Naked Ambition in the Cellar and Vineyard

Wednesday, 25 July, 2007
Kim Maxwell
Paarl estate Avondale is breaking with yawn-worthy traditions and selling a holistic wine message based on ducks and sex appeal. As Kim Maxwell found out, associations with swimwear calendars don't seem to be harming the message.
Seeing an attractive naked woman drawing wine from a wine barrel through a pipette isn’t something encountered in an average, dimly lit maturation cellar. The suggestion that this happens at a winery in somewhat frumpy Paarl makes the image worthy of a double-take. That’s what I did while flipping through the pages of Food & Home Entertaining magazine (August 2007 issue), after seeing a full page ad with this cellar image and ‘Wines au naturel’ as the tagline.

The advertised wine was Avondale. And the ad was inserted amongst pages devoted to attractively styled dishes, recipes, chefs, food products and features on how home cooks entertain their guests. My response: what brilliance, what a rare show of artistic wit and daring from the local wine industry! Avondale couldn’t have picked a better issue to sell sexy innuendo. ‘Ooh la la!’ is this issue’s cover line. That it refers to melt-in-your mouth macaroons is secondary. 
Perhaps the audience wasn’t sleeping when British trend analyst Crawford Hollingworth told South African wine producers to frame their wine message differently, while ensuring that truth and ethical values weren’t neglected in their offerings, at a WOSA seminar in early 2006. He criticized SA companies for being too dogmatic and yawn-worthy when marketing their wine, and urged smaller, nimbler companies to make an impact. With authenticity, environmental chic and societal responsibility singled out as key consumer trigger points, Hollingworth reminded that authentic stories can also be quirky. (Click here for more on Crawford Hollingworth's 2006 presentation.)

Well whip out the centrefolds, because some clever Paarl fellows have produced eye-catching, tasteful nudity to sell their wines, and it satisfies Hollingsworth’s criteria. Without any sleaze. Fashion photographer Anton Robert is renowned for stylishly sexy swimwear shoots for FHM and Sports Illustrated, so eye-catching, professional results are guaranteed.

On first impression, Avondale viticulturist Jonathan Grieve (also current farm director) wouldn’t seem an expert in calendar girl marketing, as his theories on scientific concepts partnered with alternative vineyard practices in eco-friendly directions tumble out at breakneck obsession. He can keep audiences enthralled for hours on the natural subject he loves. But having a grandfather who started a successful business around health products, supplements and herbal accessories, Grieve knows a thing or two about the influence of imagery and suggestion on sales.

Working with Avondale’s marketing manager Krige Visser, and outsourcing the ad campaign conceptualization and design to a husband and wife team at Jack Russell Design, the results are advertising gold. Fans clearly thought so, when the images were used as banners behind the winery stand at a local cheese show. "We put it up halfway through, and we had more people at the stand afterwards. Some liked it so much they took pictures of it," chuckles Grieve.

"Avondale is a new brand that started in the 99 vintage. Our question was how to position it. Most wineries trade on history and heritage, but how does a new brand compete with 300 year-old estates? We tried to look at where the world is going and marry that with what we’re doing on the farm over the long term," says Visser.

"Our family own Vital Health, so we had an appreciation of a holistic way of life. My grandfather started the business when vitamins were unheard of," adds Grieve. "At Avondale, for everything we do, we ask whether Mother Nature would agree – is it going to detract or add to the environment? We believe in what we call bio-LOGIC principles. It respects organic and bio-dynamic methods, and draws the best from all natural disciplines. The main reason we’re doing this is to create sustainable farming. I truly believe that to get the best out of our terroir, this is the best way," he says.

Grieve’s viticultural processes combine a variety of scientific and spiritual disciplines in a complex system that makes good sense. "The biggest advantage is that these are quality wines and they’re uniquely Avondale. And obviously it’s a natural process too, with no pesticides and herbicides or synthetic fertilizers used," he says.

The ad series was launched in late 2006 with a duck and fluffy yellow chicks. It relies on an emotional response from readers to something cute, linked to practices on the farm as Avondale involves ducks in their viticulture system. Holistic reasons aside, ducks make good business sense. By using 100 ducks for snail control over 100ha of vines and 50ha of orchards, the farm saves thousands in chemical snail pellets, and the soils don’t suffer from negative residue.

The current barrel cellar ad, and the third vineyard ad (yet to be launched), focuses on the living systems created through the bio-LOGIC system and indigenous cover crops, no chemicals, etcetera, and how this contributes to natural wines. It’s rather weird to see nude grape pickers, but there you go.

The fact that the ads didn’t target traditional wine publications – and traditional wine consumers - should be applauded. The line-up of glossies where space has been booked for 2007 include trendy business magazine Maverick, upmarket décor and lifestyle hedonist-focused Visi and House & Leisure, and adventure and travel publications including Getaway, Wegbreek and Good Taste (which has a wine club component). Gay Pages is also in the mix. Interestingly, the duck ad will go into local women’s magazine Sarie, where nudity is banned. Polish publications will have nudes, but American magazines may have ducks. America's media advertising takes a similarly conservative approach to a mix of alcohol with nudity.

"There’s a danger about using nudes in any ads, as it has to be done with class," says Grieve. "The biggest thing is that it’s eye-catching, obviously. But as wine goes, it’s never been done, to our knowledge. And it mustn’t detract from the message. Ours doesn’t. Sure, nudes will catch your eye, but there are other details and information to take in afterwards. And you’re not losing focus of that wine bottle on the page."  Cheers to that.