Thoughts of Chairman Bob

Robert Gabriel Mugabe is not the only politburo chairman in the news at the minute. Robert Joseph is back in town, chairing his 51st wine competition which is either the 5th (according to show owner Christine Cashmore) or 6th (everyone else you speak to) outing of the Swiss International Air Lines Wine Awards in leafy Constantia. Christine can be forgiven for underestimating this particular show statistic as every other one is zooming off the chart: 736 entries, showing a 32% growth on last year.

rj Thoughts of Chairman Bob

Unfortunately, other statistics are also on the up: number of corkamorimcork Thoughts of Chairman Bob
by Amorim Cork
ed wines (above 10%, and a special problem for Wellington producers) and Brettanomyces affected reds (10% hit rate). While Chairman Bob is a notorious corkophobe, producers of screw caps are also dammed as being “no better than cork suppliers when it comes to dealing with producer complaints.”

Poor use of Hungarian oak is also highlighted and inappropriate background music (“cheesy jazz at loud volume”) in local fine dining restaurants also comes in for some stick. Chairman Bob says the flood of entries is part of an international trend, confirming the perceived need for show medals and awards from producers. “I tell producers to enter two competitions – the International Wine Challenge and Decanter World Wine Awards for the brands I’m involved with.”

Bob has been busy of late. His brand Mouton Noir (black sheep, echoing the bucolic theme pioneered by Charles Back with his goats do something-or-other range, see for a radical website) is flying. Volumes are now running at around 200 000 cases over two years with not a single bottle sold in the UK. Made from grapes sourced around the world (and perhaps SA soon) Joseph is adamant that the UK wine market is not the place to be. “Supermarkets keep prices pegged at £2.99, £3.99, … but inflation is running at 2½% and the chancellor has slapped a 14p increase in duty. Unless price points give, quality has to decline. Our marketing motto is ABB: Anywhere But Britain.” A point of view starkly at odds with the position of WoSA, Wines of SA, the exporters association.

Brand building is something of a growth industry in the UK with RJ highlighting the Saam’s Mountain JV between Perdeberg Co-op and the British Bibbendum retail chain. “Several retailers are looking to developing international brands that only sell around 20% of production in the UK.”

The USA is favoured export destination for Black Sheep (with China an alluring prize), although Chairman Bob is not confident of SA’s chances in the US market: “SA has little chance as you lack a coherent message. The SA industry – which is only really 8 years old – is heading every which way. There is no coherent message and you don’t even have a calling card. There is confusion over a lean and classic approach versus the New World model with higher alcohols and riper fruit. I have an idea what Chile, Argentina and New Zealand stand for. I don’t know what SA is and saying SA wine ‘is a rich smorgasbord’ as WoSA does, is not helpful. Their recent biodiversity campaign was a total failure – the message was far too complicated.”

With white blends flavor of the month among SA winemakers, Bob fires a warning shot. “They don’t work in the US. It’s a simplistic place – there is a shelf for Chardonnay and one for Viognier, so don’t offer them a Chardonnay/Viognier blend (as we did) – there is no place to put it. The UK, of course, is a different proposition with quirky blends popular among some retailers.”

rj1 Thoughts of Chairman Bob

Another controversial message was on wine writers and their reach. “Wine writing doesn’t work in the UK. Everyone has been talking Austrian wines up to the skies. The latest Nielsen figures put UK sales of Austrian wines at 6400 cases – pathetic.” Riesling is another example of a widely hyped variety/style which the wine drinking public blithely ignores.

At the conclusion of our dinner at Pure in Hout Bay (inappropriate ambient music being “for he’s a jolly good fellow” belted out fortissimo as the foie gras was being served) Chairman Bob concluded that the medal winners at this year’s show confirmed no trends. “Tulbagh were the stars last year and they did well again this, but so did other appellations. Loads of little producers I’d never heard of did well. My message is that there is no message, no trends to detect.”

Perhaps to be expected as the show heads rapidly towards 1000 bottle gorilla status in a cage currently home to an unlikely trio: Veritas (an old silverback patriarch), Michelangelo (an exotic troglodyte about which little is known as SA judges are kept to one, to maintain quality) and Old Mutual’s Trophy Wine Show (a bibulous Bonobo that beats its chest quite a lot).