Tim James: Money, smart foreign cars and smart Cape wine

By , 6 June 2022

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Lamborghini Aventador – price on request.

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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  • Carl13 June 2022

    For a different perspective listen to Tim Atkin’s interview with Eben Sadie on #corktalk on IG.

  • Elizabeth Davie10 June 2022

    I am failing to understand the rhetoric of this article Tim.

    South African wines have evolved tremendously over the years, as have South African wine drinking consumers. Our wines stand tall amongst the very best in world with wine lovers at the top end of the market happily choosing to spend their money on quality regardless the origin and price. We should embrace and applaud all the pioneering winemakers choosing to focus their craft on producing exceptional wines that can compete at the highest level globally transforming our industry from volume driven to quality based. Cars are irrelevant to this argument whether it is the winemaker or consumer driving it.

    • GillesP11 June 2022

      Dear Elisabeth, I am of a different opinion regarding the quality being on par with the very best from elsewhere. Therefore the price should reflect that. Yes there is quality and improvement but SA wines are not right at the top when your palate has been lucky enough to taste the best of France, Spain, Italy, USA, Chili for instances. I don’t know if you have but I have. So for me there is no debate.

      • Lisa13 June 2022

        How do we know what gilles drink ? He will tell us. Every time i read winemag , there is gilles telling us about it , we know it , we get it , thank u

      • Elizabeth Davie17 June 2022

        Hi Giles, thank you for your inputs and you certainly have tasted some very fine international wines. Seeing that you enquired I usually don’t announce the wines I drink and have in my cellar, which includes all the wines you mention below as well as many other noteworthy wines such as DRC, Cheval Blanc, Ornelaia and Opus One which of course are all are exceptional. I also purchase local and international older vintages on Strauss & Co and buy Bordeaux on Premier and have travelled to all these countries. I also proudly drink Columella, Kanonkop’s Paul Sauer and Eden Cabernet Franc, with the latter at R2500 I feel is a steal as it stands tall against some of the best Burgundy’s I have had.

        What I’m happy about is that our conversation have shifted from the absurd comparison between winemakers and their cars to whether SA wines can stand their man against the very best in the word. This is a conversation worth having and the pursuit of finding these unicorn wines is an activity I relish in. I wonder if the bubble that you refer to is what Tim Atkin calls the cultural cringe which refers to people experiencing local produced items as being inferior to their international counterparts.

        In the meantime let’s all put our money where our mouths are and keep in the pursuit of excellence and enjoy every drop of these rare wines we find wherever they originate from (especially SA) We are all wine lovers and sharing this passion is what stirs our magic and keeps us in constant wonder and utter joy and that I’m grateful about!

        • GillesP17 June 2022

          Thank you Elisabeth for your respect to my views and opinions. And yes in the end we are passionate about wine on this forum. High respect for your cellar too

  • Tim James9 June 2022

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sizwe. I really wasn’t trying to take the mickey out of anyone. The serious point that I was making (in what was intended as mostly a lighthearted piece) is one that I’ve made before – that no area/country has made a success of ultra-highly priced wines unless they had a rich and supportive local market. I don’t know if there are enough such people in SA to push up prices substantially – it doesn’t seem like it so far. I don’t have any stronger feelings about those who try to get rich from making wine than about any other such ambitious people. I just can’t see a very-high-priced market emerging for SA – and I can’t see any reason why I should care about that; I’m just pointing it out. (Maybe I need to marshall a few thoughts and write a bit more on the subject.)

    By the way, someone told me that Peter de Wet of De Wetshof also drives “a Ferrari or Lamborghini or such”. I’ve no idea if it’s true. Nor any moral stance on the question!

    • GillesP10 June 2022

      Hello Tim, your statement on no country has made success on Ultra highly price wines without support of rich local market is perhaps incorrect if we look at Burgundy as an exemple. Almost nobody in France is buying their Grand and 1er Cru, let alone drinking these wines at the current price level. Demand is entirely driven by wealthy people from abroad and scarcity. Maybe long time ago it was another story but no longer

      • Tim James10 June 2022

        I was really talking about the establishment of the market in the first place. Once a country/region is established as a producer of fine/expensive wines, which needs (it seems to me) strong local support, the international market takes over very happily. As has happened for most of the great regions, certainly the French ones. (England was the main “home market” for Bordeaux when it was established.) Although I suspect the market for Californian wines remains strongest among Americans, and more top German wines stay at home than top French ones do, as far as I know.

  • Sizwe7 June 2022

    Enjoyed reading this Tim. There are three ambiguous sentences where I wonder if you are ‘taking the mickey’ out of some of the subjects in your article. This isn’t a criticism, I just appreciate the fine line you walk in your candour.

    Anyway, I was hoping you would have delved deeper into why you think the Cape Wine industry is struggling to attract larger numbers of the ultra-rich and wanton spender (noting a few exceptions such as Eben as you’ve mentioned).

    For a country that competes neck and shoulder with some of Europe’s finest wines in terms of quality, we sure do a good job of not getting paid our due. Again exceptions apply with Sadie, Mullineux, Alheit etc. Even with our handful of internationally awarded producers, the word ‘value’ is bound to South African (SA) wine industry. In order to shake this ‘value’ stigma (and without sounding gauche), wouldn’t it contribute to the gravitas of the Cape Wine brand if more winemakers drove Ferraris or other garish and elitist vehicles? Maybe I’m also taking the mickey of the overbearing fraternity and ‘heritage’ that defines the SA wine industry. But shouldn’t SA wineries enjoy the vast spending from the ‘kowtowing’ nouveau riche who also happen to be the same people that buy Ferraris?

    Aren’t these the kind of spenders that can raise the prices of our iconic wines to the dizzying price levels of premium Napa Cab, NZ Pinot etc? I think the answer is yes (partially) but specifically how do SA producers attract them – without looking desperate for Old World status, which I think our many of our wines deserve? There’s also a part of me that disapproves of some producers who masquerade as humble farmers then a few revolutions later raise their prices to R1k per bottle for wines you bought for +-R180 less than 8 years ago. Plenty of examples in the 20km radius around Botmaskop peak.

    • GillesP8 June 2022

      Hello Sizwe.

      I always find that most great wines producers around the world are modest and discreet people. They don’t get appealed by the bling nouveau riche culture of flashing your money at others. Its very similar to Old money vs New money so I won’t see any probable change on this debate in the near future, and personally I like it like to remain like that. I wouldn’t be enticed to purchase expensive wines from some guys driving Ferraris and Lambos. I guess my wallet would feel raped in some ways.

      • sizwe8 June 2022

        I agree Giles. I also think Tim was subtly trying to convey the same message as you on feeling your wallet being ‘raped’.
        However (maybe in contrast to Tim), I feel that local wines priced above Sadie aren’t really taking the piss, as people assume. They are simply pricing accurately for their target consumer. Someone who’s relatively new to wine with a newly acquired budget to fill up the wine cellar and make an impression. Sadly sounds a lot like me.

        • GillesP9 June 2022

          Hello Sizwe. At the price point of these super high end wines priced above R1000+, I would highly recommend you explore the French offerings we can get here. You will find much better wines for yourself and for your friends to impress 🙂 . Believe me I am a wine aficionado

          • Lisa14 June 2022

            Gillies , no i dont know much of these foreign stuff that u keep on and on and on about , all i have at home is a few cases of this stuff romanee conti my uncle left me , to old for me . mixed from 70’s and 80’s , i use it for my oxtail stew and open a nice stellenbosch red , yummy

          • Francois Briel15 June 2022

            “Trust me I’m a…” is normally a red flag for me. Why would you pay over R 1000 for an international wine, but not a local one? When Anthony Hamilton Russell was one of the first wine farm owners to charge more than R 200 per bottle of his world class Pinot many years ago, the industry was also up in arms. Then they followed suit over the years. Why would we believe our wines to be inferior to international counterparts? Have you tried the Eden High Density Chenin and Cab Franc? Better than most wines found in the Loire. Have you tasted a Columella? Have you tried a Porseleinberg? These are all exceptional South African wines that is worth every cent.

            Philippe, Baron de Rothschild was a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty who became a Grand Prix motor racing driver, a screenwriter and playwright, a theatrical producer, a film producer, a poet, and one of the most successful wine growers in the world. I am sure he did not drive an old Citroën. We should celebrate the successes of our local wine rock stars like Bruwer Raats, Eben Sadie, Callie Louw and many others. They have all done many many years of planning & cultivating of their vineyards. They are visionaries that saw potential twenty years ago and put in the hard work. I could not be happier for them and for their wines that are worth every cent.

            • GillesP16 June 2022

              Hello Francois. You are perfectly entitled to be of that opinion on wines above R1000.

              I have tried all these wines. Columella, Sadie family range, Palladius, Porseleinberg. Have still a couple of them as a matter of fact. But unfortunately for me if I try to compare like for like with a Cote Rotie from Jamet, a Chateauneuf du Pape from Beaucastel, or if I think of other new world great wines made in a Bordeaux style such as Sena, Clos Apalta, Don Maximiano, Harlan, Dominus, and the lost goes on with Bordeaux Crus Classes, not need to go top level, etc … I just can’t find the same quality for the price in the wines you just mentioned.

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