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Soweto Wine Festival 2007, and 2008, and 2009 ...confirmed
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Welcome to Soweto, where livestock is for sale on street corners, hair cuts are had under trees all hours of the day and night, and about 1500 of an estimated 3.5m inhabitants attended the second annual Soweto Wine Festival on the weekend.

The 1500 festival goers are double those hosted at last year’s inaugural event confirmed Marilyn Cooper, principal of the Cape Wine Academy and co-owner of the festival, to WineNews on Monday morning.

A beleaguered wine industry should also take comfort from the rumoured presence of reporters from the Financial Times and Time Magazine at the festival (and perhaps corporate sponsors should take note as well!). This might be early days for talk of selling wine to black South Africans in exciting volumes, but that our country’s emerging black middle class is on the world’s agenda is sure.

One hundred and four (104) exhibitors participated, of which three were brandy producers (Martell, Distell and the KWV), up 22 from 2005. A quirky cross-section of the South African wine industry was represented with Distell’s wine portfolio present in full force, interspersed with top-end estates like Vergelegen, Meerlust, Engelbrecht Els and Rupert & Rothschild; volume players like Boland Kelder, Du Toitskloof Winery, the company of wine people and Mountain Ridge; newcomers Welbedacht, Freedom Hill and Armajaro; and even boutique names like De Meye, Ingwe, Lindhorst and Lynx.

Says Zandra Warnick from Hoopenburg: ‘We were very pleased with the media exposure the 2005 festival received and hence are participating again. The festival also gives us the opportunity to tap into a new wine tourist – black professionals who come to the Cape on holiday and visit the winelands.’

Charmaine Gola is a young executive at an insurance house. This was her second Soweto Wine Festival and she attended both Friday and Saturday evenings with non-wine savvy friends in tow. ‘I am keen on starting a wine club and want to approach the Cape Wine Academy with my idea.’

A far cry from WineX, producers commented with delight when the music was turned up a notch and festival goers spontaneously started swaying their designer-clad hips, wine glasses in hand. ‘This is exactly what we need,’ Sebastian Beaumont from the Bot River estate with the same name remarked. ‘By associating wine with having a good time and positioning it in social contexts we are demystifying it and, hopefully, growing the category.’

Francois Agenbag from Mountain Ridge was one of only three Breedekloof producers present (Du Preez Estate and Du Toitskloof being the other two). Why are they attending? ‘Because we can’t afford not to!’ Agenbag exclaimed. With an 8000t production capacity, not exploring the potentially large local market for wine would be nonsensical. Agenbag even brought a wine specifically suited to novice wine drinkers. The Mountain Ridge Dimension 2005 is a dense, opaque and succulent blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz – the quintessential fruit bomb so passé with connoisseurs – with a residual sugar of 5.8g/l. At 14.5% alcohol, it is intended for sipping and not gulping, but the point is this: the wine is easy to understand and therefore easy to drink.

Next to him Boland Kelder’s repertoire includes something similar. The Boland Kelder Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2005 is unwooded and has an RS of 8g/l. ‘A soft landing’ for a rookie palate, Friedrich von Wielligh from Boland’s Gauteng team calls it and adds that the wine lends itself to chilling. Boland is due to release an off-dry Chenin Blanc/Sauvignon Blanc called ‘60/forty’ later this month with an off-promotion retail price of R21.99; again, with a view to introducing consumers to the category and, interestingly, positioned among the heavy-weights in the core, flagship Boland range (as opposed to the winery’s entry-level Bon Vino range).

‘We’re in the volume game,’ Von Wielligh says unapologetically. ‘It has to taste nice.’

Which finds uncanny resonance in this month’s Sawubona magazine’s editorial. Under the severe title The grapes of wrath’, Editor Lizeka Mda gets equally severe in her reproach of the wine industry and the way it promotes its product. ‘What I don’t like,’ Mda writes, ‘is to talk about wine – especially as I don’t get the point of going beyond “I like it” or “I don’t like it”.’

In an effort to grow wine consumption in general and not only with a view to black South Africans, Mda reckons, ‘The wine industry needs to shed its snobbishness, the pretentious nonsense, that has cast wine as a drink only people with Master’s degrees can enjoy.’

Editor and publisher of Savour, an online wine publication aimed specifically at black South Africans, Thembelani Tukwayo, concurs. ‘Wine people can be quite snobbish and patronizing. And I very much believe they are trying to pitch their product at a market they don’t fully understand yet. The wine industry needs research and it needs to grasp the fundamentals of market segmentation.’

Would a brand called ‘Thembelani’, Tukwayo continues, for instance, take off in Diepkloof [an upmarket neighbourhood in Soweto]? Probably not. They would choose Vergelegen and Meerlust in the same way and for the same reasons as they would Glenfiddich and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. The perception exists, Tukwayo insists, that wine producers often slap ethnic labels on wine of substandard quality in an effort to get rid of excess stock.

The black market shouldn’t be a blanket term to describe all black South Africans. ‘I’m from the suburbs,’ a black festival goer who wanted to remain anonymous told WineNews, ‘and frankly, wouldn’t know the first thing about selling wine to Sowetans.’

As far as market research goes, Distell most probably leads the way, as in the demographics of their human resources. There they were: one brand after the other, stands manned by people of colour – fulltime employees - without exception.

Who can compete with Distell’s sheer size and might, one might ask. ‘Consolidate!’ says Jason Neal, sales director at Gauteng distributor Nicholson Smith. ‘The wine industry will have to pool resources at the marketing end in order to secure a real share of the market.’

Some controversy was felt among producers about brandy’s presence at the festival. Distell seized the opportunity with a substantial lounge-like brandy bar complete with coffee tables and leather couches, as did KWV and Martell though to a lesser extent. ‘Brandy is an established product among black South Africans,’ Colyn Truter of Rietvallei complained. ‘Why do the organisers allow the brandy guys to dilute our presence like this?’

‘Wine has an intrinsic advantage over brandy, whisky and beer,’ Friedrich von Wielligh told WineNews, ‘in that it is enjoyed best with food. If only we can convince more South Africans to have one glass of wine with their main meal, every day.’

Sadly, the wine-and-food opportunity was a missed one at this year’s festival, though Marilyn Cooper confirmed that the organisers are exploring ways in which to incorporate food and its natural affinity for wine in future.

Cooper also informed WineNews that brandy will remain as part of the festival offering only if wine producers agree. Post-festival feedback forms will be used to collate sentiments and a decision will be made accordingly, she said.

‘This is a market we don’t understand,’ Cooper concluded, ‘but we are willing to grow and evolve with it. The Soweto Wine Festival is definitely an annual event from now on.’

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