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.

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