That the Dumas family does not make more of Marlene, arguably the greatest living SA artist and international superstar of note, is a marketing mystery. Marlene was born on the family wine estate Jacobsdal in Stellenbosch whose wines are distributed by Distell, usually far from slouches in the marketing department.
“Makes you think!” was the informal response from the SA National Wine Show to the bombshell that there will be no award this year for the Franschhoek Wine Writer Competition. A special meeting of Exco will discuss the news and I can hear the high-fives here in Bratislava as Franschhoek passes them the competition on a plate. A nice garnish indeed for one of Steven Maresch’s grain fed steaks from The Local Grill, Wolftrap Steak House of the Year I read. Obviously the sponsor’s decided bellies trump brains every time in SA wine and the former are certainly larger than the latter in Franschhoek this season.
To confirm just how poor the entries were this year, I attach mine, about VinExpo Asia last year.
Shanghai is to Hong Kong as Johannesburg is to Cape Town: financial centre vs. tourist playground; materialistic mecca vs. arty commune; metropolis vs. pretty parochial; the future vs. the past. Which explains why Cape Wine 2012 will be held in Cape Town and VinExpo went down in Hong Kong at the end of May.
Johannesburg and Shanghai would be much more appropriate venues if selling wine to Africa or Asia is your wish. But then preaching to the converted is a forte of marketers when the locals all speak English. Certainly not the case in Shanghai.
Hong Kong is also far closer to Cape Town than it is to Shanghai in cultural topography, as both were grand cities of British Empire and remain stuffed full of gentlemen’s clubs and broekielace. In Johannesburg they eat mopani worms and smileys (sheep heads) are on the menu. In Shanghai, its bullfrogs broiled in hot chili oil, deep fried big snake and live day-old chicks sold for snacks on the sidewalk.
Ten random Shanghai observations that convinced this Dorothy he was no longer in Kansas:
1. Facebook and Twitter were disabled countrywide either side of the 4th June anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Statues of Mao abound and the great helmsman glowers at you from renmimbi banknotes, denominated in yuan (with 1RMB – not Rand Merchant Bank, alas – about R1.50).
2. Guests at the über-bling Tongji Days Hotel are warned not to drink the water available from the gleaming designer taps.
3. Tipping is neither expected nor accepted from porters at Pudong (“pudding”) airport to “premium waitresses” at the serene Tang Dynasty restaurant.
4. There is a shopping centre of food just off Siping Road – a four story affair stuffed with restaurants, delis, fast food outlets and grocers. Korean kimchi (farty, as opposed to hispi, cabbage), sushi and sashimi, Sichuan peppers, sweet and sour Cantonese, Shanghai noodles with honey-roasted pork and hardly any wine at all. Tomatoes pass for fruit and are served up for dessert, alongside exotic dragon fruit and giant sweet lemons.
5. Bottled beer comes from Harbin or Asahi, in weird sizes like 620ml and 580ml and costs very little – R25, in a restaurant. The cheapest wine costs ten times as much and is either local (Dynasty or Great Wall, a commercial blend of Chinese and Spanish bulk) or Jacobs Creek. Prices are outrageous, all the way up to Château Lafite with one or two “f’s” at R40,000 a pop.
6. Counterfeit goods proliferate, with dodgy Hugo Boss and YSL “silk” shirts and glitzy Cartier watches openly hustled.
7. The busiest shop is the downtown Apple outlet on Nanjing Road.
8. The Shanghai underground makes Gautrain look more toy train and the longest journey costs R10. The maglev out to pudding airport reaches speeds in excess of 430 Km/hour.
9. iPhones rule, making online youth a real pavement hazard, engrossed as they are in their own personal iWorlds.
10. Food is for free, well almost. R200 buys you all you can eat sushi, sea snails, sweet and sour what-have-you, Peking (not Beijing) duck, noodles and stir fries galore at the top of the Pearl Tower, a cross between the Eiffel Tower and the Paarl language monument.
A hugely complicated market. Is it worth the effort? Most definitely, as China last year spent $15.6 billion on luxury and will account for 2/3 of the world’s de luxe spending in five years’ time. With bulk exports knocking the stuffing out of the value-for-money commercial wine business, the top end of the market is the only profitable end. A visit to the Shanghai Museum off Freedom Square (entrance free) showcases Ming and Qing vases and brass wine vessels embellished with bunches of grapes dated many thousands of years BCE. Long before the vine reached France, when Bacchus was still a boy.
By 2050 China will boast 90 cities with a population of over 5 million. Today New York is the only US city in that club. A one-child per family policy, in place for the last three decades, means that Chinese yuppies – who enjoy an annual average pay rise of 15% with no unemployment – have nothing to spend their money on except Cartier watches with diamond encrusted dragons and the odd icon wine from the Drakenstein mountains, as billionaire diamantaire Laurence Graff who owns Delaire, knows.
And they aspire to western luxury. T-shirts have logos in English; French and Italian brands abound and there are no religious fatwas to spoil the party. Getting drunk in public is socially acceptable and many do. Facts of life, which make China and its 1.4 billion consumers the Land of Cockaigne for Cabernet producers.
So off to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific for VinExpo Asia 2012. To set the scene, Obikwa Sauvignon Blanc 2011 in “people’s class” (which on SAA would more accurately be referred to as “poverty class”). Distell sold 350,000 bottles of the stuff to the airline which pays on time, at a good price. Volumes to Asia have risen from three to 20 million litres under the guidance of Asian MD, marvellous Marius Fouché.
The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wanchai is the Cape Town Convention Centre dialled up to the max. The SA stand was sad and old fashioned – a few square metres of low-budget soulless exhibition real estate divided up into little rabbit hokkies with winemakers desperately displaying their wares. No Greek temples, like the palace of Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Lacking the energy and imagination of Chile or the self-confidence and aggression of Australia. But redeemed by the wit and humour of winemakers like Tertius Boshoff, from Stellenrust, who confided the only way to deal with Asian shows is to avoid going to bed sober.
Tertius had his Blackberry stolen on the packed Hong Kong MTR subway and the stand noted it would be easy to catch the thief as she’d be the only person in Hong Kong without an iPhone. Dana Buys, from Vrede en Lust, was looking forward to Shanghai, a city he’d been visiting since 2001. “You won’t believe how much it’s changed. I love the place.”
A Hong Kong importer hosted Post House, Mooiplaas and Waterford, catty-corners to a French importer. Old hand Kevin Arnold arranged tastings of Château Palmer for passing S’effricans from the shy assistant, who kept apologizing for being a student. We were most happy for her lack of sommelier skills, for tastings of grande marque French were restricted to mega gravitas identities like James Suckling of windswept hair and serious mien and Chinese buyers.
Saint-Émilion was out in full force with a blind tasting of 2009 and 2010 judged by the public. The winner was Château Destieux 2009, owned by Christophe Dauriac who also owns Marianne on the Simonsberg. How refreshing to see big names from perhaps the most prestigious appellation in the whole of Bordeaux submitting to the verdict of a blind tasting by mere mortals; something hard to imagine in Paulliac or Stellenbosch.
Christophe admitted marketing Marianne was an uphill battle, as SA consumers didn’t understand the classic style. A battle already lost by president of the appellation, Alain Moueix, (pictured above) who made revolutionary Ingwe red blends in Somerset West a decade ago, together with PJ Geyer who is now making exciting cuvées in Bot River, the next fashionable appellation in SA.
Alain gave up bashing his head against the proverbial brick wall and now sells his SA grapes. His right bank properties, Château Mazeyres and Fonroque are shooting out the lights. Fonroque, a fully biodynamic operation, it was my own favourite after Clos des Jacobins 2009. But priced at €50 a bottle, it’s twice the price of Fonroque for tremendous energy and focus of flavour.
On the evening before the VinExpo balloon went up, we dined at The Yellow Door Kitchen in Central, although new wave chef Lau Chun was away in Macau. To drink, disappointments de luxe: a mediocre Aussie Riesling from the Clare Valley and an oxidized Cabernet 2006 from McLaren Vale. Not an SA brand on the list. As we finished up the set menu, Charles Banks arrived with two bottles of Guigal La Mouline (1985 and 1995). Confirming that just because you made a cult Napa Cabernet (Screaming Eagle), when you’re off duty, nobody will force you to drink it.
“Have you been to my new wine bar, Amo Eno?” enquired Chas. Located in the International Finance Centre, the tallest building in Hong Kong, this über-slick operation has captured the zeitgeist of a 21st Asian metropolis: chrome and glass with a Steve Jobs interface.
Two glasses of Jackal Bird 2010 white blend ($75 for 25ml, or R100 a mouthful) from Chas’ biodynamic Fable Wines operation in Tulbagh. This was not only the most expensive Tulbagh tipple ever, but liquid confirmation that SA can deliver icon juice, once the marketing has been sorted.
Typical that you need to fly 13 hours halfway around the world and endure uncouth buffeting over the Bay of Bengal, to taste something from down the road. But then the Amo Eno situational variables do not (yet) exist in SA. But Chas is certainly showing the way forward for any producers interested in following him into a brave new Asian dawn.
The stock market has fallen madly in love with Distell, or DST as they abbreviate it. The share price flirted with R130 today while some unfortunate directors were selling under R100 late last year to pay for their boland bomas… Distell is now as popular in Lonehill as David Bowie is in London which is wall-to-wall Bowie: two art exhibitions at the ICA and V&A and a new album The Next Day which is rated the aural equivalent of five Platter stars by rock critics. All ratings being done sighted, alas, but thank heavens not by pedestrian Pinelands pundits. So hats off to Nederburg for shipping a CD of The Next Day to wine hacks along with a bottle of Baronne 2011, surely the noble tipple for a thin white duke.
What a week for Distell, the elephant in the national tasting room. On Monday CEO Jan Scannell drops R2.2 billion on Scotch. On Tuesday, Business Day calls them a “third world drinks company” and today they refocus the annual Nederburg Auction, biggest event on the wine calendar for four decades. Volumes of wines on offer crash 60% from 28,000 litres to 12,000 with the number of offerings from host Nederburg, SA’s largest premium lifestyle brand, nearly halve from 27 to 15. Confirming a marketing refocus which now concentrates on MasterChefSA and saturation coverage in airports. The event will still be held over two days (6 and 7 September) so proceedings should be less frenetic.
Well the market sure liked Distell’s R2.2 billion purchase of Burn Stewart Distillers on Monday with the share price at an all-time high of R117.90 this afternoon – which makes investment company CapeVin worth R7.37 a share against the current price of R6.35 – but the booby prize must go to the Vunani Securities analyst quoted in Business Day yesterday: “it is not every day that a third-world drinks company can get to buy a first-world marketing brand.” Huh? So is Distell’s Amarula not a first world brand or Savanna, made by the second largest cider maker in the world?
Elgin Chenin Blancs are like buses: nothing for ages then along come two together. The first was Cathy Marshall’s Amatra 2012 (retail R91) at Auslese last Tuesday and on Thursday JP Winshaw’s Usana 2012 with a grilled cauliflower and cashew nut soup with truffle oil at Birds on Bree Street.
A “curator’s immersion workshop” sounds ominously like a CIA-style debriefing involving waterboarding. So when I was invited to my first last week in the Fugard Annex (which sounds like a particularly tender part of my anatomy), I was relieved to have a defensible out, curating wine for Spar supermarkets in Stellenbosch. But with hindsight and a briefing PowerPoint, was sorry to have missed it, this being the first task as a newly minted curator for the World Design Capital 2014 jol which sees Cape Town, centre stage of global design for a year.
Does Jonkershoek Jannie Mouton know something we don’t? Why else would he dump 133.3 million shares in CapeVin yesterday at 40c below market? CapeVin’s only asset (apart from some thirsty directors, well paid to drink rooibos tee and chomp Marie biscuits) is a 29% share of Distell whose results are eagerly expected on Monday. Does Oom Jannie know something we don’t? I expect Distell earnings to be flat for although a reduced Rand will have boosted the bottom line, the collapse of the local brandy market cannot be good news.
Capitalism’s corporate newsletter, the Wall Street Journal, has been forced to correct the recent bitter sweet paean to Pinotage by Lettie Teague. “An earlier version of this column incorrectly said Mr. Mandela didn’t love Pinotage, which his winery’s representative hadn’t been asked, and incorrectly said Vin de Constance had been his favorite.” A double put-down of Lettie and South Africa’s icon dessert wine (now under foreign ownership and management) by the country’s only living icon, Nelson Mandela.
While this month’s grape riots have seen some of the most traumatic events in the 353 year long history of making wine at the southernmost tip, one thing is clear: Bacchus has a sense of humour.
The Eastern Cape branch of the ANC calls for a wine boycott and the share price of Distell, largest wine producer in SA, reaches new heights on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange – R102 today on large volumes.