Friday, October 16, 2009

My last English pub lunch - beef pie, oysters and Guiness. Goodbye England.

Mike Ratcliffe
Warwick Estate & Vilafonte
P.O.Box 2 Elsenburg, 7607, South Africa


Is South Africa about to adjust it’s positioning?

WINE.CO.ZA readers receive daily (sporadic) blog postings from the UK. Occasional contributor Mike Ratcliffe, the MD of Warwick Wine Estate and the American joint venture winery, Vilafonte, sends live updates and photos of what's hot and happening at the this year's Mega Tasting punctuated with personal observation and irreverent thoughts. This posting was written on the high-speed Virgin train between London and Glasgow - via wifi. Follow Mike on Twitter

The second day at the WOSA Mega-tasting was kind of like the first day, except that it was 24 hours later and I was feeling that much more exhausted. There was nothing of particular excitement to report in the sense that we were not surprised by a visit from Nelson Mandela or Robert Parker. The visitor numbers appeared to be higher and there was a general buzz around the room as everyone went about their business of sniffing, swirling and spitting. Again the lack of presence from all but actual wine buyers and journos was a disappointment as the mega-tasting is an excellent opportunity for everyone from MW students to waiters and budding sommeliers to have a one-stop shop for SA wine. While the coordination, presentation and winery attendance at the show were impressive, one cannot help but ask if a one-day show would have had the same impact. It is understandable that it is not always convenient to attend on a particular day, but with the exceptional lead times and forward planning you would think that the trade would be able to organise themselves. The problem with giving people too many options is that they tend to exercise them.
From a personal point of view, the event was well worth the time and investment and I feel satisfied that it would be very difficult to replicate the excellent face-time and new business that I achieved as a solo operator. Perhaps the brains-trust that organise the event could think of some way to further differentiate this event. Perhaps an indoor football tournament of SA wine producers and UK wine hacks would have added an element of fun to the sometimes sombre proceedings? But then again, this is a wine trade show in London and an element of formality is to be expected.
While the days have been focused on trade interactions, I have now spent three nights on the trot immersing myself in consumer tastings. In excess of 900 ordinary consumers pitched up for the three events in London and Glasgow and the incredible enthusiasm and support for SA wines warmed the heart of even the most jaded globe-trotting wino.
‘I had no idea that SA wines are so good.’
‘These wines present incredible value and knock the spots off the French’,
‘South African wines just keep getting better’
These were some of the typical comments heard over and again at the consumer tastings. So lets analyse, just for a second, the fact that the trade are the ‘gate-keepers’ for South African wine into the UK and there is no surprise that price and potential margin are almost always the primary variables for judging the acceptability of a wine. Given the excitement from the consumers, one could question if the trade has underestimated the enthusiasm of the general wine drinking public for the inherent quality of top South African wines? Is the old ‘value proposition’ positioning of South African wine artificially supported by the embedded historical purchasing habits of the gate-keepers. Are wine buyers taking sufficient initiative in realigning SA quality with appropriate pricing or are they simply perpetuating values that are, perhaps, no longer relevant? Are SA producers aware that South African price/quality ratios are ‘off the charts’ relevant to many of our competitors and that given current Euro exchange rates we have an ability reposition ourselves?
Consumers are generally honest and candid, especially given their power to vote with their wallets. If the consumer enthusiasm encountered over the past week were somehow translated up the value chain to the gate-keepers, it is hard to believe that South African wine is not about to adjust it’s value positioning in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Day 3: South Africa mounts a full frontal assault on the UK and Europe

South African wine descended on Earls Court yesterday in a well coordinate panzer movement that was designed to strike fear into the heart of the UK wine community. In what amounted to a superb show of force it certainly felt like the SA wine marketing community have come of age. A huge proportion of the top SA brands both large and small turned out to woo and wow the locals in what is strategically an excellent non-conflicted pre-World Cup piece of UK wine calendar real estate. But was there a soccer ball in sight? One cannot help but think that we are procrastinating by not cranking up our media and marketing machine with only months to go before the largest sporting event ever to descend on Africa? It is well known that WOSA has been proactive in designing plans and programs that, I believe, have excellent vision in promoting brand SA, but why was it not unleashed here. Perhaps it will be revealed today as I depart now for the day 2?

OK, so the SA wine industry was in London, but how were my predictions on attendance figures? It is always difficult to gauge attendance at these events and I might be getting in trouble, so I will restrict this opinion to a very narrowly defined one – my own. I was really impressed by the attendance by European and even American interests. I was happy to spend time with my Dutch & Russian agents and enjoyed discussions with colleagues from Finland and Ireland. The New York sommeliers flown to London by WOSA were likes bees around the hive and it would seem took the opportunity to really throw themselves at the opportunity to educate themselves widely, although they lamented that the majority of wines on show were not available in NY – fair enough, it is a UK trade show. There were also some top journos and many of the big supermarket buyers were present, but where were all the restaurant owners, the independent wine shops, the sommeliers and the smaller wine buyers? Did I blink and miss them? After 15 years in the market I know many of the top people and they were, it seems, not there.

The evening was an altogether different affair as SA Wines Online hosted a consumer event that had many of the exhausted SA wino’s running hard with 400 plus consumers scrambling for a taste of some of SA’s top drops. It was a warm and heartening affair with overwhelming enthusiasm coupled with genuine interest that could have lead to excellent sales – an altogether welcome combination. I will be looking to boss-man kevin Gallagher of to give me some feedback later today, but my gut feeling is that it was huge success. Well done to all.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Day 2: London calling - Mike Tweets & Blogs from the UK

The buzz is building in Blighty as we inch closer to the Day 1 of the mega-tasting. London’s streets are riddled with South African’s armed to the teeth with wine – and with every intention to use it. Informal chats with some of the top UK journo’s shows that a strong media presence will be felt tomorrow and so far the top buyers from Waitrose, Sainsbury;s, Tesco’s, Morrisons, Wine Direct and the Wine Society will be descending on Earls Court to hob-nob with the who’s-who of the SA winemaking firmament. Will any of the South African journalists be present to record this auspicious moment of unity for the loyal South African public?

This year WOSA is bringing a couple of new angles to the event. About a dozen top New York sommeliers are being flown from the USA to attend the mega-tasting which is an incredibly efficient and intelligent use of WOSA and winery resources, effectively killing two birds with one stone. I will be dining with the sommeliers this evening and will be sure to blog about this tomorrow to hear their impressions. This global WOSA strategy is a good omen demonstrating the WOSA board’s commitment to a new USA wine strategy which is going to culminate in another mega-tasting of sorts in New York City on May 11th 2010. More USA buzz is going to be evident on Tuesday the 17th of November when the WOSA USA workshop kicks off in Stellenbosch. But I digress…

The idea that a mega-tasting hosted in London should be a purely UK-centric affair is getting old. London is the cross-roads of the wine world and WOSA’s decision to use it as an American and European platform is excellent. The effort to travel to the event from Europe is minimal and I understand that this year the event has been extensively marketed by the European offices. The proof is in the pudding, but ultimately an event of this nature is a the next best alternative to the ‘Cape Wine’ events that have been so successful in the past, but actually at a much smaller cost.

So what defines success? This is an open-ended question and one that would have a hundred reasonable answers. In my observations in many London off-con outlets, I have too–often bumped into brands that I have never (or seldom) heard of. There are too many brands that are once-off brands or buyers own brands (BOB’s) that have got no particularly identifiable source or origin. Too often these are ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ brands (BOGOF’s). These are characterless wines bearing the ‘Made in SA’ moniker, but seemingly devoid of any of the unique South African ‘Brand-DNA’. So what would define success for the mega-tasting? A successful SA category in the UK would see fewer BOB’s, fewer BOGOF’s, a lot less CRAP and much more inherent South African-ness in our brands. Success would see a tighter marketing message and a more clearly defined point of differentiation about what exactly South African-ness is. It is my hope that the unified marketing message being promoted by WOSA as the ‘BRAND DNA’ of the Wines of South Africa will be adopted and embraced.

Now, I am off (in 5 minutes) to dinner with the USA sommeliers – more from the tasting tomorrow.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

London calling - Mike Ratcliffe Tweets & Blogs from the UK

The bi-annual Swallow-like migration of South Africa’s wine making and wine marketing elite to London started this weekend with flocks descending on Cape Town International for the trip to the ‘other’ London Wine Show – the WOSA ‘Mega-tasting’. The biggest showing of our collective wine muscle outside of the Cape Wine show starts flexing at Earls Court on Tuesday and one can be sure that the UK media and wine trade will again be as supportive in their attendance as ever.

South Africa’s generic wine marketing function has always been under the spotlight and over the years has been a punching bag for winemakers struggling with excessive inventories, but lately there is a growing body of evidence that WOSA has come of age. Recently Su Birch and her exceptionally able and experienced band of ‘merry men’ (and merry women) presented the marketing strategy for the year ahead including a document on the ‘Brand DNA’ of the Wines of South Africa. Now, there is no secret that I am generally predisposed to marketing orientated discussion and have, over the years accumulated an ability to assess this type of communication, but it would be an understatement if I said that I was impressed by the WOSA presentation. In fact I can take it one step further to say that the WOSA Brand DNA presentation for South African wine is one the slickest strategies that I have ever seen and is an asset that we as an industry need to embrace and celebrate. To put it simply, there is no generic wine marketing competitor that could boast anything like what we have and that is a pretty cool thing. Have you read it? Is this news to you? Well, please go onto the WOSA website and download it or call the offices and ask them to send you one of the very tastefully designed brochures that spell out the vision – and then make sure that you and your winery start implementing.

So, here I am sitting in a Kensington wine bar wondering why I am paying £7.75 for a glass of very cheap red Burgundy and pondering the relevance of this whole circus known affectionately as the UK wine market. It was Oscar Wilde that said that ‘The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.” Any seasoned wine marketing campaigner will tell you that London (or now apparently Hong Kong) is the centre of the wine world. On every corner there is a wine bar or wine shop plying it’s trade to a public that have come to acknowledge wine as a necessary staple as ubiquitous as a loaf of bread. If consumer acceptance is the bedrock of wine marketing nirvana, then London is where it is at and where competition is more aggressive than anywhere on the planet. For this reason I have been dispatched by the ‘powers that be’ at to scout for stories and anecdotes that exemplify our South African efforts and which I will be reporting on over the course of the next week – that is the full extent of my mandate.

Stay tuned – I have no idea where this is going. Follow me on Twitter