Michael Fridjhon: The problem with the international grape day calendar

By , 11 May 2022

Celebrating Sauvignon Blanc in early May – not ideal.

The Cape wine industry slavishly follows the Northern Hemisphere’s timetable when it comes to celebrating particular varieties on the dates selected to meet the expectations of consumers in Europe and America. From a marketing and promotional perspective this can only be counter-productive. More importantly, nothing better reveals our willingness to accept second class status than the fact we have done nothing about it.

Take Sauvignon Blanc Day. Depending on what calendar you consult it is either 6th or 7th May – a time of the year in South Africa when a bottle of decent red wine might hold greater appeal. But no – producers here think nothing of embracing the Northern Hemisphere’s summer calendar as we cruise into winter. If there’s a schedule, and it’s in writing, it must be law, as immutable as if it had been delivered by Moses on the footpath down from Sinai. Incidentally – and by way of proving the point – 11th May is Rosé Day (and also Cava and Verdejo Day), 20th May is Chenin Blanc Day and the 21st is Lambrusco Day. Meantime, as we sit in the midst of the dog days of summer we are expected to drink Zinfandel (at 16% alcohol).

Partly this is a matter of laziness: someone else has gone to the trouble of creating a varietal calendar so why should we make any more of an effort? Pass on the message to the marketing team and tell them to put out a press release, make a promotional offer of whatever variety is in the limelight, and let’s just carry on doing things exactly the way we’ve always done them.

It’s also an indictment of the focus of the industry: producer- rather than customer-centric. Very few people running a wine business think of what wine consumers want to drink: if sauvignon blanc is on promo, then it’s on promo whether or not it’s weather-appropriate. It might be freezing cold, wet and windy (as May often is) but no one seems to be thinking like a consumer and punting port or pinotage, marketing merlot, malbec or muscadel.

If we aren’t acting along industry lines it’s partly because there’s no easy way to crank up an industry-wide initiative. Growers and primary producers default to VinPro and leave it to Rico and his merry band to tilt their lances at government or its proxies, while they get on with whatever they believe is their core competence. There’s no equivalent body representing Brand South Africa at the level of finished product. There’s WoSA – but it’s focus is exports (though there are moves afoot to broaden its brief, a thought which is as scary as it is ill-judged). Then there are the regional associations, beavering away in their silos, effectively in a state of permanent low-key war with each other. After all, from their perspective, every bottle of Paarl shiraz sold is a lost opportunity for Constantia sauvignon or Stellenbosch cabernet.

This state of perpetual division suits the growers better than it suits the cellars. It dates back to the days when the KWV fronted for the farmers. You can hardly expect any of the industry’s formal bodies to have another kind of vision – especially considering that the wineries themselves are not exactly consumer-facing in terms of their comms.

So in fact we need two things to happen: the cellars/brand-owners must establish a formal association to represent their interests, to facilitate communication to, and engage with, the people who actually drink wine. Secondly this (or another such body) needs to communicate with its counterparts in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. Between them they need to establish – for the producers of the Southern Hemisphere – a set of wine celebrations appropriate to weather conditions south of the equator. It’s tiresome being dictated to by people whose horizons end with the Mediterranean (or at Mexico).

  • 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 Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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