Loveren Java Pinotage drinkers will stay with their favourite tipple for all their drinking days (and I sincerely hope for VL’s sake that this proves to be the case) but perhaps them choosing wine over, say, beer or brandy and coke will give their kids more confidence and familiarity with wine when it comes their turn to hit the supermarket shelves. Let them drink Java – as long as it’s wine, we’ll all benefit in the long run.

    • Marthelize TredouxApril 14, 2015 at 5:43 pmReply

      Cathy succinctly beat me to the punch with her comment. Great opinion from Tim, but as Cathy said: at least they’re drinking wine. It’s considerably harder to change someone over from beer/brandy&coke/other to wine than it is to get existing wine drinkers to upgrade. It’s not always a natural progression, but at least they are on the wine wagon already.

      For me, the best example of this is an oldie but a goodie: students. Mostly students (even with proper wine influences from the get-go) start with R30 a bottle (or box) wines. I went through the same Robertsons box-wines-at-Bohemia and Nederburg Baronne-at-the-braai phase that many do – even though I had the opportunity to drink MUCH better fare at the parental home base. And as I managed to move up financially, my wine drinking habits improved accordingly.

      My point is, at least once someone drinks wine, they’re one step closer already and with wine education (be it formally through CWA or WSET or informally through reading blogs and sites like Winemag) becoming more popular lately, the chances must surely be improved to expand Team Wine?

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