SA’s food and wine culture assessed
By Christian Eedes, 23 November 2022
Do this year’s Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant Awards, back after a two-year interruption caused by Coronavirus, “favour bling over elegance” as one observer put it on social media? It strikes me that by its very nature, the Eat Out Awards are compelled to reward the artful and elaborate (“haute cuisine”) rather than the classic that the gastronomically attentive middle classes might prefer.
No doubt some very good chefs have been acknowledged by Eat Out but there is, of course, a certain sub-set of urban sophisticates who use the experience economy, a top-end restaurant meal being a prime example, to establish their social status. One level down, South Africa is only too happy to accept what might be called “improvised eclectic” (steak-pasta-pizza-sushi all out of the same kitchen), while even further below that, the fast-food outlets proliferate.
If you’d asked me 20 years ago, I would’ve thought that the national food culture would’ve been more developed by now. And as for food, so for wine as these figures demonstrate: In 2021, wine made up 9.9% of total liquor consumption by volume compared to beer at 71.2%. Average annual consumption per capita for wine was 6.53 litres compared to 47.12 litres for beer. And wine prices remained resolutely low with 81% selling for less than R100 a bottle and 65.4% selling for less than R40 a bottle.
The fundamental problems that have always beset wine marketing have probably only got worse in the last two decades. Wine is seen by many as elitist, and the enormity of choice makes buying decisions difficult. Has the industry done that much to address this?
To the extent that there is a wine-drinking market segment, they generally remain risk adverse and hugely price sensitive. Youngsters, or at least those aged under 35, appear to be self-conscious about their lack of wine knowledge and reluctant to engage with the subject, preferring beer and spirits, which in any event market themselves much better as desirable lifestyle products.
Then, there’s a group of wine drinkers I’m starting to know all too well, the middle-aged suburbanite. Typically, income is not really a deterrent to enjoying wine for these people, but it remains a simple pleasure to them. They are conservative in their tastes and reluctant to deviate from what they know (the phenomenal success that retailer Woolworths has enjoyed with box wine boldly branded with the respective farms points to this). They may even drink wine most days of the week, but they have no special interest in learning more, or in the advice of critics.
There are two other clusters that should give the wine industry some hope in that they are highly involved with the subject of wine but unfortunately, they remain numerically tiny and hence account for very little of the total spend of wine. These are: 1) the hipster-yuppies and 2) the seasoned connoisseurs.
The first group are a relatively young group of well-travelled high earners, who enjoy the sociability and excitement of discovering wine and are happy to drink from a broad portfolio spanning established ultra-premium to obscure small-batch. The second consists of middle-aged professionals, properly wine-savvy by dint of experience and possessing high net worth so the most valuable when it comes to spend in the off-trade. They have the broadest palates of any wine drinkers and are the most likely to buy imported wines.
The question is how to grow the wine market and it’s not difficult to trot out all the supposed answers, education and better marketing being probably the two most predictable. In the first instance, however, wine is enormously complicated and doesn’t lend itself to being easily communicated despite the best efforts of the Cape Wine Academy and WSET. In the second instance, better marketing requires budget and wine’s never going to be able to compete with beer or spirits where the margins are so much greater.
The only solution, it seems to me, is to accept that winning over more people to wine is an extremely gradual, painstaking process. We live in a world where brands predominate, where so much of what we consume, both literally and figuratively, is corporate, culture-less and rootless, where bling does trump elegance but wine, at least some of it, provides a sort of antidote. Wine-growing, and the age-old attempt to articulate site, ultimately defies commodification and it’s always a special moment when you see a wine newbie appreciate for the first time how good for the soul that is.
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