Greg Sherwood MW: What it takes to make it big in the international wine market

By , 21 August 2019



One of the great advantages of commentating on the South African wine industry from afar is that inevitably many of the day-to-day pressures and frustrations that often cloud a local perspective are swept away and voided.

While this is not meant to imply that these pressures are not real, serious and impactful, it does help one watch, observe and formulate opinion from a standpoint that might otherwise be impossible being located permanently in Cape Town or the Winelands. Regardless of your credentials, experience and background, it is all too easy for locals to remain pessimistic, sceptical and negative in regards to almost everything from the meaning of life to the political future of South Africa, the economics of winemaking in the Western Cape to the profitability and viability of sustainable winemaking and brand building. Having recently returned from a two-week break on the east coast of the United States of America holidaying in Long Island and Manhattan, a time to relax, contemplate and reflect on the state of play around the South African wine industry. After all positive and negative permutations, my conclusion time and time again was that the futures so bright, we gonna all have to wear shades (and no, that was not the Rosé by the pool side talking!)

But, of course, some people are more predisposed to a positive mental attitude than others. The world is made up of bottle-half-full or bottle-half-empty of wine drinkers. We are all different and certainly, some of the greatest global creations have been envisaged while in the depths of adversity. What we do all have in common is that if we want to achieve anything exceptional, we are going to have to follow a few basic rules in life. So in the non-doctorial spirit of holiday advice-giving, I thought I’d lend my two cents worth of outlook to all aspiring winemakers and producers out there… and where better to start than with home base.

Think Local – local is lekker. In all the time I have been tasting, buying and writing about wine over the past 25 years, I don’t think I have ever met a successful producer killing it in the overseas market, making epic quality wines, with great packaging and a superb backing story but who isn’t also highly revered and successful in their own local market. Success overseas is great, but ultimately, a great deal of a winery’s kudos are acquired on its own doorstep by wooing its local market, making them fall in love with its wines and offering a marketing mix that can lead to a long term following and consumer loyalty. All too often, producers unsuccessful in the local market shun the “ignorant” locals and set about seeking greatness on foreign shores. This is possible, but it’s a hundred times easier if you have a legion of ready converts in your local market drinking and loving your wines.

Always be positive – it’s one of the most important rules of Karma. You need to share the love. What goes around definitely comes around and I have witnessed it all too many times to count that good deeds foster strong goodwill. I can hear the ooohing and ahhhing and groaning from readers already but trust me, being a buyer for 20+ years and basically the one ‘wielding the power’ in many respects, but more importantly knowing and meeting a lot of other buyers, many of which are much more highly influential people in the international wine trade with the power to make things really happen than I am, I can clearly attest to the fact that these people are drawn to, yes, a good product for a great price, but beyond that, they are drawn to great people with positivity, enthusiasm and a passion for what they do… and who are creating wines that reflect this vibrancy, passion and excitement. We always need to remember, the world loves us! Yes, it’s true! The world loves South African wines. Forget San Francisco and Sydney, it’s all about Cape Town, baby! Sometimes you just have to trust… and look back at your past and smile about how far we’ve come. With the incredible, groundbreaking quality of wines we are making, why shouldn’t it all be about South African wines?

SA exported 420m litres of wine in 2018.

So if you have the positivity and the quality product, what else do you need to make it big? Well, it’s all a bit anecdotal from here on in but in my experience, all the successful players have several key things in common:

  1. They travel and have a deep international perspective. Trust me, anyone travelling these days will learn very quickly that every country has political and economic challenges.
  2. They are obsessed with meeting, beating and exceeding international quality benchmarks, not local ones.
  3. They are all also lovely people – My long-standing mantra that has yet to be proved wrong is that nice people make nice wine, plain and simple!
  4. They recognize that what you give is what you get. What you put in is what you get out.
  5. Nothing great and exceptional happens overnight. If in doubt, refer to point number 4.
  6. Always be humble. The greatest winemakers in South Africa are also the most humble and modest and likeable people out there.
  7. Always help your neighbour and share your knowledge. While the rest of the SA wine industry was guarding its sacred winemaking secrets, the young guns shared their love, knowledge and wisdom with all and sundry and created a tidal wave of goodwill… and high quality wine.
  8. Always help those less fortunate than yourself. You never know where they will end up, how successful they may be or how they may be able to help you in the future in return.
  9. Always ponder and reflect on the things in life that you can change, don’t worry about the things you can’t change.
  10. Always stay positive! Negativity is a disease.

While this is not exactly a list to go and print out and stick on your toilet wall to look at every morning, I personally always find it helpful to be reminded of some of the more simple, basic rules of success and positivity. When life gives you lemons, don’t drink Mexican Tequila, make the world’s best West Coast botanical infused Cape Gin and cut a slice of that lemon, plop it in your tumbler and sit back on your deck and enjoy the sunset. Yes, we have never had it this good!

  • 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 and is today Senior Wine Buyer. He became a Master of Wine in 2007


5 comment(s)

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    Kevin King | 29 August 2019

    Great points Greg – so easy to be negative when the country seems to be falling apart We have a vibrant and highly competitive wine industry and Im proud to be part of it

    Samantha O’Keefe | 24 August 2019

    Really well said. I completely agree with every point.

    Jeremy Borg | 21 August 2019

    Love your article Greg. This totally hits the spot. There are a few old dogs who have the caring sharing philosophy, not just young guns

    Ross Sleet | 21 August 2019

    Fantastically well put Greg. This should be stencilled under the eye-lids of any SA wine brand owner!

    Kwispedoor | 21 August 2019

    Lekker article, Greg, and I agree with most of what you say. I would suggest the following for point #8, though: “Always help those less fortunate than yourself. Even if they won’t ever be able to reciprocate.”

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