Coronavirus and SA wine: Michael White of Highlands Road

By , 12 May 2020

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Michael White of Highlands Road.

The current conversation around Coronavirus and its effect on the South African wine industry is perhaps inevitably very emotionally charged.

We put the same set of questions to a variety of industry stakeholders with a view to obtaining a better understanding of what’s happening on the ground and also plotting a way forward. Here is how Michael White of Highlands Road in Elgin replied:

How badly has Coronavirus crisis impacted your business?
A few weeks ago we all thought that leaf-roll was the worst virus that could impact a winery – and now Coronavirus that doesn’t even affect a vine!

It’s a touch surreal, with all of us smarting at how comprehensively we could be impacted upon by a combination of a (perceived?) human existential threat and regulatory imposition that seems to have overstretched its usefulness – to be euphemistic!

While we all grudgingly understand the motivation behind the attempts to regulate a generally routinely not entirely law abiding citizenry through alcohol deprivation compliance inducement, as is so often the case the conception just, bluntly, misses the point by a country mile and a furlong.

I don’t believe for one moment that, in toto, one drop less alcohol has been consumed than would have been the case over the period involved, but the price paid by the industry, fiscus, and community is astonishingly disproportionate to the achieved result.

Highlands Road has a strong direct to customer business model as opposed to on-consumption and liquor store reliance and so, accordingly, we are (cautiously) hopeful that our loyal customers will still, over an extended period, purchase and consume as much of our product as they would have.

What we have learnt is that we have to strengthen these relationships and expand the direct to consumer trade which has served us well to date – e-commerce and distribution channels, with less emphasis on outlets, are seemingly going to be the order of the day for a while at least.

How many wineries do you foresee closing as a result of the pandemic? What future for growers?
I think we are going to see the disappearance of some wine brands, and certainly a good measure of (probably needed) consolidation in the mid- to mass-production sector.

Hopefully not naively, I take a somewhat contrary view to the cataclysmic predictions that abound at the moment when it comes to disappearance of actual wineries, rather than brands.

We’re a resilient lot, and many wineries are to no small measure funded by other means than internal profitability.

That’s not to say that there are not going to be casualties, but I am optimistically hopeful that our winery demise stats will be in line with South Africa’s current infection rates and not those of Italy.

I hope that we don’t lose too many good people to other pursuits along the way though.

What plans do you have in place to get going again once restrictions are eased? How will doing business be different?
We have had a super 2020 vintage, which we will hopefully unleash with aplomb on our market in a year or three – as we usually do in line with our policy of ageing.

We’re certainly going to focus even more on our direct sales, while also working closely with Elgin Grabouw Tourism.

What will the South African wine landscape look like after the pandemic? Will the industry recover quickly or will it be changed forever?
I know this is going to sound very new-age philosophical, but every day that we wake up our world has changed forever and that is not going to be any different going forward.

The changes in this time are somewhat more dramatic than what would be regarded as normal, but (as with nature and evolution) I do believe that we will adapt, albeit with a period of hardship.

Hopefully the tough times will force us to focus on what we’re actually good at, and not on what we’d (misguidedly perhaps) like to be good at.

Despite the completely understandable view that gloom might be the prevailing mood, I prefer to subscribe to the classic Pete Seeger principle – “We Shall Overcome, Someday!”

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