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Happy Birthday South Africa wine. It won’t be easy to penetrate the U.S. market


Monday was the 350th birthday of South Africa’s wine industry. The country is the world’s ninth biggest wine producer, and Wines of South Africa (WOSA), a trade group, is hoping to “reach a million people…worldwide” in promoting its wines.

Have you ever bought a South African wine? Neither have I. That’s exactly the problem for the South African wine industry, which has formed a brand new trade group, USA [Union of South Africa] Producer Association (USAPA), to promote consumption of South African wines here in the States.

The 100-member trade group, which had its first meeting on Jan. 20, the same day Barack Obama was inaugurated, could well have adopted the President’s catch-phrase of “Yes, we can.” Their stated aim: “to build a South African presence in the US market, set to become the biggest wine importer by 2012. We believe our mutual co-operation will help considerably to augment the impact of the South African wine category in this exciting market.” The South Africans have a certain resentment toward their fellow Commonwealth brethren, the Australians, “who just over a decade ago were only a fraction of the size of the South African industry,” but who conquered the American market through their Shirazes, Chardonnays and Yellow Tails. “Perhaps the time is ripe, now that Australia is starting to lose…consumers…, to make a relatively bigger noise in the right corners of the US market,” concludes a South African marketing guru, Greg Castle. He suggests appealing to “those [Americans] in more open minded wine circles, less blindly brand loyal to Californian or French wines; opinion leaders prepared to explore and try something new.”

Well, this is all well and good, and Castle and the South Africans are doing what they should be doing in promoting their country’s wines. But South Africa has a long way to go before it hits pay dirt the way Australia and New Zealand did in America. For one thing, South Africa has no particular image to hang its wines on, as Australia did and does. Australia is Oz, the Land Down Under, populated by friendly, grinning, good-looking types who toss shrimp on the barbie and who, descended from criminals, have a roguishness that appeals to Americans. But what is South Africa famous for, except (bless him) Nelson Mandela?

Then too, South Africa hasn’t attached its name to any particular wine types that aren’t already famous from other countries, with the possible exception of Pinotage — and who cares about Pinotage? Their Chenin Blancs are good, but I don’t see America being overwhelmed with Chenin Blanc-mania.

I don’t taste a lot of South African wines, so I went to Wine Enthusiast’s database to see what our other editors — primarily Roger Voss — think. Roger’s top-rated South African wines mostly are expensive ($30-$93), which is not the best way to break into the recessionary U.S. market. Castle wrote that “Once [Americans] get to try ‘Brand South Africa’, it must be ensured that they are suitably impressed by the value for money (not to be confused with cheap price) relative to the exceptional quality,” but it is not clear to me that “value for money” is a distinguishing feature of South African wines, the way it is with, say, Chile. Shifting “brand loyalty” is one of the most difficult tasks facing marketers, especially when economic times are uncertain; people tend to stick to the tried-and-true.

Finally, Americans already face a bewilderingly vast array of countries that produce good wine. They’ve shown their willingness to expand beyond California (and old Europe) to Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, not to mention wines from their own backyards; all 50 States now possess bonded wineries. So I just don’t see U.S. consumers embracing wines from South Africa in any number. I could be wrong.

If I were giving the South Africans advice, it would be to personalize their wines, to attach them to a famous individual, a celebrity endorser, so to speak. In 21st century America, the way for trends to start is through stars. And South Africa could do no better than President Obama, who famously celebrated his November electoral victory by popping open some Graham Beck Brut, a South African methode champenoise bubbly. USAPA ought to be announcing that in every corner of the U.S. market.



Bay Vieux Briefs: On AVAs, Australia and inconsistent reviewers


Paso expansion goes through

Last Nov. I blogged on a petition to expand the Paso Robles AVA by 2,635 acres — about 4% of the current total — in a cooler region that’s a little closer to the Pacific Ocean. This was during a period of confusion at the Tax and Trade Bureau, the arm of the Treasury Department that approves AVAs. Well, effective Feb. 20, the TTB approved the expansion, according to their press release, based on the usual parameters of climate, geology and soils. I don’t really care one way or another. Its just one more AVA expansion; there have been many before, there will be many to come. The key sentence in the TTB’s statement is “After careful review of the petition and comments [7] received, TTB finds that the evidence submitted supports the expansion…”.

Now, anyone who’s ever worked in a government office (and I used to) knows how they work. This is from the same Federal govenment that “reviewed” Bernie Madoff’s outfit and found nothing out of order! I can imagine how the discussion went in the TTB’s AVA branch:

Boss: Jim, I want you to carefully review this Paso petition.
Jim: But boss, I’m swamped! I’ve got Leona, Calistoga, Snipes Mountain and Tulocay on my plate — and you just fired my assistant.
Boss: Well, times are tough. Have your decision to me by the end of January.
[Later that night]
Jim [to wife]: Honey, he wants me to do another expansion. This *&%$# is killing me. How am I supposed to get my work done when I don’t have any help?
Wife: Did any of the commenters object?
Jim: Out of 7 comments, only one.
Wife: Was it an important person?
Jim: No, just somebody little.
Wife: Well, screw it then. Approve it, and say you were really careful to examine all the evidence.
Jim: Gee, I guess you’re right. Hey, what’s for supper?

Australia worries

At Wine Enthusiast’s recent Wine Star Awards, which I reported on yesterday, one item making the conversational rounds was the dismal state of affairs in Australia’s wine industry. “Too many grapes” seemed to be the conventional wisdom. It’s the old story of supply and demand. Poor Australia.

Wine judges “inconsistent”? Say it isn’t so!

The recent issue of Wines & Vines reports on a new survey suggesting that wine judges are inconsistent when it comes to judging big competitions like the California State Fair. For example, the judges on one panel were given the same wine three times, without knowing it. They rejected it the first two times, then loved it the third time. It went on to receive a double-gold medal. How embarrassing!

Yet how true. It’s not only judging panels that can be inconsistent. So, too, can individual judges, a truth I’ve pointed out here many times. There’s no loss of face if you rate a wine different ways at different times. Anybody who tells you a judge should give the same rating to a wine over multiple exposures is lying, or seriously misled. That’s why wine judging should be taken for what it is: A considered opinion at a particular time and place. It’s just like a movie review, in which the reviewer can change his mind at a second showing. Does that mean wine reviews are irrelevant? No. They’re have some value — and an individual wine review is better than a panel, which is why I’ve never participated in any of these big fairs, and never will.

Russian River Valley Winegrowers to Gallo: Fuhgeddaboudit!!


A bare majority of the voting members of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers (RRVW) trade association cast ballots last week to oppose Gallo’s proposed expansion of the Russian River Valley AVA, but the vote was far from unanimous, and fewer than one-third of the membership even bothered to vote. (I blogged on proposed expansion on Nov. 20).

A Dec. 10 letter reporting the results, sent by the RRVW to the Tax and Trade Bureau, reveals that, of the RRVW’s 380 members, only 114 actually voted. Of those who voted, 71 were against the expansion, 18 in favor, and 25 cast a “neutral/withhold” vote.

That’s not exactly a ringing condemnation of Gallo’s proposal, although it is technically true, as a RRVW press release stated, that “Members of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers voted Tuesday to join the Russian River Boundary Integrity Coalition in opposition to a proposed expansion of the famous AVA.” That press release also called into question Gallo’s contention that the proposed expansion area, which is within the Petaluma Gap, has a climate similar to that of the current Russian River Valley AVA. “[T]he area in question was part of the ‘Petaluma Chicken Belt’ because it was really too cold to grow the prunes and apples that were the foundation of the area now known as the Russian River AVA,” it says.

A spokesperson for the RRVW, Paige Poulos, said the organization has no problem with a Petaluma Gap appellation. There is a Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, but there’s no sign that anyone has begun the lengthy and expensive process of applying for a new AVA to the TTB. The leading AVA drafter in Northern California, Patrick Shabram, told me, “As far as I know, a petition has never been submitted to make it an AVA.”

Whatever the TTB ultimately decides concerning the Russian River Valley expansion, an appeal is likely, given the vehemence on both sides. An appeal has to go through complex TTB levels, each of which has long (45-90 days) time periods. Ultimately, a plea for appeal can be brought before the Federal courts, but only after the applicant has exhausted all TTB avenues.

CORRECTION: The spokesperson for the Russian River Valley Winegrowers is Chris Donatiello, not Paige Poulos. I regret any inconvenience caused.

Is St. Helena different from Oakville or Rutherford?


One regional tasting I like to attend each year is Appellation St. Helena’s. Held last Tuesday, it’s a sitdown tasting in the Rudd Center at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in a room ideal for tasting. The attendees are low in number (about 30), but high in knowledge, and they include many old colleagues. (It’s the one day a year I’m guaranteed to run into Dan Berger!)


The reason regions host media and trade tastings is simple: To make the argument that they’re worthy of their AVA designation. This is as much a political and economic point as it is one of pure terroir. In St. Helena’s case, I’ve always felt they have a little of that Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” attitude. Oakville and Rutherford are more famous — I’m not saying deservedly so, just that it’s a fact. Calistoga isn’t more famous than St. Helena (except among mudbath aficionados) and so isn’t as much of a threat. Yountville hardly seems to count, as least from a Cabernet Sauvignon point of view. Then there are the Napa mountains, but comparing a village along Highway 29 to the mountains is apples and oranges. No, it’s Oakville and Rutherford that St. Helena is hard pressed to compete with and distinguish itself from, which explains why, every year preceding the tasting, the audience is treated to an overview of St. Helena’s terroir and how different it is from the two communes just to the southeast.

In these presentations, the speaker[s] always try to present their appellations in the best possible light, maximizing whatever makes them unique and minimizing those factors that resemble other growing regions. If it’s true that St. Helena is 5-1/2 degrees warmer on average than Rutherford, and 11-1/2 degrees warmer than Oakville (according to Flora Springs’ vineyard manager, Pat Garvey, but that seems way too high to me), it’s also true that the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley tend to be more alike than not (variations of quality notwithstanding), and the efforts by promoters to create huge differences between them are often unbelievable. It’s easy, for example, to say that Oakville Cabs tend more toward blue and black stone fruits and berries, and Rutherford Cabs toward red ones, until you have a Cask Cabernet from Niebaum-Coppola, which is all blackcurrants despite its Rutherford location.

There are awesome Cabernets and blends with a St. Helena appellation that are as compelling as anything from anywhere in Napa Valley. Among my favorite wineries over the years have been Vineyard 29, various Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel bottlings, Salvestrin, Whitehall Lane, Ehlers Estate, Hourglass, and anything from the Sacrashe Vineyard. Spotteswoode always is delicious and the 2005 was a masterpiece. If there’s a way to summarize St. Helena Cabernet (and there will be exceptions to every rule), they tend to be soft and dry, sometimes fleshy, fruity, and always firm in tannins. The best of the 2005s are eminently ageable: Anomaly, Crocker & Starr Stone Place, Flora Springs Rennie Reserve and Wolf, in addition to those mentioned above.

When wine shapes politics, and culture


San Luis Obispo County, on California’s sprawlingly beautiful Central Coast, long has been dominated by its biggest city, San Luis Obispo. But the county’s demographics have been changing quickly in recent years as the population surges north. The Pacific Coast Business Times is reporting that the Atascadero-Templeton-Paso Robles corridor is exploding in growth. The combined three cities’ population is likely to overcome San Luis Obispo’s at current projections, and may even result in “the wholesale shift in county offices from San Luis Obsipo” to Paso Robles.

The reason for this shift: “the tourism and wine industry boom in North San Luis Obispo County [which] will have a very long-term impact on the political scene.”

I’ve watched the explosive growth in Paso Robles for years, as new wineries and vineyards — and tourist amenities — have gone in. No doubt some locals object to this “gentrification.” Paso Robles’ cowboy culture still thrives, but not like it used to. But I think most residents like the new Paso Robles just fine.

Having an active, attractive wine industry is one of the best things that can happen to a California region. A few days ago, the Associated Press reported that The number of visitors to California wineries has nearly doubled from about 11 million in 1998 to almost 20 million in 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available from the Wine Institute, a trade group. Wine tourism contributed $2 billion to the California economy in 2006, up from $1.2 billion in 1998, according to the organization.

For municipalities hard-hit by the economic slump, who are loathe to raise taxes or fees, having a healthy wine tourist infrastructure is a godsend. What’s happening in Paso Robles has been repeated many times before in history. Western civilization always has followed the vineyard. Western Europe’s great river valleys were planted to grapes by Greek and Roman settlers; cities followed, and then entire nations.

Today, I’ll be going to the Wine Bloggers Conference, where I’m co-moderating a seminar on credibility. If anything interesting happens there — and it probably will — I’ll blog about it next week.

How does a wine region hit “the tipping point”?

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As a California wine writer, I’ve watched with fascination when a winegrowing region becomes a certified superstar. It happened with Carneros in the 1980s, the Santa Lucia Highlands in the 1990s, and certainly with Santa Rita Hills in the 2000s. Each went from nowheresville (defined as: anyplace not in Napa Valley or Sonoma County) to the bigtime. These regions hit “the tipping point,” the phrase coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book of that name. He defined tipping points as “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”

So it was really interesting to come across this blog in the online magazine c-ville, the Charlottesville (Virginia) News & Arts. In it, the writer, J. Tobias Beard, a good wine blogger, exults in the blossoming of the wine industry in his state. Virginia currently has 140 wineries, and “our wine tastes damn good,” he says. (I haven’t had a Virginia wine in many years, so I don’t know, but I’ve heard good things.) The new industry catch phrase, Beard writes, is “Virginia wines are at the tipping point.” But, he asks, a little plaintively, “How can Virginia wine Tip when most Virginians won’t even tip it into their glasses?” Only 5% of all wine consumed in Virginia is produced there.

Beard answers his own question: “[M]ore marketing.  Or better. Or smarter.” He wants state government to spend more on promoting local wines, and he takes particular aim at “those PR people who work for distributors and wineries” who fail to get Virginia wine on store shelves and restaurant wine lists.

I can feel Beard’s pain. California was very lucky in that our industry has been famous for well over a century, and has been able to build on that tradition, not just in the state but nationally and internationally. Virginia, and each of the other states (all 50 now have at least one bonded winery), may produce wonderful wines, but they have their work cut out for them. There is one thing Virginia could do to boost its wine industry, however. According to someone who commented on Beard’s blog, Virginia “sadly has not allowed wineries to sell directly to stores and restaurants in the commonwealth,” the way most of them can in California.  I researched it, and it’s true: Virginia wineries used to be able to self-distribute, but that ended in 2006, when a U.S. District Court ruled the practice unconstitutional. Last year, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to serve as a wholesaler for small wineries, according to this report from A new division in the Department can now make direct sales, on behalf of the wineries, to restaurants and stores. Only about half the state’s winery’s have signed on, though, and the biggest wineries haven’t because the law limits them to only 3,000 cases per year. Sounds like a typical bureaucratic mess, in which the distributors’ hand has been heavily applied. All I know is, if Virginia wineries could sell more wine in their state, more Virginians would tip it into their glasses, and that tipping point wouldn’t seem so far away.

P.S. I’ll be down at the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend, moderating a couple dinners, through the weekend. But I’ve pre-posted (is that a word?) a couple posts, and look forward to resuming contact next week. Take care until then.

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