Michael Fridjhon: SA wine needs to be less patronising towards consumers
By Michael Fridjhon, 18 January 2023
When we talk about winespeak we generally mean the arcane language which is intended to describe the flavour of fermented grape juice – or at least make it sound attractive enough to encourage the punters to buy it. In that sense there are always at least two (slightly contradictory) intentions at work. The first is supposed to have a degree of objectivity to it: you don’t – or at least you shouldn’t – use a word like “citrus” if there isn’t a discernible lemony/limey/tangerine/grapefruit note. The second is shamelessly commercial: you want to make the wine sound attractive enough to encourage purchase. Words like “green” or “herbal” are used sparingly; “vegetal” is out; “forest floor” beats “fungal” just as “ample tannins” sounds way more attractive than “chewy and clumsy”.
The winespeak shared by industry professionals is obviously blunter – though even here there’s a preferred terminology: “unresolved tannins” is the more polite way of saying “clunky and over-extracted”. Most winemakers will tell you that they’re not precious about the wine they’re asking you to comment on, but that’s a little like the parents who ask the teacher to explain why their child isn’t doing well at school: “stupid and lazy” is not the answer that will make for an easy ongoing relationship.
A great deal has been written about the winespeak intended to add value for wine buyers. I obviously have quite strong views on the subject. I structure the notes I write for Wine Wizard so that they are helpful to consumers who are seeking a sense of what to expect from a particular bottle. At the same time, I am also trying to communicate with readers who may have a more technical interest – like producers and wine geeks. So I choose descriptors which I hope will convey more about the quality and nature of the fruit at harvest, and its level of phenolic ripeness. I try to include something about the wine’s potential, its freshness (or not) and how it was made. This is partly the value of commenting on the appearance – though if the fruit and aromatic notes are precise enough, an astute reader could easily guess the likely evolution of the wine.
But there is also another kind of winespeak, verbal not written, and which exists to bridge the gap between the producer as vendor, and the consumer as customer. It is, in other words, about a vernacular that builds trust, and which makes possible a two-way communication. Here there are issues, the most obvious of which is that often producers don’t seem to think that they should be listening as well as speaking. This is obviously something of a generalisation – but it’s useful as a metaphor if we are to understand why our wines are not penetrating the domestic market as effectively as they might.
Thirty years after the Australians revolutionised the way wine was sold – by putting marketing into the equation ahead of production – we still see countless examples of winespeak based on “this is what we do and what we make” and very little of “how would you like your wine to be?”
In places where producers (or their proxies, their reps and those who work for the winery) engage directly with consumers the conversation is still about “this is what nature gave us”. As a result, for example, when winemakers and Cape-based sales staff descend on WineX, the dialogue is frequently determined by assumptions which involve a lot of “talking at/down” and very little “talking with”.
This lack of engagement is further contaminated by the abject failure of many producers to understand the transformation which has taken place in the domestic market, despite – rather than because of – their efforts. You don’t need to follow the angry comments on social media about the patronising producers who still automatically assume that black consumers want something sweet to understand how this can go badly wrong. But it is important for those who are making and selling wine to understand – and cringe – when they read about a high-end Constantia winery whose proprietor, asked about the price of a wine, replied simply “very expensive”.
The Friday night crowd at WineX is quantifiably the most important high-end audience in South Africa, with about R1.5m traded in a few hours. This is not the place for the Cape wine industry to practise its colonial condescension. It’s also not the place for the representative of a Franschhoek cellar to try to hide a couple of his (over-priced) expensive bottles because he assumed they were beyond the budget of the person who had just arrived at the stand. (The customer in question could easily have bought the winery, assuming the non-resident owner – who has yet to make any money from the business – was looking for a buyer).
As an industry we need a more authentic dialogue. It means abandoning assumptions based on false perceptions of who is serving and who is being served, who the patron, who the patronised, and where the fulcrum point should be in a balanced and honest relationship.
- 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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