Jamie Goode: UK vs USA – where should SA wine’s export focus lie?
By Jamie Goode, 1 September 2021
In a recent opinion piece on this site, Michael Fridjhon discusses South African wine’s export strategy, and in particular, takes Wines of South Africa (WOSA) to task for focusing on the UK market (which accounts for fully 25% of South Africa’s exports by value). He maintains that the wines could sell themselves in the UK, and says that instead, the focus should be on the USA. His assertion is that this is potentially a bigger market and one that hasn’t so far appreciated South African wines. According to Fridjhon, if some effort were made in the USA, and the UK was left alone, then US buyers and critics would be persuaded to show South Africa’s wines more attention and prices would rise.
I have a lot of respect for Michael, but I think he’s wrong here (he’s also an influential figure in South Africa, and people listen to him, which is why I’m writing this response). But rather than just reply with my impressions, I spoke to three people who might know a bit more about this than me. First of all, Jo Wehring of WOSA in the UK. She says that the UK is doing pretty well for South African wines and shared the latest export figures. In the year to date July 2021, value sales in the UK were up 43%. And her counterpart in the USA, Jim Clarke, also reports the strong performance of South African wines there, with value sales up 41% in the same period. Something is clearly working. (As an aside, the ad campaign on the London underground that Fridjhon references date back 15 years.)
I got an illuminating response from Bartholomew Broadbent, who runs US-based import agency Broadbent Selections with a particularly strong South African portfolio.
“I totally disagree with Michael Fridjhon’s article,” he says. “He insinuates that the US press can be bought. He insinuates that South Africa hasn’t succeeded in the USA.”
“The fact is that the press in the USA is very appreciative of SA wines,” Broadbent continues. “The wines get the scores they deserve. There is no upper limit to the price or scoring of South African wines, as proven by Eben Sadie.”
“Most of the South African wines we import, and we import more brands than anyone else, have received regularly scores above 90 pts. Even value wines, like Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc consistently score north of 90 pts.”
“WOSA [USA] has done just as well as the New Zealanders. We’ve elevated the reputation of South African wines, with the help of our wineries, to be as highly regarded as any in our portfolio as those from any other countries. Michael Fridjhon was asking the wrong people. He should have asked the fine wine retailers and restaurateurs, who would have all said that South Africa’s reputation is incredibly high, as high as any country. The big volume accounts wouldn’t know.”
“As for the wine press, we [my company, Broadbent Selections] and WOSA know who the press are, and we generate great press through the most important writers. The most effective ones do write positively about South Africa’s quality. But you cannot buy the good press. Lettie Teague from The Wall Street Journal can’t even accept free samples. Dave McIntyre from the Washington Post writes regularly about South African wines. Ray Isle at Food&Wine is a big fan. Eric Asimov in The New York Times the same.”
“I have no idea how much WOSA spends in the UK or the USA but they do a good job here. Perhaps a few unsuccessful South African winemakers have whined to Fridjhon but the best wineries are doing well. We can’t get enough of wines like Mike Ratcliffe’s Seriously Old Dirt or some of Sebastian Beaumont’s wines. Chris Alheit’s reputation could not be higher than it is, neither could Eben Sadie’s. South Africa is recognized widely in America as producing some of the greatest wines on the planet. That said, only 25% of Americans drink wine, most of those don’t drink it on a weekly basis. Of the people who spend more than $20 on a bottle of wine, it is probably only about 1% of the 25%. America is a vast market for wine but most of it is under $7 a bottle. South Africa does well in terms of prices achieved and penetration into the high-end market.”
Strong words! Personally, I think one of the problems is that Fridjhon is failing to segment the market properly. At the bottom end, in a market of oversupply, no one is doing well. Prices for bulk wine are low globally. Ask the Chileans. Ask the Spanish. Why should South Africa expect special treatment when buying is taking place on the basis of price? No country has ever elevated the prices of their cheapest wines: the market dictates them. WOSA could spend all their money helping promote South African supermarket wine and it wouldn’t change a thing. Commentators can stamp their feet and wave their fists in the air, but for the cheapest wines, the only thing that will raise prices is undersupply and enhanced demand. This is not really where South Africa wants to be playing on export markets. At this level, if you do raise your prices, sales fall off a cliff.
And as for WOSA’s work in the UK, as a UK-based journalist I think they have done a really good job supporting journalists and the trade here. Yes: Eben Sadie will sell all his wines without any help. But there’s a whole segment of mid-priced, quality wines that are selling well and for good prices in the UK, and this is the result of hard, sustained work. And the UK journalists who have specialised in South African wines have a reach that is beyond this small island. Neal Martin writes on South African wine for Vinous in the USA. And a couple of years ago I presented a seminar on South Africa’s wines at TexSom in Dallas, to some of the great and good of the US wine scene. And I’m sure Tim Atkin’s South African annual report has a global readership, as does Greg Sherwood’s website and his social media posts. Money spent supporting South African wine in the UK has been well spent.
We all want to see South Africa’s wines thrive on export markets, but these are challenging times for some market segments, and there’s no real evidence that diverting funds to the US would have the desired effect that Fridjhon asserts in his piece.
- Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.
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