The Wacky Wine Weekend has – in a relatively short space of time – become a huge event. To call it an event is perhaps not entirely accurate, because it’s dispersed over the greater Robertson area (i.e. including McGregor, Bonnievale and Ashton). Over the course of a weekend in June approximately 15 000 people descend on the many wineries in the region, where a variety of activities await the visitors.
The focus of my attention this weekend has been Arabella, where Dish has been producing the food. Arabella, one of the newest wineries in the region, was established when the brothers that owned Excelsior – Stephen and Freddie de Wet (my mother’s brothers) – split the assets. Stephen got his pick of land, but not the cellar or the brand. At a time when many people in the wine industry were more likely to be thinking of divesting themselves of vineyards and wineries, Stephen built a new winery from scratch. But probably the bravest component of the operation was to get a new brand going, especially for a man within a decade of traditional retirement age (admittedly fitter and in better shape than most teenagers). A consumer environment already populated by too many labels was about to get another.
While Arabella owes its existence to a collapse in sibling relationships, one of the features of the operation is the close working and family relationship between Stephen, his son Jamie, and daughter Nicky. Given the sisyphian task ahead of them they worked according to a relatively straightforward strategy. The wines were pitched at an affordable level (a retail price of R30 in South Africa) and the orange label was designed to leap out of the assortment on the shelf. A retail strategy without distribution (i.e. supermarket listings) is impotent. Here, Nicky has been a dynamo, getting Arabella listed in almost every worthwhile retailer in South Africa.
It is not surprising that Arabella has also employed a focused strategy as far as the Wacky Wine Weekend is concerned. Given the price positioning of the wines the focus has been on creating a fun environment for younger people to party the weekend away. Live music has been a key component, but this year it was ramped up to an entirely new level with the involvement of the team from Complete Events (who also organise Rocking the Daisies at Cloof). Visitors have been treated to an enticing programme comprising many of South Africa’s most popular bands and DJs.
I don’t know how many thousands of people were there last night, but every one of those drinking alcohol was drinking wine. Rocking the Daisies is a huge opportunity for Cloof – last year there were about 9000 people over the course of the weekend, and substantial growth is planned for this year. But very few of those thousands of people drink any wine at all, which is a source of huge frustration to me. The people at Arabella last night were a very similar demographic to those attending Rocking the Daisies. The difference is that at Arabella there is no opportunity to drink anything other than wine or water.
The Stephen-Jamie-Nicky team took a big gamble in offering live music on the scale they did this weekend. Whereas the Arabella experience was previously free, based upon a fairly basic musical offering, Arabella Live required a R80 entrance fee. I don’t know whether it paid off in the sale of tickets at the door, but I have to take my hat off to them in getting so many partying sub-40s (there were many forty-somethings, too) to drink their wine.
The wine industry is often guilty of taking itself too seriously. Wine marketing – not to mention wine education – often does more to alienate its audience than draw it in. The fun environment at Arabella is a case study that could be adopted on a broader scale to build the base of wine drinkers.