Today, the UK enjoys over 48% of South Africa’s export market, with most of the remaining bottles finding their way to other parts of Europe and the Commonwealth. This is a likely connection, due in large part to South Africa’s historical links with Britain and that the UK is a more developed wine market; the average Brit drinks 19 liters of wine per year as opposed to the US average of only 9 liters per capita. Despite these figures, the US, with its incredible overall consumption and limitless market potential, is the new frontier for South African wine sellers. To some exporters, it is the Promised Land.
But there are some serious barriers to courting the US market. Wine sales in America are spread out across thousands of individually owned liquor stores; in New York State alone, there are over 2500 independent establishments, each with their own buyers and beliefs with regard to what will take in their sales regions. Additionally, 87% of the wine drunk in the US is locally produced, and the high shipping costs tagged onto South African wines drive the prices of importing up against US counterparts.
The UK, on the other hand, has its central distribution location in London, which makes getting the word out relatively easy. There, supermarkets dominate the wine industry, so relatively unknown South African brands can get an immediate toe-hold in this already established sales base.
So with a focus on breaking into the US, Anthony Holme, a director at Thirstland Wines (an international wine marketing company), and his partner traveled to the US last autumn on an all out marketing mission. Their objective? To gather information on the US wine market and devise a scheme to break in.
Their visit involved personally interviewing 500 American consumers in wine bars and liquor stores, and on the street to gather impressions of South Africa overall. The good news is that over half were aware that South Africa produces wine. The bad news is that only 3% of those interviewed could actually name a South African wine brand. A very low point occurred when a New Yorker’s top-of-mind impression of South Africa was “kangaroos.”
Clearly, South Africa remains an exotic unknown as far as the average US wine buyer is concerned – A fact local exporters are learning to use to their advantage.
Holme feels that the experimental nature of US consumers “opens doors.” Being a relatively unknown wine brand, therefore, can be a strength. Australia is already benefiting from the effect of a massive advertising campaign and a long established, on-the-ground network of marketers in the US who are promoting Australian brand names by bringing product to wine fairs, tastings, restaurateurs and liquor stores. The result? A small toe hold. Of 108 restaurants surveyed in New York and Boston selling a total of 1825 wines, 2.08% of them were pushing Australian brands, while a middling .48% offered South African wines. Thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign in the US and UK, the total volume of Australian wine exports have risen from 40.2M liters in 1989 to an incredible 216.2M liters in 1999 -- almost 100M more liters than South Africa’s current volume.
Holme feels that South Africa could equal Australia’s export volume in the near future if South Africa learns the basics of marketing its brand profile to the US. Happily, the wine drinker in New York likes to be exposed to wines from other regions and countries, unlike say, the average Frenchman who, fond of his favorite territories, sticks to a few regions.
The other factor that brings hope to local exporters is the fact that Californian and French winemakers selling to the US have, according to Holme, “shot themselves in the foot” in terms of price. Both Holme and winemaker Ross Gower of premier local SA estate, Klein Constantia, have noted that the recent booming US economy prompted the top wine producers for the US (California and France) to up their prices considerably since 1998. With 69% of US consumers buying in the $10 to $20 range, it’s no wonder that more inexpensive, quality brands from the southern hemisphere are getting people’s attention as mid-range French and American wines drift into the $20+ price bracket. A quick perusal of “Best Wines of the Year, 1999” (Wine News) shows average prices for recommended California wines in the $75-$125 range, while wines below $20 are listed as “value wines.” And the price continues to rise in 2000.
South Africa, on the other hand, has yet to field a $100 bottle of production wine; the bulk of its exports price between $10-$20 in the US. The most expensive price we could find for a bottle of South African 1996 Rust En Vrede Shiraz, which scored a healthy 92 in the Wine Spectator, was $19.99, and it could be ordered direct for as little as $10.95. As Gowe at Klein Constantia Estate succinctly put it, “South African winemakers have no right putting out a $100 bottle of wine. Not yet.” This is good news for the adventurous American wine drinker on a budget, and great news to hungry South African exporters needing a price wedge to bring their incredible local wines to foreign tables.
Anthony Holme believes, as do most winemakers, that selling the South African brand name means learning how to sell Africa itself. For too long, Holme believes, South African wine exporters have tried to present themselves as separate from Africa. This has to do with the Cape’s distinctive Anglo-provincial feel, and the mistaken belief that the world wine market was pitilessly Eurocentric. Ross Gower points out that the name Africa seems to attract buyers from around the world, particularly in Scandinavia, one of the country’s fastest growing markets. “It’s easy to sell ‘sunny South Africa’ to ‘dismal Denmark.’” That same sales logic ought to work in selling sun-kissed wines to frozen upstate New York or to muddy Vermont.
South African wine sales, already given a boost by the nation’s recent years in the spotlight and the popularity of its former president, Nelson Mandela, are now learning the value of the world’s image of their land. To capitalize on the region’s beauty, at the London International Wine Trade Fair 2000, South Africa dominated the scene with a massive mural depicting the breathtaking hills and sunny blue skies framing the cape’s vineyards.
“Think of how people see most of the wine producing regions of the world. California and France are old hat. Australia and New Zealand are boring little colonies. Germany’s wine region isn’t that interesting from the consumer’s perspective either. But Africa has everything: immaculate vineyards, sunshine, a diverse people, jazz, great food and a laid-back lifestyle. The place is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. No other continent triggers the imagination the way Africa does.” Indeed, local exporters are now using images of alluring African models, sipping red wine, to sell their product -- creating an enviable market profile of ethnic spice overlaid against the nation’s claim on 350 years of winemaking.
This profile is drawing the younger, affluent wine drinkers put off by the confusing snobbery of the expensive established brands. Indeed, South Africa may be putting the romance back into wine drinking. The trick is how to get the message to these younger drinkers looking for the next exotic taste.
Holmes feels that marketing the African brand name to the US requires a two-pronged approach. “Australia spends much more than what we do in South Africa on marketing themselves to the US and the rest of the world. The average wine student here goes directly into producing and growing. The expertise in marketing simply is not being developed fast enough in this country.” Many exporters like Holme believe that marketing development will allow previously disadvantaged groups in South Africa an entry into a traditionally closed-door industry.
Marketing to the US is not impossible, asserts Holme. It is simply a matter of placing professional marketing people in the US who have the mandate to get South African wines into restaurants, wine fairs, wine tastings and wine bars, and promote the brand to the press. Only this kind of personalized, on-the-ground marketing will increase South African brand awareness among American wine consumers. The potential dividends are obvious: a doubling of South Africa’s US market share would still mean that the country sells less that half of what Australia does. Luckily Americans, Holme is convinced, are the most adventurous wine buyers in the world. To this effect, he quotes Bill Bryson:
“You have a sense in America of being amongst millions and millions of people needing more and more of everything, constantly, infinitely, unquenchably. We appear to have created a society in which the principle activity is grazing through retail establishments looking for things – textures, shapes, flavors – not before encountered.”
| Bill Bryson “Notes From a Big Country”|
This sentiment so easily applies to wine in America -- today’s fad brand can easily be replaced by that of a more eager, colorful, spicy competitor. South Africa simply has not taken meaningful steps to introduce itself to the ever-restless, ever more trendy buyers of wine overseas. This will change as young, eager exporters like Holme hop on airplanes with cases of their best wines and Palm Pilots full of US sales contacts.
Additionally, Holme believes that South Africa has to develop “cult wine” -- an expensive, well-known, über-brand -- using state-of-the-art technology. Just as Moët epitomizes the glories of the champagne region of France, this yet-to-be-labeled wine has to epitomize the exoticism of Africa for even the most pedestrian drinker.
To this end, local wineries are making a supreme effort to improve South African wine quality across the board using better vineyard and cellar practices, and a more scientific approach toward fermentation. Gower points out that winemakers, using stainless steel storage facilities and high-tech cleaning, monitoring and fermentation systems, have come a long way since ten or fifteen years ago, “when we just added yeast and let it go.”