Michael Fridjhon: Marketing timidity rather than quality is what’s holding SA wine back
By Michael Fridjhon, 19 July 2023
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.
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