There 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.