Greg Sherwood MW: Is South Africa fighting a losing battle trying to conquer the US market?

By , 2 November 2022



It has been one of my long-standing beliefs that South Africa’s best wines share so many stylistic commonalities with those of Californian, Oregon and Washington State especially when it comes to the more widely accepted international varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Whether it’s the climate, the shared modern winemaking culture or just general terroir parallels, the stylistic similarities are undeniable. I often allude to these similarities that I encountered in my early days of wine education in South Africa while studying for my wine diploma. During blind tastings in the mid-1990s, picking an American wine seemed easy – they tasted very much like South African wines, only better. More polished, more elegant, more plush and more luxurious with purer, sweeter fruit and fleshy suave tannins.

I realise such generalisations nowadays would certainly raise a lot of winemaker eyebrows in South Africa and undoubtedly cause a fair amount of indignation. But I would be the first to admit that considering the current quality of South Africa’s top producers, these comparisons don’t necessarily hold true anymore. Not only has South Africa improved its wine quality, cleanliness and winemaking precision, but more importantly, winemakers have fine-tuned their own individual winemaking styles and nuances to emphasize the very best aspects of South Africa’s own complex, multi-dimensional terroirs.

Nevertheless, it remains my experience that wine consumers and connoisseurs who enjoy the best wines of California often delight in drinking the fine wine offerings from the Cape, if for no other reason than they offer not only stylistic similarities but also incredible value for money by comparison. So only four days after returning to London after ten days of wine tasting and vineyard visits in the Cape, I packed my bags once again and headed off to Florida, USA, for another ten days of half-term school holidays with the family.

Very interestingly, after chatting to multiple producers at the Cape Wine 2022 trade fair, I was intrigued to hear how so many of them were slowly but surely giving up on trying to “crack” the holy grail that is the US wine market. Some claimed to have withdrawn altogether siting limited success at great expense while others said they had significantly adjusted their US product offering deciding instead to focus on more volume brands at the $30 or below level while simultaneously slowly reducing or indeed phasing out their $50 to $80-plus wine offerings. All claimed that while trying to sell their top premium wines over the $50 to $60 dollar level, they had simply hit an immovable glass ceiling of resistance from importers and distributors. Whether this was solely because of sluggish sales to end consumers, I cannot say for sure, but I felt safe to make this inference.

Having travelled in and around the USA on average every two years, I have never ever been deluded as to the massive challenges of selling any international wines in the US market. For one thing, the old chestnut that the USA is actually 50 separate markets in each state still rings true. While there is certainly a growing wine drinking culture in each and every state, particularly on the east and west coasts, the consumers in each of these 50 markets are annoyingly for marketers slightly different and respond to different cues in different wine price segments. That is the challenge that faces international producers who managed to master the three-tier system of importer, distributor and retailer.

Studying the composition of wine shelves of supermarkets, liquor stores and specialist wine shops, one can instantly see one of the most basic yet formidable impediments to imported wines – the USA’s own home-grown products from primarily California but also Oregon and Washington State. Walls of local wine brands tower over the consumer, leaving very little room for foreign wines. But of course, first in the queue for foreign wines waiting for shelf space are French and Italian wines. The default purchase for most consumers will remain Californian wine, but on the off chance they look to venture a little further afield, chances are they will match an Italian Chianti or Tuscan red with their pizza or pasta or a French Bordeaux or Burgundy with their roast dinner or barbeque.

In a certain sense, wines from South Africa are maybe a bit too foreign in terms of the current wine hierarchy, not to mention the endless challenge of trying to educate “middle Americans” that not everything coming from Africa is inferior to products from Europe. One can also question if perhaps there is a lack of difference between South African wines and American wines when it comes to consumers looking to deviate from their usual Californian wine purchase. The comfortable point of difference seems to be France and Italy or in some instances, Australian wine. South African producers are simply positioned too far down the line to make any kind of real impression on American consumers.

There are indeed many producers in South Africa that have, over the years, made valiant efforts to break into the mainstream American wine market. Annual trips, trade shows, consumer events, Wine Spectator Fine Wine Experiences, etc. Show your face, work the floor, taste with importers and you are sure to pique a fair amount of interest with well-priced quality wines. The problem is that the US consumers seem to be like goldfish, swimming from one side of the wine bowl to the other, back and forth, and each time they reach the other side, they think it’s the first time they are experiencing something new. There is simply very little durable traction for any or many of our top South African brands in a way that Brand Bordeaux, Brand Burgundy or Brand Tuscany seems to have, these possessing real longevity and staying power in the minds of consumers. South African producers show their faces, they sell a bit of wine. They leave the market and sales slowly decline once again. A very frustrating scenario.

But maybe we’ve got it wrong all along? Perhaps if you can’t beat them, better to join them? This is of course what Anthony and Olive Hamilton Russell have done with their Hamilton Russell Oregon wine labels. Starting a few years back with initially two Oregon Pinot Noirs from Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs, the wine range has now settled down to include a maiden release 2019 Maple Grove Vineyard Chardonnay from the Willamette Valley AVA and a single Zena Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir from Eola-Amity Hills AVA. Both wines are available through their US importer Vineyard Brands and are distributed in 21 different states at suitably premium prices of $65 for the white and $85 for the red.

Talking to Anthony and Olive about how these Oregon wines have completely changed the way US consumers engage with them and their South African wine brands on a personal level is utterly fascinating. All of a sudden, new lights are being switched on in the building and the wine elevator is accessing new higher-level floors. Perhaps it is the extra familiarity that the home-grown Oregon wine brands offer or maybe it is some kind of halo effect that they shine on the other premium South African Hamilton Russell brands. Who knows?

Having a trusted, passionate, knowledgeable and loyal importer and distributor in the USA is undoubtedly the first step in carving out a successful niche in the American market. Making sure your wines are not simply buried in the depths of a two-inch-thick, telephone book-styled wine catalogue is also important. But making sure that the people selling the wines and telling the stories have been to South Africa and have experienced the unique landscapes, terroirs and personalities of the Cape winelands is for me of paramount importance. Only by visiting the Cape winelands and learning the individual wineries stories first hand will any last vestiges of African inferiority be expelled.

  • Greg Sherwood was born in Pretoria, South Africa, and as the son of a career diplomat, spent his first 21 years travelling the globe with his parents. With a Business Management and Marketing degree from Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, Sherwood began his working career as a commodity trader. In 2000, he decided to make more of a long-held interest in wine taking a position at Handford Wines in South Kensington, London, working his way up to the position of Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007.


9 comment(s)

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    Victor Honoré | 24 November 2022

    Americans will NEVER spend a great deal of money on SA wine. If Americans want to spend a great deal of money on a bottle they will buy French.
    The Parker mystique has been gone for several years. 89 of the top 100 wines sold in restaurants are American wines. NONE are South African and never will be. You have a beautiful country and great wines, but forget about the US. Ask Ernie Els, who has outstanding wines.

    Eugene Havemann | 7 November 2022

    Hi Greg
    I’d love to connect with you. We a group of South African Businessmen based in the USA that decided to get behind our favorite brand, Vergelegen. The market is certainly a challenge to crack, but we are finding USA consumers do appreciate quality and are really impressed by what Vergelegen has to offer. Restaurants and Liquor Stores certainly do have an affinity to US produced wines, followed by French and Italian, but we are finding they are becoming more open to South Africa as a region, especially if they know a genuine effort is being made to build a recognized brand, and we not just trying to make the Distributors’s or Retailers do all the work.
    Would love to discuss this with you when we meet.
    Regards Eugene Havemann – VClub

    Aaron Meeker | 4 November 2022


    We import a number of producers from South Africa and I can say with 100% certainty that each of them see not only the viability but also the actuality of growth of their brands.

    The US is more like 50 countries than just one. Looking at a place like Florida and saying that is the ‘state of South African wine in a nutshell’ is a great misunderstanding of the US market. Would be akin to looking at Leeds as saying that is what happens in the UK. While Florida is one of the largest markets in the US, it is one of the least innovative markets and largely dominated by two huge distributors.

    Giving up on the US would be a huge mistake for South African producers. Continuing to push the same wines that have hit a proverbial brick wall for the better half of the last two decades is a mistake. There is definitely a divide between the old-gen, mid-gen and next-gen producers as the old-gen has been imported by the same companies and distributed through the same distributors for decades now. This has largely been what ‘South Africa’ has been perceived as. We came along with a range of wines from the Cravens, to Stompie and Trizanne finding fans along the path of all of their styles.

      Greg+Sherwood+MW | 4 November 2022

      Hi Aaron, just to clarify… this article was inspired by my recent trip to Florida but not based on my experiences there. I’m in the USA (admittedly mostly East and West Coast) almost every year so my opinions are broadly informed. Also, my piece does not suggest giving up on the USA market. I was merely conveying the sentiments from many producers at Cape Wine. I believe it’s essentially a very important market that can deliver for the right producers at the right prices!

    Dave | 3 November 2022

    If I am in the US I drink local wines. If I am in France I drink French wines when I am in the cape Province I drink South African wines. When I am in Scandinavia I drink wines from all over the world since barring a few Polaris wines local wines are scarce. In my opinion South African wines are good quality value for money wines which when I am outside South Africa I’ll be willing to pay up to 40 USD or about 800 rands for. If we go above that level then we reach what a good value for money Bourgogne, Barolo, Gigondas, CdP, Priorat and so on is available for… I don’t see that happening anytime soon in Europe or the US. But South African wines are certainly on the rise. But so are many others.

      Greg Sherwood | 5 November 2022

      Dave, like you, I am a bit of a “when in Rome…” type of guy. But youhave to appreciate that the US market is a massively thirsty and fast growing fine wine market and there is no reason South African wines should take a back seat. The best from SA also deserve a place at the top table.

    GillesP | 2 November 2022

    Hello Greg. I can’t be too sure but I recall reading somewhere that Chilean wines are making good in roads into the US market. Maybe some learnings to be taken from that.

      Greg+Sherwood+MW | 2 November 2022

      Chile and Argentina have invested a lot of time and effort into the US market and you correctly point out that they have experienced a good degree of success. But to be honest, I saw little to none Chilean wines in my 10 days in Florida. Some French, Italian and a bit of Aussie and Kiwis Sauvignon.

        Christian Ries | 3 November 2022

        Greg, I’d love to have a chat about this subject. I think it’s crazy that SA wines aren’t recognized at the same esteemed level.

        SA is very young in its origin in comparison to other well-know wine-established regions, but, I believe our wines can stand tall in comparison.

        Maybe we need a 1976 Paris tasting to boost the SA industry, the same way it did for Napa wines in Chardonnay and Cab…

        Lastly, taxes have a huge factor to play in the importation of SA wines…

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