Mixing SA wines with Big Apple savvy

Tuesday, 28 May, 2013
Penny Haw, BDlive
Andre Shearer was working as a fashion model on a shoot in Arizona when then US president George Bush announced the lifting of US economic sanctions against South Africa in July 1991.
The then medical student-turned-model and his brother, Gary, had already established a small business exporting South African wine to Germany as a result of contacts the former had made while working in Europe. But, as he listened to Bush declare that "South Africa was making irreversible progress" toward racial equality, Shearer had "bright idea number two" and decided to organise a tasting of South African wines in New York.

These days, Cape Classics, which was formed as a consequence of that tasting, is the largest single importer of South African wine in North America. With distribution in 49 states in the US, the company represents many of the Cape’s premium estates and labels, including Thelema, Kanonkop, De Toren, Buitenverwachting and Ken Forrester. It received the Best Wine Importer accolade in Food & Wine magazine’s 2001 Wine Awards and has been hailed as a "Name You Can Trust" and "Reliable Importer" in the publication’s annual Wine Guide for 10 consecutive years.

But, although Cape Classics is responsible for 35% of all bottled wine imported from South Africa to the US and industry executives insist that demand for wines from this country is growing there, Shearer — who divides his time between New York and Somerset West — believes we could do a great deal more to increase our share of the US market.

"After almost 22 years of working in New York and South Africa, interacting with local industry and buyers abroad, and having dealt extensively with trade and industry organisations, I can’t help but look at what countries like New Zealand, Australia and Chile have done in the US in comparison to what South Africa has done without concluding we’ve done something wrong," he says.

Shearer — whose international career began in the mid-1980s when, having dropped out of medical school at University of the Witwatersrand, he travelled to Paris after one of Pierre Cardin’s assistants suggested he might find work as a model there (he did) — says Brand South Africa is lagging for several reasons. While the US is the world’s largest commercial wine market, securing business there isn’t "a walk in the park".

"To begin with, there’s no gut-feel connection to South Africa in the US at all. Certainly some American tourists visit South Africa but, relative to a population of 300-million, South Africa is pretty insignificant. Since 1991, we’ve tried to get a firmer foothold in the States by, among other things, encouraging industry and government to build greater awareness about the country to coincide with events of global interest, such as when Nelson Mandela was elected president and Thabo Mbeki came to power."

In 2001, Walt Disney World agreed to feature the wines of South Africa in its Jiko restaurant in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort area. The venue still offers one of the largest selections of South African wines in North America. But when the corporation wanted to build its representation of South Africa in other areas in the theme park, tourism authorities in South Africa turned down the opportunity, declaring Disney’s demographics at odds with their strategy. Then there is that inevitable and recurring theme when discussing business in the country and/or with South Africans: our eternal unwillingness and/or inability to collaborate.

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