Michael Fridjhon: Cape vs Gauteng wine culture

By , 30 November 2016

It’s long been recognised that the South African wine market is not homogenous in character. (This is even more evident in the broader liquor market: beverages traditional to a particular region continue to dominate consumption patterns – beer is stronger in the inland areas, white spirits in KZN etc). Still, when it comes to fine wines it seems reasonable to assume that purchase is driven more by culture and disposable income and less by regional influences. It therefore came as something of a surprise to the publishers of WineMag when a public tasting which had been a sell out in the Cape could not attract enough of a crowd in Gauteng even to make the event viable.

The ready explanation for this is that the two markets are vastly different – and it does appear to be the case that certain offerings appeal more to wine drinkers in the Western Cape than elsewhere in the country. Chief among these perceived differences is that the Cape is more geeky, more willing to track down experimental producers and adventurous winemaking. Since many of these cellars are really too small to meet the demand of the country as a whole, it’s probable that they sell much of their production to people they know, and to like-minded aficionados closer to home.

WineX in full cry.

WineX in full cry.

By the same token, Gauteng consumers tend to get what is available in the market – and this means wines and brands geared to manage the logistics of national distribution, and with sufficient quantity available for sale to justify this kind of investment. It should come as no surprise that the biggest selling wine – by value – every year at WineX is Meerlust Rubicon.

This is pretty much where the usefulness of the model ends – mainly because of the sheer difference in size and scale between Cape Town and Greater Johannesburg. Even a small percentage of the Gauteng market can be worth more than a significantly larger chunk of the trade in the Western Cape. Gauteng accounts for roughly 65% of the country’s fine wine sales: Cape Town and environs about 20%. If you exclude cellar door (much of which is ultimately not destined for local consumption) and the sales via restaurants to foreigners, the Cape market is not large. Arguably it is a passionate hot-house of well-informed, literate enthusiasts who play a key role in keeping the cutting edge of the industry in business; alternatively it is simply a more vocal and coherent support group of this segment of the industry.

Either way, even a small segment of the Gauteng market can match this buying power – though its influence is dissipated over a far larger geographic area, and among a far more diverse group of consumers. The GrapeSlave stand at WineX included producers like Mullineux, Fledge and Co and Le Lude. Its turnovers more than matched those of Rubicon – admittedly spread across a number of producers and lines. Twenty metres away at the same show Distell’s hospitality area focused only on a select number of prize-winning wines, and produced a comparable volume of sales. Over a 12 hour trading period shop@show at WineX accounted for over R4m in turnover. To put this in context, at the last WineX held in Cape Town (admittedly hosted some five years ago), two nights’ of selling yielded no more than 5% of this figure. Adjusted for inflation, that’s still less than 10% of the trading volume.

In all this – to revert to WineMag’s problem of not being able to pull 50 punters willing to part with a couple of hundred rand to hear Christian Eedes & Co extol the virtues of Cape Chardonnay – it seems improbable that there wasn’t enough interest to make the event a viable proposition. After all, there must be at least 100 well-heeled Gauteng wine buyers who would spend the equivalent of a bottle of good white wine to taste a line-up of the country’s best – so where were they when they had to put their money ahead of their mouths?

Here we need to look for other, less convenient, explanations than the inland barbarian culture. The first is the relatively lower number of Gauteng residents on the WineMag database, a measure perhaps of its lack of reach the further from the geek centre of the universe the data travels. The second is the extent of event fatigue in Gauteng: Old Mutual’s Trophy Wine Show masterclass tastings have always played to full houses in the Western Cape (and pretty much everywhere else in South Africa and Namibia) but it took years of hard work and hand-managed invitations to reduce the percentage of “no-shows” in the City of Gold. This is not unique: the longer working hours and the traffic congestion serve as disincentives when it comes to accepting social commitments mid-week. You can’t just get people to an event by sending out a mailer and hoping it will elicit a response.

Finally Gautengers are spoilt for choice – by way of an example: the past ten days there have been three major Burgundy events in Johannesburg. In the same week as WineX attracted an attendance of 9000 visitors, the Veritas roadshow was in town and Sanlam’s “Stellenbosch at Summer Place” event filled an admittedly much smaller venue – all within a radius of 5 kms of each other. Ennui – as well as event fatigue in the target audience – may also have played a role in the failure of WineMag to sell its show in the Big Smoke.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.


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