Michael Fridjhon: Why doesn’t SA have more wine bars?

By , 29 June 2016



Publik, 81 Church Street, Cape Town.

Publik, 81 Church Street, Cape Town.

If you were a martian whose only knowledge of South African cultural life was derived from your online access to WineMag, you might extrapolate from your reading a number of certainties of what life would be like in the land where WineMag held sway. One of these is that the place would be teeming with wine bars. After all, if the culture of wine generated this volume of text, surely the readers would spend the better part of their leisure hours drifting from wine bar to wine bar sampling the latest additions to the nation’s oenological library.

Sadly we know that the truth is a far distant reality. Why this is so is something of a conundrum. If we all like wine so much, surely there are enough people out there to make wine bars the most vibrant of industries? What would not be evident however (to a martian or anyone else unfamiliar with South Africa) is the relative absence of a pub culture among the wine-drinking classes. Inherited by the whites from the blue collar establishments in their colonial home bases, the “whites only” bars of the old South Africa sold beer and hard tack. The township shebeens that played a key role in black urban life (from the Prohibition era and onwards) had their antecedents in rural community life, where the beverage of choice was also beer. Partly, beer lends itself to this kind of environment, it’s packaged in drink size containers or available on tap, it’s relatively low in alcohol, so you can drink a couple over the course of a two hour sojourn in the pub, and you can then get on with your evening.

Wine – especially good wine – does not come in packaging that favours by-the-glass consumption. The risk of deterioration – once a bottle has been opened – is too great for a licensee to go on spec with anything more exciting than the most commercial of releases. Of course, there are now myriads of devices which have been designed to ensure that even the best wines can be drawn from a sealed bottle on a glass-by-glass basis with the void filled by inert gas. Most of these are costly, leading to a chicken-and-egg situation: until there’s a proven market for the investment, no one is going to throw that kind of money at the idea, and there won’t be a market until someone takes the risk, and invests in developing it. Of course there are a few wine bars, and some which do have expensive by-the-glass dispensers. Either they haven’t taken off, or the market is saturated. What is clear is that no one is making so much money from by-the-glass wine sales that hundreds of competitors are queuing to open up in an adjacent site. There are bars with a limited wine offering, but their bread and butter is gin and beer.

Wine by the glass can also never expect to compete price-wise with the other pub beverages. Interesting wines, with a name known even vaguely to the general wine consuming public, are not cheap. Assume R100 per bottle and 4 glasses to a bottle – that’s a unit cost of R25. You have to cover the risk of loss of bottle contents through deterioration, or the cost of sophisticated dispensers, so even before the publican marks up for better quality glassware (which will break more frequently than beer mugs), service, rental and profit, you’re probably looking at a base cost of R40. Add the price of product expertise (a wine bar is not stocked by a single call to SAB and a couple of craft brewers) or selling know-how and suddenly your wine by the glass is closer to R100. One glass of wine (185ml) represents as much alcohol as you can safely consume without food, or an Uber (with its own cost) to take you home. Then there’s the actual question of the food itself: wine is seen – perhaps more so in SA than in other Anglophone countries – as a beverage to accompany a meal. This poses an extra difficulty: what the Brits like to call “Gastro-pubs” (I always think this means a place where there’s a high risk of food poisoning) are almost as rare here as good value wine lists.

Finally there are other, more extraneous, factors: one is the propensity of licensees to allow distributors and retailers to take ownership of their wine businesses in exchange for listing fees: people with that kind of mentality could never begin to engage in the far more complex world of wine bars – and why should they, as long as their suppliers will pay them to do as little as they do. These are not the entrepreneurs ready to take the risk and build a wine bar business. There’s also the question sites and rentals: South Africa has probably the most concentrated ownership of commercial centres in any vaguely developed economy, with four or five companies owning over 80% of the suitable properties. Given issues of security, well-to-do South Africans gravitate towards shopping malls, food malls – even cities within cities like the Waterfront. Owners of these properties require the kinds of guarantees and sureties from prospective tenants that would discourage someone with a wine bar idea from even taking the chance. In turn this leaves little enough potential space for such establishments to become a dominant culture.

None of this means that we won’t ever see wine bars dotting our hospitality landscape: there are a few, there will be more, though mostly they will be mixed beverage businesses, pubs or even gastropubs with a great by-the-glass offering. But I think wine bars will – at least for the foreseeable future, remain niche, enterprises of passion offering a service to tourists and to equally passionate domestic consumers, many of whom have ample supplies of wine at home, which is where they prefer to drink it anyway.

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


7 comment(s)

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    Wayne | 21 August 2016

    Hello Michael,

    Great article! You’ve hit the nail on the head and identified all the risks associated with opening a wine bar. Despite this, I believe there are ways to get get around the majority of these obstacles and run a sustainable, profitable wine bar. In fact, we’re taking it one step further as we’re currently in the process of opening South Africa’s first crowdfunded wine bar in Somerset West.

    We have every intention of serving every wine on our list by the glass. In order to make this viable, our list will be limited to around 10 wines at any given time and the list will change often to provide the variety customers want to see. Yes, there will be some losses here and there but we believe this is worth the value which serving good wine by the glass adds for our customers.

    While Proof’s focus will be on the wine, we will cater for those who prefer a different kind of tipple. We’re lining up a very limited selection of craft beers and a carefully selected gin and whisky to round out the offering.

    We have no intention of charging the customer extra for the time it takes to build our wine list or any other ‘hidden’ costs. Our calculations indicate that we’ll be selling a glass of wine at just over 1/4 of the cost of a bottle, the way it should be. We’re building a business that, we hope, will be sustainable and will play an important role in the revival of our CBD. We truly hope that the opening of an upmarket venue like ours in the centre of town will encourage other business owners to follow suit, providing people with good reason to visit our once-thriving CBD.

    Our central location also bodes well for those making use of Uber. From our location in Somerset West, the majority of well-to-do residential areas are less than 4km away making an Uber ride there and back equal to one good glass of wine at R50.

    We’ve received a lot of support from the public and we’re off to a great start. We managed to raise almost R45K in the first week of our crowdfunding campaign and we’re optimistic that the rest of the campaign will continue in a similar way. There’s clearly a need for an upmarket drinks venue in town and a large part of the community currently being underserved in this area.

    You’re welcome to keep an eye on our progress here: http://bit.ly/SupportProof

    Peter Stafford-Bow | 4 August 2016

    A thoughtful and insightful article, thank you Michael. My experience of Publik suggests it’s the staff (including the owner, David) who are the main driver of its success – even more so than the brilliantly curated wine selection and fashionable location. Their informal yet knowledgeable approach makes a visit to Publik an intimate and exciting experience – more like stumbling upon a friendly speak-easy – a world away from snooty sommeliers or crusty wine merchants. I hope Publik flourishes and doesn’t lose its charm following its recent upgrade to gastro-bar…

    Denise Lindley | 5 July 2016

    Last year I visited new Zealand and found The Winery in Queenstown, an amazing wine bar, where you were given a “credit card” to try all the wines on offer, of which there were about 100. You served yourself with a tasting portion or a glass, and then went to sit down and enjoy it. At the end, you handed your card to the cashier, and pay for the wine consumed. I loved the place, and have been looking for something similar in South Africa, but I think people are too nervous to open a dedicated wine bar here.

    David Cope | 30 June 2016

    Hi Michael,

    We’ve run Publik for almost 3 years now and it still surprises me there aren’t more wine bars around. The lack of a ‘glass of wine after work’ culture and the fact that the middle class market all drive their own vehicles rather than use public transport is a big hindrance. But we’ve found a loyal following of great, wine-loving customers who make it all worthwhile! Cheers to them!

      Marthelize | 30 June 2016

      Hi David,

      Agreed completely. I love Publik – I don’t visit nearly enough, partially because of the lack of public transport from my home in the southern burbs to the CBD at night – and I genuinely wish there were more wine bars in the burbs (both North and South). I was in San Francisco last year and I found more wine-dedicated bars in a three block radius than we have in the entire greater Cape Town area.

      I think the lack of dedicated wine bars really echoes how people think about that after work drink. There are many generic bars/pubs to go to where wine (though usually decidedly average at best) is served.

      And it’s served on the cheap, which people still seem to love (even if it means they’re not drinking better wine). I was actually in Publik yesterday, sitting near the service counter, and someone commented on one of the wines (I think it was the Fram Pinotage) at R90 a glass. She said something along the lines of “well it must be a really good wine if it’s that much”. And then she opted for something cheaper (even having tasted the Fram and saying it’s really good). Sample size of one there, so not a representative example but just illustrating a point.

      There’s still this mental block in the average punter’s mind that by the glass wine in a bar shouldn’t be more than R30-R40. Completely irrespective of what the wine is. Even in my social group, I find it difficult to influence even regular wine lovers/drinkers to pay R50-R100 per glass for a bloody good wine. Yet the same people don’t mind shelling out R100+ for a fancy looking cocktail. That I just don’t get at all.

    Michael Fridjhon | 29 June 2016

    Thanks Colyn
    Without passion and personal commitment the whole concept will never fly. If we already had a wine bar culture it might be possible to create a chain or develop a winning formula. That’s not happening here yet

    Colyn Truter | 29 June 2016


    A great article and one i have discussed with people quite often. Just using Cape Town as an example, why isn’t there more good Wine Bars?? Culture, maybe, but if you go to the ones who tried then you just need to look at the wine brands they offer. This will give you a clear indication why it failed. you mention it in your second last paragraph and i believe it is the biggest mistake owners make.

    For those who have traveled enough in Europe and North America would have seen how successful wine bars are run and structured. I have always wanted to open a wine bar with ideas picked up on my travels, However, i do believe to make it work i have to be part of it 100% and can’t expect an employee to have the same passion and vision for it as i do. Mistake number two by most entrepreneurs.

    Publik in Cape Town is a great example of what can work! David Cope is running a great show there and he attract a wonderful, wine interested crowd with wines you don’t find around every corner.

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