SA wine: is the glass half-full or half-empty?

Neil Pendock reflects on last week's cover story on the SA wine industry in the Financial Mail.
It was Jan "Tiger" Smuts who famously declared "the only thing an SA farmer can grow without a subsidy is a beard". Times have changed, but farmers are still complaining, as is clear from last week's cover story on SA wine in the Financial Mail.

The bombshell came from GT Ferreira who told Stafford Thomas "If I could turn back the clock, I would not do it again" referring to his establishment of his Tokara winery at the very top of Helshoogte. A winery that was acclaimed "most successful producer" at the recent Old Mutual Trophy Wine Competition and which has earned SA wine countless positive column centimetres in foreign organs. So where does that leave everyone else?

Of course GT is speaking to a financial audience (the readers of the FM) but labeling people seeking to buy farms in Stellenbosch as "suckers" doesn't sound like the GT whose workers call him a friend and whose wines are such value for money, they appear in my Good Value Guru Diaries 2010 on sale at the Stellenbosch Wine Festival this week. GT is cosmopolitan and laid-back and my money would be on him making a joke along the lines of the hoary old faithful "the best way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one."

Likewise comments attributed to WOSA CEO Su Birch that "Fundamentally the wine business is not profitable...why would a sharp dude put money into this industry?" on the subject of Transformation in the SA wine industry is one aspect of a complicated socio-political situation not best analyzed by sound bites. Surely Piet Dreyer was also joking when he said he doesn't use supermarkets to market his Raka wines as I'm still enjoying his Anchorage, a special bottling for Pick 'n Pay.

My own contribution to this worthwhile debate was one of the few positive notes sounded in an overwhelmingly depressing read entitled "Down to a Drop". I embrace the idea of marketing SA wine in Brazil after many trips to the land of samba and caipirinhas and thought I'd try and persuade Ron Gault, partner in Epicurean and producer of sexy export brand Passages with his wife Charlayne Hunter-Gault of CNN fame and Dennis Kerrison at Doolhof, to take a closer look at the Brazilian market.

Something Bennie Stipp, marketing manager at De Wetshof did in June, returning from a wine show in Sao Paulo with an order book so heavy, he had to check it as excess baggage. Bennie's observation that Pinotage is popular in Brazil will come as no surprise to this producer.

Marchese Piero Antinori famously told the Nederburg Auction back in 2002, theatrically holding up a glass of wine in an elegant hand, the question is "half-full or half-empty?" This was six months after 9/11 when the future was very smoky indeed. Yet the Marchese (whose family have been in the business for over six centuries) "urged the SA wine industry to have a long-term vision, perseverance and, above all, a great passion and a real obsession for quality."

A vision all too easily obscured by the nattering nabobs of negativism as Richard Nixon's enforcer, Spiro Agnew, memorably summed up the Washington press corps. My own antidote to the current tsunami of bad news is to reflect on the cyclical nature of wine, something British investor Paul Boutinot (who has done a GT at Waterkloof in Somerset West) had in mind when he called his stellar biodynamic white blend The Circle of Life 2009, probably one of the finest whites made in SA in the past 350 years.

Some other silver linings to consider:
It could be worse. An earthquake could have destroyed wineries and unleashed a torrent of wine from storage tanks, like the one that nearly drowned Nederburg Cellarmaster Razvan Macici in his native Romania in 1974 or seriously damaged Chilean wine infrastructure and vineyards earlier this year. A multi-year drought, soil salination, or ruinous killer bush fires could have laid the industry to waste, as happened in parts of Australia.

Prices at last year's Cape Winemakers' Guild Auction defied all the prophets of doom and streaked into the stratosphere and those nabobs declaring that nobody is making a profit exporting SA wine should speak to Marc Kent at Boekenhoutskloof who last week told me "sales are flying". After many years of trying, SA has at last an icon wine: Kanonkop Black Label. 1000 bottles sold out in two tranches on release at R1000/bottle earlier this year in the depths of a recession.

Two SA restaurants in the heart of the winelands (with wine lists dominated by SA offerings) made San Pellegrino's Top 50 best restaurants in the world again this year and no complaints emerged from the Lowveld when Johann Rupert served exclusively SA MCC and wine at his recent 60th birthday bash - this from a birthday boy who had to decide whether he wanted the Rolling Stones or Creedence Clearwater Revival as party band. Decisions, decisions.
The current recession is the worst in the past 80 years and Mammon is surely giving accountants many sleepless nights. But for those who worship Bacchus, the current buyers market is an excellent time to replenish the cellar with the 2009 vintage SA wines that are starting to emerge, the best and most affordable way to do so.
Tokara owner, GT Ferreira