Robert Joseph the Creationist

Thursday, 15 May, 2014
Jonathan Snashall
"You are in the entertainment business" Robert Joseph told 140 attendees at the Great Wine Capital’s (GWC) address on wine tourism last week. It’s been said before but how many wine people grasp the actual meaning – and what is takes to achieve real entertainment?

Carolyn Martin at Creation Wines probably does, and she doesn’t need a corporate budget to put on a feel-good show.

Either Carolyn and Robert went to the same wine tourism school or Carolyn has been a Joseph disciple for years – for it seemed she may even have co-authored Robert’s power point presentation as it was hard to spot something that Creation aren’t already doing. The core messages were: attract more visitors; get them to spend more money; turn them into regular customers; turn them into ambassadors of the brand; and…….learn from them.

One of Robert’s catchphrases of the day, ‘the brand is in the mind of the consumer’, resonates with what Barbara McCrea (Rough Guide to Cape Town and the Winelands) was inspired to write as Creation’s guest blogger – “the pure gold of a food and wine experience is when we access the feelings of sublime well-being; deep satisfaction and relaxation”.

Creation doesn't operate a restaurant says Carolyn but they have invested in a new kitchen and employ a professional chef. They offer canapé and wine pairings, going far beyond the proverbial extra mile by offering tailored parings including gluten-free, banting (Real Meal Revolution) and vegetarian - “we pair your intolerance” says Carolyn. 

It is this sort of innovation and energy that has seen people trek to one of the remotest tasting rooms in the Cape (top of Hemel and Aarde ridge) with Creation now achieving 30% of sales via their tasting room.

But wait that’s not all – by a long shot. Robert spoke of “caring for the temporarily disadvantaged” i.e. the designated driver (not always a volunteer) and those who don’t drink alcohol; Creation offer an adult version – teas paired with canapés – and a kiddie’s version – fruit juices. Their latest project evolves around what to offer teenagers. 

Early into my chat with Carolyn, and without my prompting, she spoke of feedback and how they seek and carefully listen to feedback from their clients to ensure that their products and services are constantly evolving to meet their customer’s needs, ‘we have a weekly (staff) training cycle’ said Carolyn. 

Besides word of mouth, Creation has relied heavily on New Media to spread the word. In addition to being very active on social media, they offer free Wi-Fi making it far easier for customer’s to share their experiences in real time. Joseph said he was dazzled by Creation.

Another winery that I was reminded of, tirelessly working towards better wine tourism offers, is Robertson’s Van Loveren. It is another far-flung winery who – for as long as I remember – have had to innovate to get people to their door, long before the advent of organised wine tourism and social media. Following the opening of their bistro, they also offer food and wine pairings and – it would appear - pioneered the non-alcohol option.

Since opening the new tasting room and bistro late in 2012, and after the road closures ended, visitor numbers rose 25% and spend per head rose 45% says Van Loveren’s Bonita Malherbe. They offer 8 different food and wine pairings with all food used in the pairings on sale in the deli. “Having the merchandise and deli did not result in less wine sales, only more spend per person, our new approach results in people spending more time at Van Loveren, and the longer they linger, the greater the chance to create ambassadors,” says Malherbe. 

During his presentation Joseph said most wine shoppers had a limited interest in wine and bought it as a commodity, “For the majority of people it is a grape-based alcohol beverage, bought in much the same way as beer. In this respect Pinot Grigio and draft beer can be pretty interchangeable”. 

Even at the top end, when it is bought as a luxury, many people are less interested in the grape variety, vintage or winemaker than in the status the liquid confers – or the pleasure it gives - “How many of the wealthy Russians buying Lafite and Latour in London restaurants know which grapes these wines are made from?”

Afterwards I asked Robert what the Cape should stop doing and he said to stop talking about biodiversity “a message that's all feature and no benefit. Frankly, people might buy organic because of a fear of chemicals, though most don't care, and Fairtrade to make themselves feel better. The existence of a few unfamiliar herbs and flowers, that does not affect the flavour if the wine, is no benefit to them at all”.

He maintained that worldwide, wine producers did not do enough to draw visitors to their cellars. They should be highlighting their websites on their labels. They should also be communicating differently on their websites. “Don’t use your website just to talk about yourself and your property and your winemaker. Winemakers are not intrinsically interesting to consumers”.

China is now the fourth biggest source of foreign tourists to South Africa, according to Bradley Brouwer, South African Tourism regional manager for Asia Pacific. In 2012, over 130 000 Chinese travelers visited the country, a growth of over 50% on 2011. Numbers are expected to rise significantly after Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Jacob Zuma jointly declared this year the “Year of South Africa” in China, at the 2013 BRICS summit.

Joseph said the recent austerity drive in China to temper excessive expenditure should not deter producers from recognising the importance of that country as a potential source of tourists to South Africa. “The Australians understand the value of Chinese visiting wine drinkers. Just look at the Chinese-language signs and wine gift packs at Sydney Duty Free”.

Q & A with Robert Joseph

Q. Do you agree the end of mid-size wineries is in site, with wine going to mirror what is happening with wealth and resources - the vast majority of people drink mass produced cheap and cheerful while the wealthy drink expensive wine from relatively smaller producers?  

A. Yes, though definition of "mid" will vary from region to region. The challenge lies in distribution. Less than 5-10 000 cases can be sold through various means, including cellar door, small export markets etc. Over that figure is a lot trickier. The more interesting question for me is when small producers – e.g. the garagistes - will learn that there is no point in being small and cheap. They have to be good and pricy, and to differentiate themselves, in everything they do.

Q. Just how big is wine tourism, how much bigger is it going to get and does it translate into significant sales?

A. Provided we remember that it will always be something that lots of people do a little of, and that the offering continues to improve, I think it will get much bigger. The sales will depend on the engagement the wineries create with the consumers. Selling directly to consumers via wine clubs enabled producers to establish a relationship with them, to find out their preferences and sell more profitably than via retailers. In the US, wine consumers tend to join several wine clubs simultaneously and will remain with a club for an average of 24 months and spend $1 200 to $1 700 over that period. This figure is partly explained by the higher prices commanded by US wineries, but the average of US$37 per bottle consumers pay when buying direct is significantly more than when they purchase in a retail store. A fast-growing 10% of all wine in the US is now sold directly to consumers – despite rules that ban shipping between some states. 

Q. How should we best employ generic marketing?

A. Horses for courses. China and other emerging markets need a generic WOSA effort to create a general picture of what SA does. More established markets, like the UK, will benefit more from quality and like-minded groups like Piwosa, family-owned groupings as we've see in Australia and sets of producers making similar styles of wines, such as the Douro Boys in Portugal. 

Q. How much should we oak Chenin?

A. Follow the Forrester recipe; it's a unique SA style. But do other experiments with other blends. Stop banging on about Pinotage. It's now under 5% of the vineyard and deserves under 5% of the attention. New Zealand planted Muller Thurgau (another cross) in the 1970s, discovered it didn't work, and replaced it with Sauvignon and Chardonnay and Riesling. There's a lesson to be learned there...

GWC’s Best of Wine Tourism awards have gone from strength to strength since the first edition. For the 2014 awards there were 350 applications from nine Great Wine Capitals regions. Of these, there were 53 local award winners and nine international winners.

Entries and conditions for the 2015 Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Awards can be accessed at[value][year]=2014

Entry is free and the closing date for submissions is 11 July 2014.

Robert Joseph was in South Africa on behalf of The Wine Show.