Broedertwis over US Export Strategies

“The last time the SA wine industry stood together was on the boat to St. Helena” (referring to the deportation of bittereinders at the end of the Anglo-Boer War) and “trail dust is thicker than blood” from Louis L’Amour are two popular sayings in SA wine.

boer Broedertwis over US Export Strategies

The veracity of the first is confirmed today as SA wine debates the merits or not of establishing another body to encourage exports to the US on the website. The newbie will be called USAPA (USA Producer Association and not the USA Pickleball Association as one wag pointed out) and will be funded by voluntary contributions. It will run alongside WOSA (the exporters’ mouthpiece) which is funded by an export levy. It’s all a bit like COPE and the ANC trying to run SA and in true political fashion, the debate was nearly stillborn as dark and sinister forces attempted to silence one of the communicants on winenews.

Help is clearly needed as SA sales are falling like the proverbial rocket stick on Guy Fawkes’ Night (down ¼ over two years in a market of rising imports). Shouting from the sidelines is a popular hobby in SA wine marketing and some of the anonymous points raised are worth repeating:

• If as much time was spent selling wine in the SA as is spent talking about selling wine we’d be #1;

• We are approaching the American market in too cultured a manner, displaying our Calvinistic and polite British heritage. The inherent brazenness of the Ozzies and Americans laughs at this. So without any loud butt-kicking and an in-your-face approach, we can all get together, talk a lot and even jerk each other off, but it is not going to get us anywhere.

• The pampered SA wine writing industry is conspicuously absent from the debate. No wonder their publications are collapsing faster than RDP houses in KwaZulu-Natal.

For my own 5c worth, I’m more of a Louis L’ Amour disciple and think there’s a lot to be said for trail dust. I wrote about it on winenews six months ago:

First we take Manhattan

While Dalene Steyn from WoSA advises producers to defend market share in Europe rather than expanding into the USA, Mark Solms has secured landing rights for his exciting Solms-Delta brand in Manhattan.

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

First we take Manhattan by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen could have had Mark Solms in mind when he penned the lyrics of the opening song to his 1988 album I’m Your Man. At the risk of over-egging the barrel, SA wine was a seriously boring place before Mark Solms arrived with his desiccated grapes and Museum van de Caab which connected SA wine to its cultural history for the first time. Sure Groot Constantia, Nederburg and Meerlust have told the white side of the story for decades, but Solms was the first to present the whole picture.

cohen Broedertwis over US Export Strategies

Professor Solms now looks to be rewriting the wine marketing book as well, acquiring shelf space in some of Manhattan’s most prestigious retail space for his brand. Sherry-Lehmann on the Upper East Side is the refueling outlet for the dowagers and billionaires with apartments overlooking Central Park, the owners of those poodles you see taking their chauffeurs for a walk. Located on Park Avenue, you need to take care when browsing that your “famous blue raincoat” does not bum-brush a stand of Pétrus.

The Sherry selection of SA wine is idiosyncratic to say the least. The last time I was there was to load up on Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon at $9 a bottle for casual quaffing. This was the previous vintage of the “always reliable” wine demoted from 3 to 1½ stars in the 2008 edition of Platter’s – an assessment I hear that was embarrassingly reversed when publisher, editor and a couple of assorted Platter’s palates tasted the wine again recently. This time, the assessment was done blind and the Excelsior was judged three stars, unlike a couple of other Cabernets that had been rated sighted at three but collapsed to two when done blind. Now we know why the guide has a red cover this year!

Joining the Excelsior on the Sherry shelf will be Solms’ Koloni and Africana, both wines under the Solms-Hegewisch brand, a desiccated white and red respectively made by Hilko Hegewisch. Over at Rockefeller Plaza, Wall Street Masters of the Universe will be able to order Solms-Delta wines with their pastrami on rye at the Morrel & Co. wine bar while the marvelously named Frankly Wines on Broadway and Gnarly Vines in Brooklyn will offer Hiervandaan and Lekkerwijn, both guaranteed tongue-twisters for noo yawk tawkers.

Less of a surprise is the listing at Astor Wine & Spirits on Lafayette Street. After all, Richard Astor is a partner and his ancestor John Jacob Astor just about owned Manhattan in the late 18th century, lending his name to the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Standby for a Solms-Astor listing there too. Vastrap would be most appropriate even if it’s been a long time since a mud and manure floor had to be danced flat in Manhattan.

Cohen’s advice to start with Manhattan before tackling Berlin is not universally accepted. A letter to the editor of the current edition of Wineland magazine by WoSA’s Dalene Steyn is something of a report back on the recent VinPro Information Day held at Goudini Spa. Ms Steyn reports that while Johan Bruwer’s point that there is still a lot of scope for South Africa in the USA is well made “his comments were very valid but I believe we need to be cautious.

While exploring the American market and tapping into its potential is a positive step for those producers who can afford to sustain a long-term marketing campaign and make inroads into this highly competitive market, the majority of SA producers would be better serviced by continuing to build and maintain their marketing bases in Europe.

This is especially pertinent in view of the fact that California is increasing its efforts and budget to grow market share in Europe. Not being able to predict if a recession will actually happen in the States, it may well be cheaper to defend market share en Europe than open the US market.”

Su Birch, CEO of WoSA, agrees with Steyn. “There has been a huge consolidation of distributors in the US and the road is littered with very expensive failures. Most SA producers underestimate the resources required. There is not even an SA category in the US and we need a generic marketing campaign to generate awareness. The US is the fastest growing market and is clearly the place to be but WoSA does not have the resources required. It is a lot easier to sell wine in other parts of the world.”

Reacting to Steyn’s letter and a January report in Decanter that America will soon become the largest wine consumer in the world, Andre Shearer, CEO of Cape Classics, the largest, oldest and arguably most successful ‘SA wine merchant’ in the US begged to differ. “Who on earth would not want to be part of that? Now, if SA producers are being advised by a formal wine industry body, to avoid the US, they’d be plain stupid. If they are suggesting that you’d better have your best juice, best funds, best marketing hat and masses of long-term energy – they’d be right. The US has higher standards than our other export markets and therefore only the best survive. We should be raising our standards vigorously instead of running to the less difficult, but lower ‘barrier to entry’ markets. That being said, in a free market, go where you go, and do what you do!

I would urge South African producers to continue to refine their viticultural skills, make ripe wines with finesse, and get serious about collaboration so that we can jointly raise our overall standards and not settle for grand mediocrity, which I still believe is very prevalent. We are just very, very lucky that our region producers nice wines with some effort. I do not mean that people don’t work hard, but I do think we need to work a lot smarter, to coin an American phrase. I still believe totally that the US will still ultimately define what great South African wine is.”

With WoSA and Shearer offering diverging opinions, the conflicting signals sent to producers are confusing to say the least. Perhaps Solms has a solution – do it yourself. As Mr. Cohen summed it up:

I’m guided by a signal in the heavens
I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin
I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin