Friday, July 29, 2005

Vilafonte Vineyards - Luxury wines' - Boston Day 6

Monday and Tuesday 25 and 26 July 2005

Photos and writing by Zelma Long

With thunderstorms along the east coast and south interfering with plane schedules; we flew from Nashville to Chicago and then on to Boston, but delays in Chicagoheld up the flight from Nashville and forced a reschedule, getting us late Monday evening into Boston. Monday was therefore a day of travel and computer work on the plane.We stayed in Hampton Suites, a new, spare but comfy (and moderately priced) business hotel, in the developing"South End" of Boston. The best feature of the rooms was free wireless Internet, allowing fast and efficient communication. The South End, a past home for the Irish-American community, has gorgeous old brick and brownstone homes shoulder to shoulder. It is a "hot" living area for Boston's young professionals, and many restaurants and small wine shops have settled there.Tuesday we visited several major wine stores: Marty's, Delucca, and the Wine Emporium. In the latter store we found a young South Africa wine fan; the wine buyer and lead salesperson. This was not the first time we had heard commentary on RSA wines; some themes have been:

1. RSA wine sales are showing very strong growth, in volumeand price point, in the U.S.

2. Several retailers told us they were convinced that South Africawas the "next big thing" in wine producing countries of the world.

3. Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc have caught the trade'sattention as good quality and value.

4. Red wines have a mixed reputation; several people acrossthe states mentioned encountering "bandaid" or "iodine"or "musty" smells.

5. There is some confusion about virus; many of the trade wesaw were aware of the presence of leaf roll virus in RSA, yet many were uncertain if (a) it was still a problem; (b) whatwere the negative effects of leaf roll.

A special visit was to the Harvard Club, a venerable institution with a dining roomand quite magnificent large rooms for major social functions, and therefore, a major purchaser of wines.We wound up our day receiving key trade guests for dinner at Pigalle, a small butvery fine French style restaurant in the heart of Boston, and speaking with Dr.Michael Apstein, a Harvard medical school professor, and wine writer for the BostonGlobe. Dr. Apstein has seen the Cape and he spoke eloquently and enthusiasticallyabout the land and its wines, posing many thoughtful questions about our project and itstechnical details (and general questions about leaf roll virus!).Tomorrow morning we will arise at 4:45 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. train to New York City.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

24th July 2005 Nashville - A winemaker's dream weekend!!

The American Launch tour
Written by Zelma Long
We rolled into Nashville late Friday night after a tiring week of travel and promotion. A weekend 'taking it easy' was in order and needed. We had been invited to stay with one of America's kindest and most prominent wine collectors and his generous Southern hospitality engulfed us. The temperatures were consistently over 100° Fahrenheit (35°C) all weekend with humidity hanging in the air; unusual they said, for Nashville.Nashville, (Tennessee) a Southern city, is the "country and western music" capitol of the U.S. with many large and small music producers, artists and writers. It is also the home of a significant number of wine collectors, and home of a major annual wine auction, Un Ete du Vin, raising funds, usually $1million plus, for cancer research.Hoyt Hill, a dynamic local wine retailer, (Village Wines) met us at the airport. Hoyt, previously a sommelier, is a well connected wine purveyor who works hard to supply his customers with wines they love. Much of his sales are via Internet; connecting with messages to customers when he finds a wine he thinks they will enjoy. He organized a Sunday late afternoon wine tasting (yes, Sunday) and sixty people showed up to taste, and buy, South Africa wines. He has "spread the word" about South Africa wines and is a great supporter.

Saturday lunch was at at the 'Sportsman's Grill'. Zelma had 'pulled pork BBQ with corn cakes' (a typical southern dish) and the gentlemen had hamburger and fries. Lunch was accompanied by:Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 1982!!!!!Chateau Haut Brion 1989 !!!!!!!What a treat. The Haut Brion was tight, refined, and smooth; the La Mission was more developed; almost floral but succulent; a delicious mouthful. Thankfully we had the afternoon free to relax, swim and and catch up on emails…..Dinner was to be at F. Scotts, a restaurant named for the literary giant of the South, F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the top restaurants in Nashville; it is owned and managed by a wine-passionate and wine-knowledgeable woman, Elise Solima ( ). We started with the mouth watering duck/truffle mini-sandwich that set the mood for the evening, highlighted by some legendary wines, thanks to the generosity of our host:

Domaine de la Mordoreé Côtes du Rhone Rosé 2004
Champagne Pol Roger Extra Cuveé de Reserve Blanc de Blanc 1996
Montrachet, Roland Thevenin 1945 - amazing for its age
Montrachet, Ramonet 1983 - a perfect white Burgundy
Chateau Latour 1929 - fadingLouis Martini 'Special Reserve' California Cabernet Sauvignon 1947 - extraordinary
Domaine de la Romaneé Conti 'Echézeaux' 1959 very good but in tough company
Particularly memorable for us Californians was the 1947 Louise Martini Cabernet; still with deep red brick color, rich and smooth; an impressive wine from long ago.And after dinner….a stop at the Bluebird Café, where songwriters Marc Beeson, Angela Kaset, and Gretchen Peters were playing their songs, some made famous by great "country" vocalists. The café is tiny; people crowded together; no talking allowed; very intimate and wonderful to hear this talent.

The main launch event of the weekend was Sunday night; our host invited 30 wine collectors for dinner in the main dining room of his 1878 Southern mansion. Josh Weekley, a celebrity catering chef from Nashville; known for his touch with seafood, presented a menu of elegant simplicity. His deft touch complimented our wines, resulting in happily received positive feedback about them.We received an invitation for our "first 10 year vertical retrospective Vilafonté tasting" to be conducted in Nashville in 2015!!! We are 10% toward the goal with 30% (3 vintages) harvested! Yes, it is a long term goal. Meanwhile we committed to a big-bottle of the next vintage, to donate to the Un Ete du Vin wine auction 2006.The weekend was memorable in many ways; for the lovely people we met; the great Southern hospitality; the extraordinary wines; the opportunity to show off what South Africa can do.
Monday we fly to Boston.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Vilafonté Vineyards 'Luxury' Tour of America - Day 4

22 July 2005
by Mike Ratcliffe
Distribution in the United States is in an amazing state of flux as consolidatory and predatory forces jostle for market share, writes Mike Ratcliffe from Texas, USA.
In Texas, USA things really are as big as they come!After a hectic night and little sleep, we awake at an amazingly chic hotel in Austin called The San Jose ( Suddenly, everything is calm again and it is time to face another big day. We begin with a sales meeting with our local distributors Block/Republic. Big, bold red wine at 9am... and nobody in Texas sees anything strange in this.Distribution in the United States is in an amazing state of flux as consolidatory and predatory market forces jostle for market share. Every day, another small distributor seems to get snapped up by a larger competitor. I would not be surprised to see Southern (distributor) moving into a monopolistic position across America. This trend is problematic because it reduces the number of SKU's that are carried in the market making penetration by small producers (like Vilafonté) difficult as well as limiting consumer choice. Despite all the fuss about the 'opening' of America to direct shipping and the relaxation of the shipping laws, there is very little evidence that this is going to benefit the producers... yet!The one thing that is clear is that the distributors are fighting this and their massive financial contributions to the Republican Party still buy them a lot of influence in this country.Today was a momentous day for wine in the USA, to quote the Washington Times:'A Gallup poll released yesterday found that wine has surpassed beer and spirits as the stated drink of choice among those who imbibe. Oh, it's not by much: 39 percent of the respondents said they drank wine most often; 36 percent drank beer. Statistically, this is a mighty close race between the dueling beverages, as the poll has a margin of error of four percentage points. "For the first time in Gallup's measurement of Americans' drinking preferences, there is a statistical tie between wine and beer as the alcoholic beverage that adult drinkers say they drink most often," pollster Lydia Saad noted.'The meetings and interviews whiz by in anticipation of our Big evening function at the home of Susan and Ed Auler. Susan is a board member of the Texan Wine & Food Foundation and has invited the entire board as well as the chairman, Larry Peal. This is a big audience and we realise that we'd better not mess it up. Austin is only an hour by car from San Antonio, another centre of food and wine in Texas and we have arranged to bus a number of key influencers to Austin for the evening and put them up in a local hotel. Between us, we invited fifty key consumers, press and trade and the response was exceptional. Susan even hired a chef from the Cordon Bleu cookery school to cook for the evening. The response has been excellent and the Texan reputation for BIG hospitality proved itself again. Another early morning again tomorrow as we head for Dallas on the 08h52 flight.

Vilafonté Vineyards 'Luxury' Tour of America - Day 3

21 July 2005
by Zelma Long
OK, so whose great idea was this? Hurricane Emily is playing havoc with even the best and most fool-proof plans.
We were delayed for three-and-a-half hours in Dulles airport in Washington DC and arrived in Austin Texas at one in the morning. At least it was a successful day in DC.We split up and spent the morning seeing restaurants and key retailers with the reps from our local distributor, 'The Country Vintner'. It is immediately apparent that the South African category is much more developed in metropolitan DC, Virginia and Maryland. It was an inspiring day and we received an amazing welcome for our wines. The wealth is thick in the air and not an eyebrow is raised about the retail prices of our $50 'Series' M and $70 'Series C' Vilafonté wines. We managed a 100% strike rate and our mood was lifted by the experience.Mike and I met up again at the legendary Bobby Van's Steakhouse for lunch with Ben Gilliberti, the well-known wine expert of the Washington Post.This country is 'Atkins Diet' crazy and we eat off the special 'low-carb' menu. We ordered gourmet burgers - a 'low-carbohydrate' burger which comes without fries or even a bun. The irony is that it is 'stuffed' with blue cheese, covered in bacon and served with the health option spinach - fried!Ben is a great guy and is going to consider a visit to South Africa. He works as a lawyer and has spent the past eight years on the Microsoft case. He is fascinated with and wants to learn a lot more about South Africa. The imminent changes being instituted by SAA to change their USA hub from Atlanta to Washington DC is going give this market huge impetus as the gateway to the US for South African wine. We see that the acceptance of South African wines is high already and this is very gratifying.Then, we rush for the flight ... this time to more presidential country ... Texas. We certainly didn't factor a hurricane into our plans!

Vilafonté Vineyards 'Luxury' Tour of America - Day 2

20 July 2005
by Zelma Long & Mike Ratcliffe
A visit to the nation's capital. Today's column is written by Zelma Long & Mike Ratcliffe.
The South African category in the United States is tiny and there is a huge amount of work to be done to raise awareness of our inherent quality. In the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, we spent a few fascinating hours introducing Vilafonté to one of the most influential retailers in the United States. This wine store is a high-end and trophy wine-hunters delight. With hundreds of the worlds top wines on display, an average customer spend of $80 per bottle and over $900 per visit, this is a man who is highly qualified to comment on South Africa's status. Although he is very knowledgeable, South African wine represented a small proportion of his store and is an 'underdeveloped category'. There is a lot of work to be done by the high-end wineries to develop a culture of fine SA wine in the USA.It is clear that more and more people are experimenting with wines from around the world. There is an international wine culture developing and this creates a great opportunity for us.Because of the oppressive 30°C+ temperatures, we are forced to fly a detour route and our short flight to DC becomes a bit more tedious. With Hurricane Emily brewing in Texas, we count our blessings. After the success of Chicago, we are buoyed by the prospect of visiting the Capital city, Washington DC, the centre of political power and wealth in the world. Our hotel is so close to the White House that the US's might is very tangible!DC has the highest concentration of international embassies in the world and is a prime target market for Vilafonté and for South African wine in general. We are very pleased to hear that wine sales in DC are booming and growing at over 20% annually with our particular distributor - and they are very pro South Africa.Dinner was at the celebrated La Chaumiere with a group of key influencers and distributors. It was an amazing five-course experience. After a late night with too much wine, we will split up in the morning to visit some of the more influential retailers and trend-setting restaurants. It has been a long day...

Vilafonté Vineyards 'Luxury' Tour of America - Day 1

9 July 2005
The Vilafonté team has just embarked on a tour of the US to launch their wines - proclaimed to be 'South Africa's first luxury wine brand'. They intend keeping WineNews informed of their whereabouts, experiences and impressions whilst on tour.

Vilafonté, for those not yet in the know, is a joint venture between Warwick's Mike Ratcliffe, veteran Californian winemaker Zelma Long, her viticulturist husband Phil Freese and US wine merchant Bartholomew Broadbent, of which the vineyards are located near Paarl.Mike Ratcliffe writes from Chicago...After months of careful planning we have all managed to arrive in Chicago in one piece - Zelma and Phil from California and Mike from Stellenbosch.The wines are here and have rested after their journey, our launch functions have been arranged and the venues are booked. The weather is so beautiful here at the height of summer that we have decided to host our press and trade launch in the middle of Lake Michigan on a luxurious ex-Presidential Ship called 'El Presidente'. It is 32 degrees and being out on the water with the Chicago skyline as a backdrop is a phenomenal setting - the air-conditioning is an added bonus!The much anticipated moment has arrived and we are relieved to get a positive 'thumbs-up' from the assembled, press and trade. You have to go to great lengths to attract attention on a Sunday in summer in this beautiful and wealthy city. Zelma made bookings at MK, the celebrated Michael Kornich restaurant in Chicago and we were treated to a gastronomic extravaganza accompanied by a couple of bottles of Vilafonté. Early to bed tonight as tomorrow is going to be a big day as we fly to the nation's capital, DC.