They came, they listened, and if members of the South African wine industry are not by now convinced that marketing holds the key to their success it is time to replace those vines with tomato plants or spring onions.
Yesterday’s information day held by Vinpro, the wine producers and industry representative body, saw the heftiest panel of clear, concise speakers in its history. From Wine Economist honcho Mike Veseth to African expert Guy Lundy to Phillip Retief from Van Loveren, all speakers cut to the chase with informative presentations outlining the wine industry’s status quo and for once offering a glimpse as to what the solutions might be. (Download presentations.)
The dynamic and downright smart Retief, who should be leading the South African industry were he not at the helm of one of the country’s most successful liquor producers, said that after stagnating since 1997 the local wine market was now growing at 3% a year. In the three years since 2010 some15m litres more wine was sold locally than in the previous period, ascribing the growth to producers offering new wine styles and the aspirational elements of the lifestyle associated with the wine culture.
“As the stock situation stands now, with increased local consumption and bulk exports South Africa would be running out of wine within five months were it not for the current harvest,” he said.
But as other speakers also alluded to, bulk wine exports are not sustainable as the past year’s spike was largely driven by lower harvests in Europe. Opportunities?
Veseth made a play for the “backyard”, i.e. Africa. And as Sub-Saharan Africa was predicting economic growth of some 6 per cent by 2018, getting into Africa would be a far better bet for local wine producers than standing in-line to offer British or Dutch supermarkets another price-cut. “The best market for your wine is your own backyard,” he said, something which should have gotten a number of producers thinking.
Stephen Rannekleiv from Rabobank came out guns blazing, lamenting the fact that South African exports are heavily skewed towards wine markets that were price sensitive and commodity-driven. This despite there being numerous strengths embedded in the industry, such as South Africa’s low-cost supply chain, technical capacity, the fact that the country speaks and does business in English and has unique story elements to tell the world.
“One of your weaknesses is that Brand South Africa does not have a clear message, causing the consumer to have little understanding or focus about your offering,” he said. “Without a story you have fermented grape juice.
“The challenge is defining your image among consumers,” said Rannekleiv. “Your traditional export markets of Britain, Holland and Germany may have a slight idea of South Africa and its wine, but in the more exciting markets of America and China there is no idea.”
This statement from a leading international economist should have been depressing. Why, after all this time and after all the money and levies has the South African wine industry still not identified the correct tag to hang onto our industry?
Terroir, old soils? Forget it. Says Rannekleiv: “If your story is about vineyards and terroir, get in line.”
Biodiversity? “Every producer in every country is flying a green flag, so why should yours be different?” Veseth told Die Burger newspaper after the information session.
But wishing to see the glass half-full, I found these stern calls to action refreshing. Yes, previous CEO Su Birch ran Wosa into the ground, her weakness in strategy complemented by dreams of political recognition. Yes Birch was assisted in this by a board whose remaining members should question their own competence if they are serious about doing what hundreds of producers pay Wosa to do.
(If the fact that exports of bottled South African wine have remained stagnant since 2002, as highlighted by Retief, is not enough proof of this failure, what is?)
However, the messages from this packed information day would have succeeded in empowering producers on a cerebral level. Would have got them thinking. About the local market and the backyard. South Africa and Africa are ours for the taking, it is our turf. Opportunity.
Despite Wosa’s failure to date, let’s wipe the slate clear. There is a new CEO, clear-headed and focussed on strategy and, well, focus. The experts have told South Africa what to do – again – so let’s all get this damn story-thing going. I for one am gatvol that my country, which offers some of the most diverse narratives from a plethora of diverse cultures cannot even for once get a damn wine story going.
Are we that stupid? No.
Do we talk too much and do too little? Perhaps.
Now let’s go.
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