Michael Fridjhon: What happens to restaurant wine lists after Covid-19?
By Michael Fridjhon, 20 April 2022
Just over two years ago the country closed down in preparation for the Covid pandemic. This is not the place to debate whether the situation was well managed by the government. The most sympathetic take is that we were all flailing around – including the specialist academics whose predictions of potential mortalities turned out in some cases to be vastly over-estimated. It is possible to believe that many of the decisions around the lockdown were taken in good faith. And it’s impossible not to believe that key members of the government used the Disaster Management Act to drive their own rapacious and mendacious agendas.
What we do know is that some industries were much more severely affected than others – even before the National Coronavirus Command Council abused its untrammelled power to impose longer-than-necessary lockdowns and special, very limited, trading conditions. In this context hospitality and liquor retailing, as well as the related tourism sector, took some near fatal blows.
For some recovery has been very slow: high-end travel may be returning to the Western Cape and the safari destinations but the small mom-and-pop operators in the less fashionable provinces may never get back to the trading levels they enjoyed pre-Covid. Decades of hard work have simply been lost – with vehicles repossessed, office equipment sold in execution, and the valuable connections built up over years lost in the vortex of closures.
By comparison, the wine industry has bounced back rather well – with the possible exception of the grape growers who took a major hit when in 2021 many of the fruit processors sitting on large inventories carried forward from 2020 declined to take up their allocations. But those who had the equipment and capacity to transform grapes into wine and fill bottles bearing vaguely credible brand names are able to look at the “lost two years” more as a glitch than a catastrophe.
The same is probably not true of the on-consumption trade – even though many were able to pivot and sell take-aways. Sure, there were restaurateurs who claimed it wasn’t worth switching on their ovens and paying basic wages for the reduced income – but that was more of a choice than the tour operators had.
We like to think that Covid is behind us: we take comfort from the four-wave history of the Spanish flu, or the assumption that Omicron, because it is highly infectious and generally mild, will become the dominant variant and Covid will become endemic – like many other coronaviruses. Those who are still trading are looking forward, making plans, denying their worst fears from the depths of the lockdown era.
There is no more concrete evidence of this than the attitude of the restaurant chains (and some of the single store operators) to their wine lists. They are up to their old tricks, demanding outrageous listing fees (despite their grim under-performance of the past two years) marking up cheap wine to maximise margin while selling at the sub-R200 (or sub-R300) sweet spot. The reason that the wine lists of so many of the industrial food chains are so boring is that they care more about margin than what’s in the bottle, and they are happy to do business with anyone who will buy a place on the wine-list.
This is an old lament, and it will be with us for a long time to come unless the industry as a whole makes a concerted effort to put an end to it. Producers cannot stop on-con licensees from buying cheap wine and marking it up by 250% – but they can decide to put an end to the kick-backs, sweeteners and bribes-by-any-other-name which have long been the most important toys in the toolkits of the wine distributors.
This is a big ask, because people who never knew how to sell wine will have to learn something late in their careers. Many – but not all – restaurateurs will have to do something equally alien: they will have to learn for the first time how to taste wine and make a listing decision based on the contents of the bottle, not the vendor’s marketing budget.
No doubt some of the big wholesalers will proffer the lame excuse that any such concerted effort will fall foul of the competition authorities. They may be right but it is possible to argue that what the restaurants are doing is vastly more anti-competitive. I’m asking for producers to commit to selling their wines for the published prices, with disclosed volume discounts and nothing else – no listing fees, back-handers or cases of brandy discreetly dropped off by the rep at the time of the delivery.
I’m also asking wine-literate restaurant-goers to be vocal about the bad (and also the good) of wine lists. This is where social media is a powerful weapon: excoriate establishments with outrageous mark-ups, lament the lack of choice, use the weapons of Instagram, FaceBook and Twitter to spread the news. Name and shame those who are selling over-priced junk BUT (because the carrot sometimes works better than the goad) celebrate those who get it right. In the end, we get the wine-lists we deserve.
- 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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