“The interest is there in the market; customers just need a little more information to buy with confidence.”

Julia Burke is currently in South Africa, spending time at some of the leading cellars and getting an update on one of her passions – South African wine! You can follow her travels on her blog or follow her on Twitter. We’ll be hosting Julia at Fairview in the next few days, and thought it a good time to publish this excellent letter of hers as a guest post. We think she makes some really great points, and South African wine can do with more ambassadors in the US market. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

At the retailer where I work (the Premier Group, in western New York State) I’m the official South African wine advocate, having worked the 2010 harvest in Stellenbosch. None of the other wine associates have a specific background in South African wine, but they are always interested in the bottles I bring to tasting dinners and enjoy many of the wines we carry in the store. Likewise, my bosses are always interested in tasting South African wines and carried a substantial selection even before I began working at the store. Lately our selection has improved dramatically. What we need next is empowered customers — and that’s an area needing improvement in the U.S. market as a whole.

I’ve encountered, by and large, open-minded enthusiasm from my customers toward South African wine. I’m very involved in our Wine Education Center, which offers classes to the public on a variety of topics, and my first big project at Premier was a class entitled “Introduction to the Wines of South Africa.” It was booked to capacity well in advance. There was a clear interest in the topic, especially on the heels of the World Cup. On the sales floor, I’m always on lookout for opportunities to say, “how about a South African wine?” With few exceptions the response is receptive, and I even encounter people seeking out South African wine on a regular basis. The odd customer with a bias against South African wine is typically a snob with similar disregard for other “non-traditional” wine-producing regions and will only be happy with France, California or Italy. (I know, SA has been making wine longer than the USA. Don’t get me started.)

My point is that the interest is there in the market; customers just need a little more information to buy with confidence. Salespeople like me who have intimate familiarity with and passion for South Africa, who can put a bottle in someone’s hands and say, “I really love this wine and I think you will, too,” are helpful on our side – but producers and industry people on your side can help make the connection. Perhaps South African representatives are finding New York City rather disappointing? Try western New York — it’s a less crowded scene trend-wise and you’ll be dealing with outstanding retailers and sophisticated customers who aren’t just looking for what’s hot this minute. Classes and tastings led by South African industry professionals will do wonders for connecting with the wine-buying public. If I put the word out on Facebook and the web that a South African winemaker (or really, just a South African person, for that matter) was coming to give a presentation at the store, people would love it. Store staff, too, would greatly appreciate and benefit from a little more education which we can then pass on to customers.

Besides the personal connection, any chance for customers and salespeople to actually taste the wines is a good thing. After spending time in South Africa I realized that most of the best wines in the country were exported in tiny quantities or not at all, and a lot of what’s available in the US is, well, not as good. This is true of all imported wines to some extent, but unfortunately some imported South African wines are blatantly smoky and rubbery, and these wines don’t show well next to the fruit bomb shiraz and malbecs of the world. I taste every South African wine in our store and can steer customers in the right direction to make sure their first experience with South African wine is a good one. When they’re shopping on their own, chances are they’ll end up with something with an “exotic” label that may or may not be well made. Any negative impressions among retailers about South African wines (I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about Brett, as am I) are rooted in the poor examples that get sent here because South Africans probably wouldn’t drink them.

Customers need to be more familiar with specific styles and Wine of Origin appellations as well. If there is a way to make appellations such as Walker Bay, Swartland, etc. more prominent on the labels we can work on branding those regions the way South America has succeeded in branding its various appellations. Right now, the average customer doesn’t recognize the word Stellenbosch, let alone Elgin or Franschhoek. In terms of wine styles, my vote goes to chenin blanc, Rhone-style blends, sauvignon blanc, and Bordeaux blends as Most Likely to Succeed in this market, with Cape blends, chardonnay and shiraz/syrah a close second. I would love to see more merlot and malbec exported as I think they’d do very well here.

South Africa’s potential appeal as a wine-producing nation can’t be understated. Just the reactions to my little blog alone showed me how enchanting and captivating the country really is to Americans (myself firmly included!). Stunning scenery, a veritable playground of cultural diversity, a high profile in the U.S. (being able to locate a country on a map is, for better or for worse, a big selling point for Americans), and sexy, exciting, soulful wines that are big on flavor and stunningly varied in style — South Africa hits all the bases for potential wine stardom. But with customers that are, even in this day and age, still extremely insecure about trying new things in the wine world, education is key. Keep trying to connect with wine drinkers and industry people here. And get outside NYC, where you’re a small fish in a huge pond. Play up the things that make South Africa special and eschew the Brand Australia gimmicky marketing and Parkerization. I believe in a bright and exciting future for South African wine, and the more great wine and passionate people we see on this side of the pond, the easier my job is selling it.

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