Seizing the gap

Wednesday, 25 August, 2004
Distell News Service
Wine marketers have done very little to attract the custom of African-American adult consumers, who number 34 million and account for 10% of US wine consumers.

Jaguar and Mercedes do it. So do Rolex and Tiffany. Even cognac house Hennessy does it. But wine marketers? They have done very little to attract the custom of African-American adult consumers, who number 34 million and account for 10% of US wine consumers, according to the country's Census Bureau. This is despite the fact that whatever their income, they spend more per household on food and drink than most of their US fellow citizens, going by data released in the 2000 US Consumer Expenditure Survey.
Even though their annual purchasing power is estimated to be somewhere in the region of $500bn, roughly equivalent to that of Canada (the US's second biggest wine export market) they remain invisible to most wine producers. No matter that their disposable income is growing faster than that of any other group in the US. In fact, three times faster than the national average. And that they account for 60% of cognac consumption in the US, judging by the figures of liquor giant Pernod Ricard.

Nevertheless there are some Cape producers who are seizing the gap, given the reservoir of goodwill that exists between African-Americans and post-apartheid South Africa.

Says André Steyn, corporate affairs director of Distell, whose biggest brand is Nederburg and recently returned from the US at the invitation of its Department of Commerce and the International Marketing Council: 'African-Americans are very supportive of democratic South Africa and feel a close affinity with the country and its achievements. They are very keen to visit and to learn about our products, wine among them.'

His view is echoed by Pamella Roebuck, president of the African-American Wine Tasting Society Inc, a non-profit educational wine club. Founded in Atlanta in 2002, it now has chapters in New York, Detroit, Dallas, Indianapolis, Raleigh/Durham, Seattle and most recently Houston.

Although already exposed to South African wines, Roebuck, a consulting engineer and MBA, first visited the Cape last November with the society's executive director and founder, Renée Rowe. So impressed were they that they went ahead and arranged a tour involving 10 of their members for April this year. 'Everyone who came on the visit is adamant about returning. This is a testament of the close connection we feel with South Africa. We spent time in Cape Town and Stellenbosch and were met with enormous warmth wherever we went. We also visited three townships and were profoundly moved to learn of the progress made since the advent of democracy and the elimination of apartheid, although we recognize there is still a road to travel in bringing equality to people.'

Roebuck was also very positive about the wines and the accommodation and general wine tourism infrastructure, and looks forward to returning.

Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), a member of the same delegation as Steyn, who met with Roebuck in the US, said she in turn was overwhelmed by the warmth extended by black Americans to all South Africans. 'We experienced this with business people at all levels. Nowhere was this more evident than with Oprah Winfrey who, despite an extraordinarily busy schedule, was gracious enough to entertain us and engage with our group at a personal level.'

Winfrey is a regular visitor to South Africa, which is the only country apart from her own to publish her monthly glossy, O.

Steyn says South Africa's entry into the US wine arena since the start of the decade is proving very encouraging. 'So there is every reason to maximise the close rapport between ourselves and African-Americans.'

According to US magazine the Wine Report, African-Americans spend $100 bn a year of their total disposable income of over $500bn on wine, spirits, food and entertainment. In addition, a survey by the Scarborough Research Report released last year, found that African-Americans spend more readily on wine than their white counterparts. While 6% of the total adult American population of drinking age will spend $20 or more on a bottle of wine, 39% of American-Americans will do so.

Although even this information has been slow in persuading US producers to court this market, there is hope this could change, thanks to initiatives like the African American Wine Tasting Society Inc; Divas Uncorked, a wine society based in Boston, and the Association of African-American Vintners in California, that brings together black winemakers.

These groups are working assiduously to change the Wine Marketing Council's finding that just 4% of frequent wine drinkers (those who drink wine between twice and four times a month) are African-American.

When Rowe founded the African-American Wine Tasting Society, she did so to provide a comfortable environment for African-Americans to learn about wine, while demonstrating to the industry that the market extends beyond middle-aged white males. That the organization now reaches across the country is ample proof that the African-American community is a very viable market.

Although membership is not limited to African-Americans, Rowe maintains the organisation's success lies partly in that members of similar background feel easier with each other. 'There is an intimidation factor about wine, and there is a cultural difference,' she told the Seattle Times. 'I think people are more comfortable with each other when they share a common background. Whether we want to admit it or not, I think the truth lies where it is.

'Most blacks I know don't come from a family whose parents drink wine. I never had it with dinner at the table, and still don't when I go back home unless I bring it.'

The Association of African-American Vintners was founded by Pinot Noir producer Mac McDonald, who in 1997 established Vision Cellars in Sonoma County, California. His goal is to extend a programme he has been pursuing on his own, and that is to pour wines for African-American wine clubs around the US and organize tastings for groups like 100 Black Men and the National Conference of Black Mayors.

Brian Perkins, an African-American wine educator, says the growth in upper-income African-Americans has brought more people to wine but he berates the US industry for not making an effort to reach out to them in familiar forums. He says there is little evidence of wine advertising in African-American magazines, which are able to access millions of readers with disposable income.

With the growing global oversupply in wine, it would be foolhardy to continue to ignore a growing market segment, thirsty for knowledge about wine, whatever its provenance.

Oprah Winfrey, an African-American icon
Oprah Winfrey, an African-American icon

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