THE art of getting people to pay more for a wine than the quality immediately evident from sipping the contents of a glass is the business of the spin doctors. Brand value is the difference between what you taste and what you believe you are tasting.
Any premium extracted from the consumer is largely a measure of the success of the marketing department. If — like me — you are invested in the business of blind tasting, you maintain that stripping away all information except for what is contained in the glass eliminates the marketing message. No brand information means that the encounter is unmediated by spin. However, even the most astute of blind tasters cannot say with certainty how a wine is going to evolve. At best, he may be able to give a calculated guess.
|The sumptuous Vilafonté Series M 2005 - by Michael Fridjhon|
You need to know who made the wine, where the grapes were grown, and how wines from this particular site evolved in the past to be able to estimate what time has in store. If you know the pedigree, you are better able to predict the potential.
Vilafonté is a property and brand that has been in the market for more than a decade. It was built up by Zelma Long and Phil Freese, Americans who are widely regarded as two of the most influential and technically competent people in the world of wine. They oversaw the preparation of the soil, chose the rootstocks, selected the clones and made the wines. Few projects in South Africa can match the intellectual and creative energy that has gone into its development.
What Vilafonté has not had until recently is a track record — a way of assessing whether this effort has been invested in the right site.
The release from the property of select older vintages will now partly address this — and the 2005 Series M, which I tasted recently, suggests that for those who invested on faith and a close examination of the producers’ track record, the waiting is almost over. The wines have always had polish, but now they are showing enhanced complexity without any loss of detail or freshness.
The inclusion of one of the Vilafonté wines in the New World offering of the White Club (Vergelegen, Epicurean, Waterford, Columella and Compostella are the other South African names being served at this, reputedly the world’s eighth-most-exclusive club) is a further vindication of the project.
In a winery not 100m from the Vilafonté facility in Stellenbosch, another ultra-premium brand — called 4G — is produced under the direction of one of South Africa’s best-known wine makers, Giorgio dalla Cia, previously cellar master at Meerlust.
A preview vintage was made in 2009, with the first official release (priced at R2,999 a bottle) launched more than a year ago and now officially sold out. A second label, Echo, is available at R1,199 and the next 4G (the 2011) is due out shortly.
Despite high scores from the US-based Wine Spectator, there is little to guide the punter (or, more aptly, the investor) other than 4G’s ultra-premium packaging: not an abundance of tasting samples and, as yet, no track record. Its nominal "sold out" status is a tribute to the reputation of Dalla Cia, the presentation, and the drive and energy of the team responsible for marketing the admittedly minuscule quantities.
Is 4G mainly smoke and mirrors? Has Vilafonté’s aged wine release answered the questions about a wine that was launched several years ago at £50 a bottle for the Series C and £30 for the Series M? Don’t look to blind-tasting results for the answer: the wines are immaculately made. Likewise, don’t assume the price premium is only marketing hype. As potential transforms, the hopeful traveller approaches a destination. He has an inkling of a vision largely invisible at the outset, but which now appears to be the place to which he was always heading.