Tim James: Money, smart foreign cars and smart Cape wine
By Tim James, 6 June 2022
I remember a wine conversation with my brother, many years ago, in which he commented that he couldn’t afford to buy the sort of wine I did. At the time, I was about to get into my second-hand little car and he had his foot up in the door of his splendid new Series 7 BMW – which probably represented an amount greater than my total spending on wine in my whole life.
For some people, it’s a matter of wide choice when it comes to discretionary income. Others have enough for everything, others enough for damn-all.
The fraternal chat about cars and wine and money came back to me last week when I read an installment of Tim Cohen’s online Daily Maverick column, After the Bell, about the financial markets. As a socialist I’m bound to frequently disagree with this other Tim, of course, but always find his writing entertaining and interesting. This time he was talking about the local car industry and began by invoking the weirdness of South Africa’s vast disparities of income and living conditions: “There is mass unemployment, loadshedding, floods and the usual travails we read about everyday. And in this past month of May … ten okes walked out and bought themselves Lamborghinis.” He added that only five Ferraris were sold here that month, and a mere two Bentleys.
I wondered about Maseratis, but more about the sale of the unmentioned Porsches, which have some immediate significance for the Cape wine industry, as Toby Venter, the CEO of Porsche SA (in fact, of LSM Distributors, also responsible for the abovementioned Lambos and Bentleys), is the owner of the Stellenbosch wine estate Uva Mira. Don’t know about sales in May, but I found that in 2021 Porsche sold 1,001 cars here.
It does put in some perspective the price of wine. I suspect that the majority of buyers of Lamborghinis, and even those who must be content with a modest little Porsche, are not like my unfortunate bro, who needed (or said he did) to make the choice between smart car and smart wine. The ultra-rich, or even the merely very rich, could afford to spend pretty well what they wanted to on the glories of the Cape winelands. If they wanted to, that is. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I imagine them as drinking fancy whisky – and perhaps Dom Perignon or Cristal or some other showy famous-label champagne, with the connoisseurs among them buying the likes of top-end burgundy and bordeaux.
However, I did once see a Rolls Royce (a touch dusty from the Swartland roads) leaving the Sadie winery. It belonged to, I was told, a good customer. On which note, and as an example, Sadie is gearing up to sell its latest releases (2020 Columella and Palladius, 2021 Old Vine Series). To buy a six-bottle case of each of the ten wines at cellar-door prices would cost you R33 057.79 – surely pretty irrelevant if your other car’s a Porsche and even more so if your first car’s a Lamborghini. I doubt if the price of the 60 bottles would pay for a Lamborghini wing-mirror or hubcab – assuming that Lamborghinis descend to such mundane accoutrements. And these wines are arguably the most justifiably famous wines of the Cape, albeit far from the most expensive. (Gnash your teeth, Mike!) Incidentally, the highest-price wine at Toby Venter’s Uva Mira, O.T.V., costs more than any Sadie wine, at R1350.
Perhaps, though, the ultra-rich don’t buy fancy Cape wines at release, but wait for them to get a few years old and appear on auction, where they cost vastly more, thus helping them spend some of their no doubt terribly hard-earned money.
What is clear is that more of the rich need to spend lots more money on local wine if the dreams of those producers who are convinced that Cape wines are undervalued and underpriced are to be realised. I think there’s no wine region in the world that has managed to sell internationally a good deal of very expensive wine unless there is a really significant home market for it. Even Spain had to wait till it joined the European Union, for example, before it could join the club; Argentina and Chile are inching in that direction thanks to being in the backyard of the USA.
There are quite a lot of rich and very rich people in South Africa, and they’re generally not scared of conspicuous consumption. Perhaps there are just not enough, or enough sufficiently interested in wine and sufficiently immune to cultural cringe (nothing like the nouveau riche to blindly kowtow to the claims of the classic and successful).
Further musing on cars and wine people, I suppose the richer estate and grape farm owners might have a smart example of the Audi/Merc/BMW class tucked in the family garage (probably nothing showier – they tend to be unostentatious, on the whole). However, there’d probably be a luxury 4X4 double-cab self-steering bakkie for farm use (and to more convincingly take off their taxable incomes). I think Charles Back had a Porsche once, and maybe still does. But possibly most of his money comes from goats. And the mega-rich owners, from bankers through IT moguls to cigarette and supermarket kings? I have no idea what they drive, or are driven in by chauffeurs.
The only winelands Ferrari that I know of belongs to petrolhead Bruwer Raats, rather to the affectionate amusement of some of the winemaking, bakkie-driving fraternity, I suspect. Christian has just posted an enthusiastic review of his Raats Family Eden High-Density Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2019 at R2 500 per bottle, a price that tells some of the story. I’m told, reliably or not I can’t say, that Bruwer can be seen occasionally giving a treat drive in his lovely red car to important (ie foreign) journalists and buyers, throatily powering up and down the Vlaeberg Road in Stellenbosch – within the speed limit, of course. So maybe that indulgence could also come off tax, as a marketing expense. Vroom.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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