Bacchus gets an Oscar

Last night, the first SA wine Oscars were handed out. My report from the red carpet for the Financial Mail:

While the SA red wine lake may have been drained by bulk shipments to Angola (up from 180 000 litres in 2006 to 14 million last year) there is a happy surfeit of SA wine awards.

There are competitions for women winemakers; competitions for best label and awards for wine tourism facilities; competitions for “best” wines in a whole host of categories as judged by panels of Cape Wine Masters, professional winemakers, international judges, French palates and guides like Platter’s, which annually sells nearly half as many copies as Jake White’s autobiography. Stellenbosch Hills recently launched a biltong maker of the year competition, described as “like the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award, but with meat.” The FM Wine Business Awards is the first competition that focuses solely on the business aspects of winemaking.

The awards are the brainchildren of two Stellenbosch entrepreneurs: Delarey Brugman, former sports agent and great grandson of that musical Boer War legend General Koos de la Rey and John Woodward of Frogitt & Vonkel Wine Merchants who pioneered the retail component of wine exhibitions with the Jo’burg Wine Show, which has its third incarnation at Gallagher Estate at the end of the month.

dj Bacchus gets an Oscar

The Oscars were memorably dubbed “handouts from the mad to the glad” by the Financial Times last year and some of these awards set eyebrows rising: design and packaging to Lourensford Honey Liqueur (more Druid than Bacchus) while in similar vein, the low budget marketing award went to Stormhoek, a brand so low budget, it’s inventor, Orbital Wines, went bang earlier this year.

As with the Oscars, while the Winery of Good Hope winning the sustainable BEE deal award may play big among the ethical trading officers of UK supermarkets and that little Kleine Zalze should beat boring corporate giants Distell, DGB and KWV as Export Star comes as no surprise, the best actor and film awards are what TV networks and public focus on.

Bruce Jack named personality of the year is like Bruce Willis nominated for Die Hard. Amorim Winenews Newsmaker of the Year in 2007 for the sale of his thriving Flagstone business to US drinks behemoth Constellation, Jack is the most vocal and outward looking of the new crop of SA winegrowers who are transforming a 350 year old industry.

Stellenbosch producer Kleine Zalze winning the prize for wine company of the year is less expected: an art house succès d’estime rather than Hollywood blockbuster, confirming that value for money beats ego pricing and self-declared icon status, at least for wine. If there was an award for best restaurant on the premises, they’d win that one too, with Michael Broughton’s Terroir temple of gastronomy, the culinary jewel of the Winelands.

In lieu of a teary-eyed acceptance speech, we asked Jack the obvious question. Do these awards replace mystique with materialism? Is making wine an art, a communion with nature with vague and wooly concepts such as terroir at play or a craft that can be quantified with double entry bookkeeping?

“It can be a communion with nature. I sometimes lie down in a special vineyard – an organic one I’ve planted on my dad’s farm. If the wind isn’t blowing (a rare thing in the Overberg) it is very quiet at daybreak. You can watch the leaves watch the sky watch the sun rise. After awhile, when your breathing has slowed, you start to relax, and you can sort of feel the ground humming. It feels like a deeply resonating surge of energy coursing into your body from the very centre of the earth. If you can feel that, the vine can feel that as well and therefore so can the grapes. I lie there and dream about how to capture that in a bottle of wine.

But then the cell phone rings and your driver who stole thousands of Rands worth of wine has summoned you to the CCMA and the new EU labeling regulations mean you’ve got three containers held up by manic customs officials in Hamburg, and your forklift driver just drove into the DHL van with his forks, decapitating the head of a wooden Giraffe destined for Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant… etc. And that’s where double entry book keeping and other protocols and procedures come in. You need the structure if you want to be successful, because this business epitomizes chaos. But you also need to feel the earth hum through you every now and again. If you can’t ever capture some of that magic your wine won’t add joy to life, and it doesn’t matter how much administrative structure you have, your wine will be dead and eventually so will your business.”

The power of marketing is hard to overstate. When Kim Maxwell reported on Avondale’s ad campaign on last year, a promotion that trousered the trophy for best consumer campaign, the website recorded a record number of hits in a 24-hour period. The fact that it featured teams of nubile models au nature, picking vines in the all together and making wine in the winery in the nude, was purely coincidental.

And when the Company of Wine People repackaged their Welmoed four-packs for Pick ‘n Pay, sales volumes jumped by 63%, making them worthy winners of the best launch award.

Jack agrees that quality-in-bottle compared to ad-spend can be an issue, noting “there are too many examples of poor wine showing extraordinary growth both locally and internationally. Historically Kumala (SA’s largest export brand and a wine I am now responsible for) lacked consistency of quality. We are going to extraordinary lengths to improve this aspect of the brand, so we can always be proud of the wine – I’ve set the team some very ambitious quality goals.

But the reality is that with a £5 million marketing budget we will always outperform our competition in export markets. Globally, there are only a handful of brands at our volumes out there that are winemaker-driven offerings. However, I believe that if we can make a wine that always tastes more gorgeous than the rest, the sustainability and longevity of the brand will be secured. Constellation is committed to this vision of a winemaker-driven, authentic offering, so it’s a huge privilege to be involved in the rejuvenation of a brand which we should see double in quantity over the next three years.”

Perhaps the single aspect of the business overlooked by these awards is that of eco-sensitivity in terms of carbon credits and bottle weights, use of pesticides and sustainable farming techniques. Working for the world’s largest winemaker with both global vineyards and sales, Jack is aware of the contradiction that this most traditional and ancient of beverages should be now a global good.

“Globalization is often a bad thing. However, in our situation, the opportunity to sell a home-grown South African product on supermarket shelves around the world is a good thing – especially if we can do this profitably all the way back to the farmer, his/her people and the land. This is about the structure of our procurement and a rather audacious vision I am trying to implement. If selling a wine in New York means we can ensure a crèche gets built on a farm in a backwater area of the Karoo, we’ve achieved something magical.

Globalization gives us the opportunity to sell a branded, luxury, African product to every corner of the world. And by making this product desirable because it just tastes so damned good, we can not only change perceptions of Africa, but we can charge more for it and therefore pay more for the grapes and wine we buy from farmers and cellars. Globalization will allow us to grow Kumala into a category-smashing brand. In so doing we can renew an entire agricultural sector if we structure our business correctly.

It’s about time consumers started putting more pressure on the eco-friendly status of all products. It’s wonderful to see what is slowly happening. Wine of course has an enormous responsibility not only to deliver on these needs, but champion them; because wine is the only agricultural product that lives and dies by the laws of fashion. We can and must make sustainability, conservation and eco-awareness fashionable. In so doing we can bring some respect back to agriculture – that cornerstone of humanity’s success everyone has dismissed.”

The global reach of Bacchus is underlined by the young achiever award to Inke Gouws. Gouws and her Champagne import business are part of the reason sales of French fizz are nudging 500 000 bottles annually – an incredible volume for a luxury good, with sales up almost four fold since the turn of the Millennium. A phenomenon confirmed in the glossy booze brochure from Makro, retailer of the year, which falls out of your newspaper, which devotes as much space to French fizz as the local stuff.

On trade personality of the year Alan Pick would be the first to admit that wine is all about “selling the moment”, and few brands have such a stranglehold on aspiration as Champagne. Imports are one of the challenges these awards flag. Others are highlighted by Jack.

“Actually the biggest challenge we have always faced is our dizzying array of different soil types over small areas. This leads to uneven ripeness, which requires costly viticultural intervention to circumnavigate. However, if we can pay our farmers more, by selling more wine, more profitably, we will be able to demand these interventions and therefore easily make better red wine. It obviously isn’t a problem with whites.

Our different soil types are actually a huge strategic opportunity if we can embrace them. We need to utilise the tools available for this. If we do we will make wonderfully complex, but very drinkable, gorgeous wine. Other countries with more homogenous soil types won’t be easily able to replicate this layered complexity and we therefore will have a strategic advantage – but first we have to learn how to embrace the challenge.

We must also start sharing our ideas on marketing and production issues. The businesses with the big budgets need to start weaving a common message about what South Africa is into their marketing so we build Brand SA momentum as a by-product of our marketing activities.

As for production issues, we need to start getting our act together regarding research and development. We are critically under-funded as a sector in this country and Government must come to the party immediately. South African wine on overseas shelves is the calling card for the African Renaissance and an open invitation to visit us and spend all those Euros and Dollars here. South African wine must be supported and strengthened at every level and the rewards will be plentiful across many other sectors.”