Just how much trouble is SA wine in?

By , 24 August 2016



David Clarke of Ex Animo addresses the audience.

David Clarke of Ex Animo addresses the audience.

Where were the representatives from the big producer-wholesalers at last night’s second annual Ex Animo Address? The event, organised by David and Jeanette Clarke who own a wine agency by the same name was held at Joostenberg Bistro outside Stellenbosch and saw the acclaimed Rosa Kruger speaking on viticulture, Mulderbosch winemaker Adam Mason on the challenges facing winemaking in Stellenbosch and publisher JP Rossouw on branding, all proceeds going to charity.

Kruger suggested that if the South African wine industry was to shake its persistent “cheap ‘n cheerful” image then there were two key challenges to be tackled, these being 1) leaf roll virus and 2) worker skills. “Leaf roll virus is what’s killing our industry. Very few are following the protocols – plant clean material and keep it clean,” she observed. Regarding worker skills, she said “great terroir needs great viticulture” and this depended on the education and training of workers. Producers were compelled to upskill their workers not just as a means of improving efficiency but also because this was a means of giving workers dignity and fighting winelands scourges like TB, Aids and alcoholism.

The 2016 vintage had been “kooky” for Mason on account of being super-early and because of the various winelands fires. Vineyards in Stellenbosch were increasingly under threat from 1) urbanisation, 2) climate change and 3) reduced profitability. He predicted that vineyards would increasingly become uprooted. “It’s the march of time and can’t be stopped. That said, producers who want to persist are compelled to implement a process of beneficiation. Pockets of excellence will remain. Dryland farming is a huge opportunity.”

Rossouw, responsible for Platter’s and his own restaurant guide, suggested that making fine wine was something undertaken against the odds, a romantic endeavour and not about logic. If producers were to succeed, they were compelled to think about how to add value as opposed to the “strip mining approach” which applies in some quarters of extracting value without insuring sustainability in the long term.

He said that improving on wine quality over time was a given but that was “only half the proposition” and that many producers were failing to create brands. “Most consumers know nothing [about wine]. You have to convince them to purchase and in order to do that, you have to operate on an emotional level. It’s about extrinsics not intrinsics.” He suggested that presenting wine strictly as an agricultural or scientific product made it appear unnecessarily complicated and removed the fun that was inherent in wine.

In order to succeed, producers needed to instil a sense of confidence in consumers that they were making the right choice and such consumers would in turn become “brand disciples”.  Pricing and packaging needed to be “dangerous” rather than conservative as this forced the individual producer to stand behind his product.

Good competition results were vital for reassuring the insecure consumer and even served a purpose when it came to “wine wonks” who enjoyed the “parlour game” of deciding whether or not they agreed with a particular rating. “Stickers travel with the bottle and go where you can’t go,” he said.

Finally, Rossouw said that one of the best ways of standing out in the market place was the producers themselves engaging with consumers recognising that the “cult of personality” went a long way to building a brand. “It’s about sending your best fighter into battle,” he said. “The less confusion in the mind of the consumer, the better and it all comes down to communication”.

Three provocative presentations and yet only some 80 people in the room, the irony being that many of them were producers who already making some of South Africa’s best wine. Alongside the various challenges listed above, another is that leaders, which is to say proactive individuals prepared to take responsibility for the future of their industry, are thin on the ground.


5 comment(s)

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    Jeremy sampson | 25 August 2016

    Good to see at last some recognizing the importance of brands and branding – and there is a difference.
    However I do wonder how much some really understand about the subject.
    But which brand to focus on?
    How many brands can you afford to support, both financially and emotionally?
    And how do you identify 1) how many brands (no not labels) you have 2) do you really own them 3) which have the most current equity 4) which have the most potential
    equity 5) what is your end game?
    I could go on at length, but that’s my intellectual property.
    Give me a call if you want to chat 0828857300

    Hennie @ batonage | 24 August 2016

    On your comment on the lack of participation/attendance – the reason it isn’t well attended is because it is held at a ridiculous time at an absurd place. Who the hell can get to Stellenbosch from Cape Town at 6 in the evening midweek? It means you have to leave town at 4 or even earlier now with the roadworks on the N1 and for people who have jobs that just isn’t going to happen. Of course then you’re only going to get Stellenbosch locals who’s already part of the choir. I said as much to David and hopefully they’ll learn. It is the same reason we don’t attend things like Rootstock even though we have a lot of interest in these events. If they want people who are actually serious consumers or new to the game, then more thought needs to go into time and venue choices. I am not saying do it in Cape Town central, but rethink the time these events start.

    Bachus | 24 August 2016

    “JUST HOW MUCH TROUBLE IS SA WINE IN”? -I would argue that it depends on which segment of the market you are talking about. If you are referring to the upper echelons, the Sadies, Mullineuxs and Kanonkops, they are in rude health. They have an almost infinite amount of goodwill from the wine journalists which one glance at the last 10 posts on this site will prove. If you are referring to almost everyone else, those of whom all the so-called cognoscenti wish would just get with the programme and plant more Verdelho, Grenache Gris and Nero d’ avola, well, they could do with the occasional thumbs up and encouragement, rather than a minutely small group of pundits writing about a minutely small group of producers. “Diversity is in our nature”? Not if you look at the wines being written about here and elsewhere.

      Christian | 25 August 2016

      Hi Bachus, The likes of the Mullineuxs and Eben Sadie are always going to get coverage because they are our pinnacle producers and that’s what most people want to read about. What do you need to do to become a pinnacle producer? Not only make wine of a suitable standard but to make wine whose provenance is something that the consumer recognises and cares about. A compelling personality standing behind the wine also helps. I’m not sure enough South African wineries are doing this.

      That said, among the last 10 reviews on this site is the Grenache 2015 from Tulbagh organic producer selling for R100 a bottle who got a big “thumbs up” for making something characterful and appealing (if not profound) while we are also big fans of the reserve Chenin Blancs that the Breedekloof producers are starting to make and we even gave 91 points Lyra Vega 2013 from Orange River Cellars in the recent Laurium Capital Signature Red Blend Report! Put something respectable in the bottle and we’ll do our best to give it some coverage.

    Lise | 24 August 2016

    Would like to know where they advertised the event, and how long ahead of time. Generally speaking, the bigger the producer, the busier their diaries…
    But I do agree with you that our industry needs more leaders that are prepared to take risks and challenge the status quo in order to move forward.

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