How to turn wine consumers into wine lovers
By Christian Eedes, 21 February 2023
“What are the triggers that change a wine consumer into a wine lover?” is one of the questions that’s put to me on a regular basis. In two recent articles on this site, a compelling explanation for why the South African wine industry has not created a greater base of wine lovers that arises is that it’s getting its messaging wrong.
In a piece entitled “SA wine needs to be less patronising towards consumers”, experienced commentator Michael Fridjhon calls for “abandoning assumptions based on false perceptions of who is serving and who is being served… and where the fulcrum point should be in a balanced and honest relationship”.
Brandon de Kock of consumer insights consultancy WhyFive echoes this when he writes in a guest column called “Who’s really buying wine off the top shelf?” that “the data shows an ever-increasing number of aspirational people who can afford to buy and try premium wine – and really want to. If the needle isn’t shifting, it almost certainly has more to do with misguided (or ineffective) marketing than anything inside the bottle or shopper sentiment”.
The above implies to some extent that if the industry could only better understand the hopes, dreams and ambitions of South Africa’s emerging middle-class, then job done. Consumers would embrace wine as the product of curiosity that it is, enjoying the infinite process of exciting discovery that is the privilege of all true wine lovers.
Unfortunately, the reality is probably a bit more mundane than that. Presenting at this year’s Vinpro Information Day, Vinimark brand portfolio director Helen Kock showed a slide of the top 10 selling wine brands across the major retailers, these being 1) Rupert & Rothschild; 2) The Chocolate Block; 3) Pierre Jourdan; 4) Tassenberg; 5) Autumn Harvest; 6) Graça; 7) The Saints; 8) Kanonkop; 9) KWV Classic; and 10) BC Wines (Brandvlei Cellar).
To take nothing away from the commercial success of these, it could be argued that they prevail precisely on the basis that all other consumer packaged goods prevail – packaging, promotions, placement and price. Straight out of the Unilever or Proctor & Gamble playbook…
In my opinion, what the industry is failing to communicate is a good, old-fashioned consumer promise. Provide people with reasons to buy wine while also making wine distinct from alternative forms of liquor.
As an alcoholic beverage, wine is a source of relaxation, but this does not fundamentally differentiate it from beer or spirits. What wine does offer, however, is complexity of taste. Wine has a range of aromas and flavours that vary depending on the type of grape, the region it was grown in, and how it was made in the cellar. Moreover, while many alcoholic beverages are intended to be consistent over time, wine shows both vintage variation and change due to bottle maturation which again is part of its fascination.
Wine is also packed with social and cultural significance and has a long history of being associated with gatherings and celebrations. Many people enjoy wine as part of a meal – it can either complement or contrast the flavour of food thereby enhancing the dining experience – while it also functions as a way to connect with others and form deep bonds. Importantly, it’s gender-neutral and therefore inclusive in a way that beer, for instance, is far less so.
While it’s important to drink alcohol in moderation, there are some health benefits associated with moderate wine consumption. For example, red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols, which have been shown to have a positive effect on heart health.
Lastly, there is the appreciation of craftsmanship and artistry that goes into the production of wine. The tending of vines and vinification are complex and time-consuming processes that require skill and attention to detail and once people have acquired sufficient knowledge, this also becomes part of the appeal of wine.
Complex production methods, complex tastes, and the wine industry often finds it all too easy to revel in this above all else. This complexity, however, can quickly become off-putting for many people because they don’t have the knowledge and, specifically, the vocabulary to engage with the subject – they worry about making a mistake or coming across as ignorant and opt to leave the category.
However, the onus is on the industry to make complexity part of wine’s appeal. Complexity adds depth and richness to the drinking experience and there is satisfaction to be had on the part of the consumer from the feeling of mastery that comes from developing a more nuanced and in-depth understanding of the subject.
In some cases, people who enjoy complexity may have developed a taste for it over time. They may have started with simpler wines and gradually developed a palate for more complex flavours and aromas. For these individuals, complexity can be a way to expand their horizons and explore new tastes and experiences. I forget where I read this observation first, but it has always rung true: Wine needs to lose the mystery and keep the mystique.
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