March 28 2007
As a something of a companion piece to my recent grocery foray and subsequent post on the onslaught of present and future wine brand extension, I was also just confronted with a new wine at my local grocery store, Kroger.
The grocery store visit, of course, came on the heels of a weekend trip to see some out-of-town friends. Their nearly four year old son proclaiming all weekend, “RRRRRR, I’m a Cheetah.”
Little did I know, I’d soon run into a little wine marketing, Cheetah-style, at the grocery store. An end-cap display for Sebeka wine was placed front and center for all passerby leaving the deli section meandering past the wine section and into the rest of the store.
The yellow and black color scheme and picture of a cheetah in full-on Serengeti-kill-sprint mode was certainly eye-catching and people that pay attention to the wine world would find it surprising to find a South African wine on premium pay for placement territory—space normally reserved for Barefoot and Forest Glen. While Sunday blue laws prevented me from buying any wine, I went back home to try and find out more about this mysterious brand called Sebeka.
Finding information on Sebeka proved to be a little mystifying. There was some blogger activity, some international news (both of which I’ve come to expect these days), but no brand web site.
Ah, the folks at Gallo, behind the importation of Sebeka, have their mysterious ways. They get the end-caps going and then drop their press release, which happened today.
A new generation of South African wines, named “Sebeka”, has arrived in the U.S. from the Western Cape of South Africa, imported and marketed by California-based E. & J. Gallo. While wine has been made in South Africa for more than 350 years, Sebeka wines will invite the American wine drinker to discover a bold and distinctive style of South African winemaking. If consumers at the Boston Wine Expo and Savor Dallas are any indication, American consumers are going to love what they find.
The new line of wines includes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, a Cabernet-Pinotage blend, and a flagship proprietary blend of Shiraz and Pinotage which is labeled as Cape Blend. Pinotage is a uniquely South African grape, created there more than 80 years ago by crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault. The personality of the wine is embodied in the label, which features a Cheetah running in full stride against the backdrop of the South African bushveld. According to Diego LoPrete, in charge of marketing Sebeka in the U.S., “It’s an image that instantly communicates the bold, exotic, elegant taste and quality of our wine and the primal beauty of South Africa.” In 2006, American wine drinkers seeking quality and value put the wines of South Africa at the top of the list of “fastest growing imports”, ahead of France, Italy, and Australia.
This prompted me to head back out to the store to pick some up—the Shiraz, the Shiraz Pinotage blend and the Sav. Blanc. I opened both the Shiraz and Shiraz-Pinotage blend. Ehhh. At $6.99 it was about what you would expect, but certainly not near the quality marker that can be found in other South African wines.
This begs the question of continued hope that we’ll see Stormhoek secure some additional distribution in the states this year. All things considered equal, if Stormhoek is around $11 to $12 a bottle and the Sebeka is normally priced at $9, I would encourage you, no, I would implore you to buy the Stormhoek and get twice the quality at a fraction of the cost. This is my opinion and Stormhoek’s as well. Hugh from Stormhoek likes to say, “Stormhoek. The Best South African wine for the money. Period.”
Based on what I’ve tasted, I can’t argue with him.
I don’t think these are the only two brands that we’ll be seeing in the states, though. South African wine is at the bottom of what could be a hockey stick like curve for growth. I think the key is for them, as an industry, to balance out the everyday drinking stuff with high-end price points, as well. This is a mistake that Australia made, with few exceptions, and now consumers refuse to buy anything from Australia that costs more than $8 a bottle.
An importer of African wines, and the exclusive importer of wines from the South African Black Vintners Alliance is aiming to change that, and combine their efforts with a social marketing angle. Check out Heritage Link Brands to see how they are coming at the market with quality (Whole Foods is already a customer) and a cause.
In my humble opinion, South African wines have, perhaps, the most upside of any of the other emerging contenders for significant growth in the U.S. wine import market—Argentina, Chile, Spain, et al. They are doing varietals that don’t require wine layperson education (except for the Pinotage, which is close enough to earn the trust of even the most naïve wine consumer) and there isn’t an inherent language barrier. Time will tell whether that’s correct or not, but even if it’s not, you have to give credit to South African producers for aligning themselves with the Western world for growth, against longer odds than most, too. In the words of this African proverb, “The one who fetches the water is the one who is likely to break the pot.”
For more information on South African wines, check out this link.
UPDATE: Selena Cuffe from Heritage Link Brands has let me know that they just completed taping a segment for PBS, Time Magazine is doing an interview for a feature that will appear in May and Inc. Magazine will accompany Selena on a trip to South Africa for a story later this year that will focus heavily on their social activism, using wine as the commerce vehicle. Thanks Selena!