Tim James: On wine allocations

August 9, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 7 Comments

sadie-selectionThere are various ways of coping with a demand that exceeds supply. The basic method dictated by our splendid economic regime is, of course, price: you can only have it if you can afford it. Stalinist Eastern Europe relied more on a willingness to queue for any luxuries available to the general public.

As for Cape wine, for many years in the modern period probably only Boekenhoutskloof Syrah had the cult status that prompted allocation of a limited resource – and sense of achievement if you managed to get any. Just about everything else sat on retailers’ shelves most of the year.

Now quite a number of local wineries are happily learning that dealing with wines in great demand is one of the nicer dilemmas to have. Price rises for many of them have inexorably followed, as well as fairly elaborate ways of controlling access to the stuff. That includes forestalling more-or-less unethical foreign and local buyers wanting stuff for resale (which has been a real problem). So producers like Mullineux, Alheit and Sadie impose quantity limits on their private sales.

Sticking to those three examples, one sees different strategies. Mullineux and Alheit both rely largely on established mailing lists (with queues waiting to join). Seniority, in principle at least, trumps mere money. Chris Mullineux tells me they get in all their requests by a stipulated date and work out an allocation based on what is wanted and what is available – and on one’s place on the list. Alheit do some of the sorting out in advance by actually having two email lists – if you’ve thus far only made it onto list B, you might not have access to the wines made in smaller quantities.

This is all pretty democratic, in a limited sense. I’m intrigued by the rather elaborate method that Sadie Family Wines used this year (after virtually selling out pre-release last year, on the basis of the “offer” made to their mailing list). It’s actually a more democratic one, in that even seniority doesn’t count – it’s a touch more like the East European queuing system.

Well, seniority does count for 50 long-time big buyers in the “Member’s Club”, who get six-bottle cases of each of the eight Ou Wingerdreeks wines and the two Signature wines. Otherwise, this year anyone (anyone who knew about it, that is) could put in their order (cases only) by email after 8am on the release date, and orders would be attended to strictly in order of receipt. (I suspect this trick was learnt from the method of selling tickets to the late lamented Swartland Revolution!) Only one case of any one wine, and six cases in total, could be bought per day – and I’d guess many wines were sold out during day one, perhaps during hour one .

Retailers had different provisions, but the most interesting is for those with pre-release allocations. They agree to sell only single bottles to their customers – not full cases. “By keeping to this agreement they are enabling more people to get access to the wines and for this we are very grateful,”says the winery. Wanting the wines to get around to a wide range of winelovers is not mere lip-service, either. It’s worth remembering that the remarkably low prices, given their reputation, of most of the Ou Wingerdreeks wines (they could be doubled, even trebled, and still sell out easily, making a great deal more money for the winery) are low precisely because Eben Sadie wants his wines to be drunk and enjoyed, and not objects of veneration and speculation for just the rich.

Of course, all the cult wineries that make sure their wines are at least briefly available to the alert beyond their mailing lists are doing something similarly generous. They could sell all their stock themselves, at greater profit, but choose not to. Let’s hope this practice continues.

Meanwhile, it’s still not too easy to get a bottle of Sadie Kokerboom or Alheit Magnetic North or Mullineux Schist. But the winelover’s triumph and pleasure when succeeding is perhaps the greater. There’s now also the excitement of the chase to be factored in.

  • 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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7 Comments

  1. HennieAugust 9, 2016 at 3:05 pmReply

    I can tell that Sadie had to sell out in seconds because my email for 2 cases went out at 8:00:40 and I got nothing! Luckily I managed to get a mixed case from Wine Cellar.

    • Kevin RAugust 9, 2016 at 11:24 pmReply

      And isn’t it so much more appealing to savour a wine that everyone doesnt have and that cant be replaced by just heading down to the local bottle store? Well done for getting some. (Still deciding how long to age the Skerpioen)

      Is it wrong to say that wines which are priced to sell out over the full course of 12 months leave the consumer to be more interested in cherry picking the best vintages as they know they will be able to get their hands on some from a choice vintage (because the wine is so readily available at that price point)? Does the consumer end up treasuring the vintage more than the label thereafter and if they do is that missing the point of the wine?

      Every bottle of Sadie will be treasured regardless of vintage – for me thats going to help people love wine more (and the weather less) because something as unique as each different wine is shouldn’t be available in abundance in my opinion. Reward your biggest fans first because they are your greatest sales staff ;)

    • LloydAugust 11, 2016 at 3:12 pmReply

      Trying to get a few bottles of Old Vine in Johannesburg is even harder. I think only 2 or 3 “Boutique” stores received allocations, and although Eben aims for those to be distributed fairly, you can be sure they’re reserved firstly for VIP customers (the rich), and wealthy foreigners (often both and the same). I think online merchants like winecellar.co.za offer a more reasonable, fair chance and price for the local wine lover to enjoy these fine wines, and it would be great to see them receiving a greater allocation than your local boutique store, where you’re forced to check your dress code and accent before inquiring for wines.
      Great article by the way Tim.

      • Kevin RAugust 11, 2016 at 9:14 pm

        Contact La Cave in La Lucia Mall (just north of Durban) if you are desperate. Last I checked they still had stock of 4 of the Old Vine Series

  2. Kevin RAugust 9, 2016 at 10:29 amReply

    Have to take my hat off to producers such as Sadie and Newton Johnson.

    It’s incredible that they’ve broken out of the general mould of ‘sell your wines for as much as you can’ even though they could double their prices over night and still be competitive in value terms, so high is their quality.

    Consumers do indeed enjoy a wine more if it is more scarce (by being affordable) and harder to get their hands on as a result.

    This perspective and pricing strategy will see these farms receive loyalty (thanks to offering both quality and value making for truly lovable wines) for decades to come whereas other farms risk losing a fan permanently if one +R400 wine even slightly underdelivers on expectations.

    Brands are built on consistent quality first and foremost. The thrill of attaining a hard to come by wine will see the consumer treasure that brand all the more.

  3. KwispedoorAugust 9, 2016 at 10:08 amReply

    “… because Eben Sadie wants his wines to be drunk and enjoyed, and not objects of veneration and speculation for just the rich.” And we thank (and admire) him for it. Most of the great wines of the world – by reputation – are drunk almost exclusively by journalists and the super-rich, while passionate wine lovers are resigned to read about them. Cheers to actually drinking great wine!

  4. Angela LloydAugust 9, 2016 at 9:42 amReply

    The advantage would-be buyers of Eben Sadie’s wines have is that they can taste before buying, even if such tasting is by invitation. The Mullineux’s do hold a tasting, but for media and trade and anyway once the mailing list has gone out. Alheit and Boekenhoutskloof (which for several years now hasn’t sold the wines individually but in a mixed case of 12) are bought on trust, if one’s on the list. That all do sell out via these methods, speaks of their admirable consistency.
    It’s interesting to remember the speed with which Thelema Cab, then with a regular release date (1st June?) and Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1st July, sold out; they still do, but probably due to larger quantities, sales are spread over a longer period. Due to restrictions of vineyard, that’s unlike to happen with the above producers.

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