Michael Fridjhon: Marketing timidity rather than quality is what’s holding SA wine back

By , 19 July 2023



Essay Syrah Cinsault & Grenache & Mourvèdre 2021 – best Rhône-Style Red Blend at this year’s Trophy Wine Show and yours for R105 a bottle.

South African wine is basking in a gratifying glow of international recognition. Within the space of a few days in late June a series of articles and newsletters in some of the most credible wine press in the world extolled the virtues – and desirability – of a number of our wines. Writing in Vinous, Neal Martin shared his comments following a vertical tasting hosted in London of the first half century of Kanonkop. On the same day that the Vinous newsletter appeared, Sebastian Rowe from Bordeaux Index listed a small selection of wines from five of the founding members of the Swartland Revolution.

Then, following her trip to South Africa to judge at this year’s Trophy Wine Show, Jancis Robinson published a series of articles covering places visited and offering an overall impression of the changes in the Cape wine scene over recent years. There were also individual articles about the classes she judged – with full sets of notes and scores of the over 200 wines which passed in front of her at the Trophy Wine Show’s tasting benches.

Her scores using the 20-point system – all arrived at in a blind tasting environment – reflected a real appreciation of the quality of the best submissions to the competition. About 5% of the wines she judged garnered 18 points. There are a lot of highly desirable international wines with scores on her site (jancisrobinson.com) significantly lower than that. The Grands Echezeaux and the Romanée-Saint-Vivant from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (both priced at over R70k per bottle) hit that magical number. The 2020 Corton from the same proprietor (which sells for a little less) only managed 17.5. However you look at it, the Cape is making excellent (and embarrassingly affordable) wines.

If, as Jancis says, “South African wine in general is a steal” then clearly, nearly thirty years into democracy, the Cape wine industry is missing a trick or two. The wines of Eben Sadie, Andrea and Chris Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst and Callie Louw are all sold on allocation. To get on to some of the subscription databases you have to join a waiting list and then wait for someone to die before you get an allocation. We know there isn’t enough Kanonkop to go around – and it’s produced in vastly greater quantities than any of the wines of the Swartland Revolutionaries.

In short, we are very good at selling wines we don’t have. We’re just lousy at selling perfectly good wines we have available in reasonable commercial quantities. How can I say this with confidence? Primarily because of the selling prices of the top-ranked Trophy Wine Show wines on Jancis Robinson’s site. I don’t think there are any which retail for more than R500, and it’s a safe bet that the average prices are under R250.

If we were better at marketing our wines (and perhaps more confident about their quality) we wouldn’t now find ourselves – as an industry – so far diminished by our battle to survive that we think and act like defenders of a fortress, trying to live long enough for the besieging army to go away. Our vision is largely one of surviving the attrition. There’s no sense of going out and conquering the world, not with the stench of defeat which hangs about us like the smell of a charnel house.

You can tell the difference by just looking at how the Swartland Revolutionaries and the Kriges of Kanonkop go about their business: confident, audacious, impudent, intrepid. Most of the rest conduct themselves like the battered partners in loveless marriages.

It can’t continue this way, though it’s not certain how this can be changed – either by the participants, or by the institutions they depend (perhaps too heavily) upon. Like South Africans from every segment and class of our society we know that the government cannot (and probably will not) step up to the plate – and anyway, changing our own mindset is not properly the business of anyone else.

I’m not sure what it takes to develop a sense of self-belief. Most of those who have it exude it in bucket-loads, often to the irritation of those around them who wonder why they seem so smug and complacent. But if producers cannot turn a constant stream of solid and transparent good results into a marketing message that will lift their businesses out of the pit of despair, their fate is sealed. On paper, Cape wine has never been stronger: the weakest link is our fragile self-confidence.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the 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 Trophy Wine Show.


13 comment(s)

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    Jeremy Sampson | 29 August 2023

    Some very interesting comment. On the basis that a brand is something you would seek out, pay a serious premium for and be a repeat buyer, South Africa has lots and lots of labels but few serious brands. Marketing is too important to be left to the winemaker. And if you have no marketing budget in today’s world you deserve to die. That is the reality.

    Jolize van Wyk | 1 August 2023

    Well said Michael!
    Wine stays one of the most ‘unbranded’ FMCG categories in the world vs that of Whisky or Brandy for instance, purely because of the plethora of SKU’s available internationally.
    That considered, I believe product mix stays key to reaching the elevation status of brand South Africa that we so desperately desire, but to achieve that, focus is the magic word.
    If one keeps making wines that try and ‘be everything to everyone’, one ends up creating brands that ‘mean nothing to no-one’.

    Michael Fridjhon | 1 August 2023

    Hi Tim

    You make some good points, but your comment about Puligny Montrachet being twinned with Johannesburg is not one. The Johannisberg with which the Cote de Beaune town is twinned is a famous wine producing village in Germany

    Tim Parsons | 1 August 2023

    Did you know that Puligny Montrachet was twinned with Johannesburg? No, me neither, however, on a recent trip there, sitting at Place de Johannisberg, in the centre of Puligny Montrachet, a local confirmed it! That’s why SA wine struggles internationally, we cannot even market the most prestigious relationship in wine!
    The Old Vine Project is gaining momentum internationally, it is OUR project and initiatives like dating the bottle for the year of the vines being planted is a huge marketing opportunity.
    The price of SA wine, internationally, means it’s not an exclusive “scene”. Price point is half the battle in a competitive market, exploit it!
    Initiatives like Museum Wine’s SA High Commission June event should be replicated worldwide, in relevant markets.
    Our female winemakers, is there a better endowed country in terms of their success and numbers, should be aligned with female business initiatives worldwide, there are so many…
    The SA wine community is more socially committed to one another. Any organised movement/event/initiative will be very well supported as there are lots of groupings already.
    It’s a very quirky world out there, why is The Chocolate Block enjoying such international recognition, is it just its name?Understanding it’s success and Boekhoutskloof’s intentions for it in the future ,is a very good starting point, no need to innovate when imitate works perfectly well.
    Just random, off the hip thoughts, however, this is the golden decade of SA wine, it’s now, or never, if the industry wants to achieve the international success, in terms of sales, that it deserves. Go for it!

    Stanley Edwards | 21 July 2023

    It’s not difficult to put together a creative campaign to promote and market ALL South African wine and change consumers perspections but…….who manages it and who pays for it?

    Anzill Adams | 21 July 2023

    Change the industry’s age old prevailing White male culture at all levels. Start there! What’s the point in producing winemakers and viticulturists that develops world class wines at the lowest costs when nobody can sell it! To sell wine requires involving the consumer from the day the stokkie is planted right through every step till when it reaches the consumer. Not only after the wine is labelled and bottled. More than anything, to sell wine effectively requires much more than an organisational name change where diversity in a glass is but a mere slogan…

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 20 July 2023

    Very, very few South African wine producers budget for advertising what they offer. Why is that? Competition is stiff and most cellars are not guaranteed to sell all of the wines that they bottle within weeks or days of releasing them. Most wine estates with restaurants or accommodation are not fully-booked throughout the year. Many producers choose not to participate in wine competitions or to promote themselves at wine shows. Many expect the public and the media to love whatever they produce, to be interested in whatever they have to say. Many wine producers think they have brands even though many consumers – including wine lovers – may have never heard of them. Many frown on spending anything at all on marketing. There are also some who decline the opportunity of free marketing guaranteed, such as being listed in a wine guide. Go figure.

    Mark | 20 July 2023

    Why is “Value for Money” a disadvantage? I think it is an incredibly good marketing tool in itself. “South Africa has the best wines at the best prices.” That is a statement that can certainly draw attention away from the more “romantic” and expensive regions of Europe.

    For a wine brand to succeed, it must be known and appreciated locally so that people talk about it, post about it and can point others in the direction of quality. Eben gets this fact and hence keeps his prices at a rate South Africans can “afford.” Although the top two are still way out of reach of most, they could be double the price.

      James Bosenberg | 20 July 2023

      Totally agree. It’s something that has been raised a lot lately (both tim james and greg sherwood have made this point this year) and I think value for money should be a selling point and celebrated. It would be an incredibly sad day if our best wines are only consumed abroad.

    Dawn | 19 July 2023

    Some good points but this is a larger issue … I would like to add that we cannot sell brands without considering the customers we serve. When I say consider … I mean we need to know them well enough to tell them a compelling story to change their behavior. What can we say that is so much more compelling than the USA with a fraction of their budgets? We just don’t invest enough and we fragment the investment on too many locations and brands. Let’s be honest .. The wine category is confusing, fragmented, messy and non inclusive. Why should a consumer work so hard to define quality or the difference between a Bordeaux or Rhône. You don’t need to read Jancis’ wine book to order a bottle of Moët. Winemakers are competing for a share of throat in premium categories across a multitude of drinking occasions. You have made yourselves so elitist and with so many gate keepers, that consumers with cash move on to more accessible brands. Wine journalists need to hold themselves accountable for this too. The biggest disadvantage wine has is its inaccessibility and its inability to tell compelling stories to new customers at every price point.

      Christian Eedes | 20 July 2023

      Hi Dawn, I agree that for many people, the wine scene appears either irrelevant or exclusive but there are a few for whom wine is very much a product of curiosity and can therefore cope with a relatively high degree of complexity. These individuals drink across a broad spectrum of category and country and are responsible for a disproportionately high proportion of the spend on wine. Growing this market segment is the challenge.

        Dawn | 20 July 2023

        Thanks Christian. I am a marketer and a wine master student, so feel well qualified to comment on both ends of the stick.

    Donald Griffiths | 19 July 2023

    Both those Essay wines are very good value for money.

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