Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Vilafonte listed at the French Laundry!!

We have had very exciting news today as Vilafonte becomes the first South African winery ever to be listed on the prestigious 'French Laundry' winelist in California. The Thomas Keller restaurant that has been named as perhaps the greatest restaurant in the world. We are also pleased to also have received a listing in the other famous Thomas Keller restaurant 'Per Se' in New York. We are all honored, humbled and proud!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey in one day!

08 August 2005 by Mike Ratcliffe

South Africa needs to create brands that are connected to their origin in a greater sense and surround that with a veil of integrity, writes Mike Ratcliffe on the last leg of their launch tour of the US.
Travelling in America is always a pleasure with efficient transportation and enormous hotel rooms. When you compare the tiny 'shoeboxes' that they squeeze us into in Europe, the spaciousness is an enormous reprieve. Also, prices in the US can be quite refreshing with the strengthened Rand, especially if you make use of an incredible value website called www.hotwire.com. Most of our rooms were booked in this way and I found myself in one of three penthouse suites in Philadelphia after using the last minute Hotwire function for a grand total of $110 including tax and charges. Don't forget to add GST to any costs that you see when budgeting for the US.

Philadelphia is by far the largest and best known city in Pennsylvania, (Remember Sly Stallone aka Rocky running up the steps of the town hall in his training?), but is not the official capitol and seat of local government. I mention government because PA is one of a few government-managed 'monopoly' states in America. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) is one of the largest purchasers of wine in the world and should be a significant driver for South Africa in the US market - as long as we get our positioning correct. I met up with our regional Broadbent sales manager, Rebecca Foulk, in Philadelphia and made the 2½ hour drive to Harrisburg, where we had lunch at the Hilton with the buyer from the PLCB for South African wine. The PLCB has made a commitment to the South African category, but has been frustrated by many 'wannabe Yellowtail brands' that are targeting the $6-8 retail price points, but are under-delivering on quality. Yellowtail is successful not because of the quality to price ratio, but rather because they have been fortunate to spark a 'first-mover animal brand' buzz phenomenon that has engulfed the US. Second place in this category is always going to be an extremely distant second. South Africa needs to create brands that are connected to their origin in a greater sense and surround that with a veil of integrity. Australia as a country, unlike South Africa, is well entrenched in the US and we need to perceptibly over deliver on quality if we are to attempt to compete.We were joined at lunch by the affable Bill Kohl, GM of the Harrisburg Hilton who also runs one of America's biggest and most high-profile charity auctions called Trés Bonne Anneé, which raises millions of dollars every year. The PLCB is a patron of the auction. Perhaps this is an opportunity for South Africa to participate and raise our profile? We shall see.Did you know that WOSA's own representative for the USA, Suzanne Morton, was born in Harrisburg Pennsylvania?

While I was in Harrisburg, Zelma and Phil were presenting the Vilafonté story and wines to the combined reps of the Prestige Wine Division of Eber Brothers (see picture), our NY distributors in Port Chester, a little town north of NYC. The meeting was extremely well attended and was filled with positive comment and enthusiastic response. Paramount is one of the most progressive regional companies and they are actively expanding their footprint across this region by purchasing smaller distributors. This is the face of American distribution and reflects the 'grow big or be swallowed' mentality that permeates the entire industry. The bad news for South Africa is that a smaller distribution pool translates into fewer possible placements which will heighten our internal competition and reiterate the call for SA to send the best wines to the US.We organized a car and driver for Zelma and Phil as they had to drive all the way across state and into New Jersey for their next midday appointment with the combined reps and management of the Meritage Wine Division, the fine wine division of the Allied Beverage group, our prestigious distributors. AC Nielsen has called NJ 'one of the fastest growing wine consumption states in America' and it has been in the 'Top 5 over $10 retail states' for a couple of years as it is really a dormitory state for wealthy Manhattan commuters. Zelma reports that they were inundated with enthusiasm and questions and that a warmer reception has not been had anywhere in the US. We are very positive about NJ and feel that we are with the right people and we are going to be spending a lot of time in this market. Furthermore, this is part of the Eastern Corridor focus that WOSA has identified and for this reason SA will also be putting funding into this area. After leaving Harrisburg, I had to rush back to Philadelphia to catch a flight to London. It was time to leave the USA with many fond memories, new acquaintances and fascinating experiences.

Vilafonté out.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Big Apple media tour.

4 August 2005
by Mike Ratcliffe
After 2 weeks of enduring hurricanes, heat waves and almost 100% humidity, we were delighted to wake up to the first relatively temperate day of our tour. The humidity was down and the temperature had retreated to a moderate 28°C which was a relief. Today will be the biggest day of our tour.The majority of the US media and specifically wine media are situated in and around New York State. We arrived for our first meeting with Ray Isle, the senior editor of Food and Wine magazine whom I have known for some time. Ray had previously been editor of Wine and Spirits magazine and was thoroughly enjoying his new, all-encompassing gastronomic endeavors at F&W. We were joined by the energetic and vivacious Lettie Teague, the executive wine editor and Anna McDonald, her wine assistant. Our presentation and tasting were presented in their makeshift boardroom. F&W is part of the American Express publishing group and the entire building was in a state of flux as major renovations were underway. The wines were well accepted and we were peppered with a number of questions and observations.

Our pre-lunch meeting was uptown on the Upper East Side as we raced up Madison in a taxi driven by a man who felt the world owed him a favor (US spelling!). After our positive experience at F&W, we were too exhilarated to be perturbed by the endless stream of expletives and cursing by this man as he narrowly avoided the temptation to mow down anything in his path. A trip in a NYC taxi is something that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime! We reached the Sherry Lehman (www.sherry-lehmann.com) offices in one piece and were welcomed into this (seemingly) tiny fine wine store by the two owners who have been driving this company for so many years. Sherry Lehman is one of the most powerful direct sales companies in the world and certainly one of the most respected in the United States. With the ever changing legal environment in the US, the scope of their power and the reach of their sales are growing on a daily basis. When Sherry Lehman send out a catalog, it goes to a couple of hundred thousand households and also gets inserted into the New York Times! These guys know their stuff and their catalog contains thousands of wines and is upwards of forty pages thick! This is the coalface of fine wine sales in the US. We are happy to have secured a listing for our wines and, after tasting them, we plan a course of action for maximum effect. Zelma will return to the SL offices in November after Thanksgiving weekend for a customer tasting to reinforce the catalog and online marketing efforts. Our next meeting is on 22nd Street, at least half an hour by taxi, and we arrive late (again) for lunch at the Grammercy Tavern with Joshua Greene. Josh is the publisher/editor of Wine and Spirits magazine (www.wineandspiritsmagazine.com) and one seriously nice guy. W&S is one of the most powerful trade publications in the US with an enormous readership. He is inquisitive and exploring and delves deep into the Vilafonté philosophy. We also meet with Juliette Pope who is the wine buyer for Grammercy who asks if she can list the wines to which we eagerly acquiesce. Josh and I both ordered the seared salmon which is cooked like only the New Yorkers can . crispy on the outside and barely warm on the inside - delicious.

After lunch we are late again and we race by taxi to Grand Central station to catch the train to White Plains, about forty minutes North West of Manhattan. From there we catch a cab to Elmsford, the home of Wine Enthusiast magazine (www.wineenthusiast.net), where we actually arrive on time. We are welcomed (see picture) regally with our names on the sign at the front entrance. We are met by Joe Czerwinski who is the senior editor and tasting director and given the grand tour of the sprawling WE offices. We are also pleased to meet with Daryna Tobey who has recently written an amazing in-depth article on the Adelaide Hills. Mike Duffy, the debonair tasting administrator leads us into the beautiful board room and we spend the next two hours presenting the wines and the project in its minutiae. It is always a pleasure presenting to professionals that are truly interested and the time flies. Our taxi driver arrives early and is forced to wait an hour for us outside. It is almost sad to bid farewell to Wine Enthusiast, but depart we must. It is also time for the Vilafonté partners to go their separate ways after two weeks of being joined at the hip.

I am on a tight schedule back to NYC to catch a train to Philadelphia where I am having dinner with a close friend and Zelma and Phil are catching a cab to Port Chester to prepare for an early morning meeting with our NY distributors, Paramount. It has been quite a day and we are exhausted, but this is what it takes to launch a brand and it is truly exhilarating. http://www.vilafonte.com/

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Vilafonté Vineyards ‘Luxury’ Tour of America - The Big Apple!

The alarm went off at 05h15! Another huge day and time to catch a train to New York City. Starbucks coffee in hand, we managed to catch the train and settled in for the 4 hour journey. Travelling by train in the United States is always a good option and something that would-be South African marketeers should bear in mind, especially in the lucrative and thirsty North Easter corridor stretching from Boston to Washington DC. The ‘Acela Express’ is a speed train that serves this area and, although pricey, is the most efficient and relaxing way to see this part of the world.

New York greeted us with 80% humidity and 42 degree temperatures. The traffic was grid-locked and taxi lines snaked around the block at Pennsylvania (Penn) station. Eventually we managed to find a cab and checked into our hotel and headed for our first appointment at Morrells on Rockefeller plaza. This is one of the most significant East coast retailers and direct sales companies and we have all visited them many times. It is telling that within their enormous selection, not a single bottle of South African wine is on display. There is so much work to be done in the USA.

Not all of our experiences were rosy; Again and again, the Vilafonté team was confronted with journalists, restaurateurs and trade eager to promote the best of South Africa and talking about RSA being the next big thing, but so many times we hear of disappointing experiences with the wine quality. It is very clear that South Africa needs to give more of a quality focus to the US market. Too many producers send their 2nd quality wines to the US while holding the best for the European or other markets. American wine-drinkers are often very wealthy, generally eager to experiment and more often than not happy to spend the bucks … but never have we discovered ignorance or stupidity. Common sense mixed in with a good dose of Keynesian supply and demand reality prevails in the world’s biggest economy. In the market that AC Nielsen has names as the biggest wine market in the world by 2008, we cannot afford to deliver anything less than delicious wine within a well researched marketing and distribution plan. Too many producers are currently selling South Africa short and we all felt that even in the last year, enormous damage had been done. It would be worthwhile to read the more recent in-depth feature article by James Molesworth of the Wine Spectator in which this very point was raised. Yellow-tail is not a business model that we should be emulating. The tipping point is never tipped twice by the same phenomenon.

We spent the rest of the day planning and sorting out logistics for our launch dinner at Alto restaurant. Not completely coincidentally, Alto is owned by our generous host from Nashville and we are treated like Kings in a private dining room. Rory Callahan, the super efficient and switched on representative of Wines of South Africa joins our eclectic mix of retail, restaurant and distribution for dinner. Kim & Stew Leonard started a chain of dairy stores across the Tri-State area a number of years ago and have recently tied their fortune to the wine dirnking boom that is infectiosly spreading across America. They now own 5 mega wine stores and have at least three more stores in planning. We are pleasantly surprised when the erudite Alto sommelier (ex-Restaurant Daniel) immediately agreed to list both our wines. We had a fantastic reception and we can see that this is going to be a key market. Tomorrow wil be the biggest day of our trip and we are all excited, and challenged.