The seat is warmish, but not unfamiliar. Carina Gous, newly appointed chairperson of Wines of South Africa (Wosa) has spent the past two decades at the coalface of the South African wine industry. As Distell’s resident head of marketing strategy and brand management she lead the company’s wine portfolio with distinction, as well as becoming known as arguably South Africa’s leading wine marketing expert.
Having sat on the Wosa board since 2010, Gous is now chairperson of the organisation responsible for the generic marketing of South African wine. In other words, getting the wine drinker in London, Tokyo, New York or Beijing to select Wine of Origin South Africa above or alongside one from France, Australia, Spain or New Zealand.
“The major challenge for Wosa as a representative body remains working to keep our wines in the international spotlight with a very limited budget to our disposal,” she says sitting in the stately board-room of Neethlingshof Estate in Stellenbosch where she is a marketing consultant, having left Distell earlier this year.
“With annual exports of around 430m, Wosa’s income is determined by the levies placed upon every litre of wine exported. This amounts to 12c and 15c a litre for bulk and packaged respectively – some R50m annually. And remember that 20% of these levies must go towards industry transformation initiatives.”
One feels embarrassed by this figure which has to be used to market the proudly South African wine industry, one with a history stretching back to 1659 and making some of the best wines in the world, while contributing R40bn to the national GDP.
“This is why liaising with national government must be one of the wine industry’s top-priorities,” she says. Unlike most other wine producing countries, South African producers have to – through Wosa – finance their own marketing without enjoying the largesse of official subsidies.
“Vinpro (the SA wine producers’ organisation) have representation in Pretoria to lobby government,” she says. “And it is important that Wosa is a part of this, contributing where we can in terms of opportunities and requirements in the international arena.”
Carina says the spirit of co-operation between Vinpro, Wosa and other industry organisations such as Winetech and Sawis is one of the current improvements the wine industry has undergone.
“We just are a nation of political animals, the wine industry being no exception,” she says. “The industry has been too fragmented for too long on the organisational side, to the detriment of the wine business in its whole. If I compare the situation now to the one I encountered when being elected to the board, there is much better co-operation today between the different groupings. Here Vinpro’s Wise Plan for the industry has played a profound role. It’s a pleasure working together on a collective vision of building the South African wine industry into the formidable powerhouse it deserves to be.”
Talking to her, it becomes clear that Gous has a broad, world view stretching beyond Wosa’s past trivialities of promoting the industry through the braai culture or focussing on the uniqueness of the local floral kingdom.
“The focus, now, is to ensure South African wines muscle-in on the world’s fastest growing wine markets, namely China and America,” she says. “And then there is the question of unutilised free trade agreements with Europe and America. I want to find out why we have not made use of those free trade agreements and what we are going to do about it in unleashing the potential these have for the industry. With the lack of funding as well a precarious Rand monetary unit, Wosa has to identify and use each and every opportunity, free trade agreements being one.”
And to further hammer-in the nail of pragmatism, Carina reckons producers have to contribute to Wosa’s promotional activities.
“Wosa’s representatives in Europe, America and the East have the contacts, open doors and organise shows and tastings for South African wine. We’ll help where we can, but producers are going to have to pay if they want to play.”
Gous’s heart does, after-hall, side with the producer. As the daughter of a Montagu wine farmer she was mesmerised by the smells of the fermenting grapes and the seasonal beauty of the winelands as a young girl. Sips of Muscadel on the stoep of the family home extended the appreciation for the finished product. “Wine and the wine industry, that is who and what I am,” says Gous.
During her years as a Stellenbosch student she had to use her car as a wine cellar seeing that alcohol was not permitted in the univeristy residences.
Her qualifications include an MSc degree in chemistry and an MBA, complemented by experiencing the modern wine industry in the Distell engine room, where distinctions were many. Besides establishing 4th Street, currently the largest wine brand in South Africa, she managed the reputations of premium brand names including Nederburg, Fleur du Cap and Zonnebloem.
“South African wine quality is, currently, truly exceptional,” says Gous. “This quality is partnered by new initiatives and energetic wine makers and marketers. The Old Vines Project and the attempt to restore the national pride in Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch come to mind. I think it is important, vital, that we accentuate this pioneering spirit and air of confidence South African wine people have as unique features within the industry. I am really excited about everything happening at the moment, both in the industry and at Wosa itself. There is a lot to work with, to the benefit of us all.”
It takes cool head to occupy that hot seat with distinction, and we’ve got it.