Of cost centres, profit centres, and wine awards…
Lakshmi Mittal was recently quoted as saying that his choice of whom to support in the Wimbledon men’s final (between Nadal and Federer) was quite straightforward; he owns a business in Spain (a profit centre) and a house in Switzerland (a cost centre). I suppose the same rationale could be used in my choice of Wine-of-the-Month Club’s Winemaker Awards over the Absa Top Ten Pinotage as my preferred wine awards function, having attended both within a month of each other.
For me, Wine-of-the-Month Club has very definitely been a profit centre. On the other hand, drinking pinotage involves a nett cost (the purchase of the bottle), so it must be a cost centre.
Over the years I have sold countless thousands of cases of wine to Wine-of-the-Month Club (very little of it with any pinotage influence, it must be said). The first of these was in 1993, soon after I formally entered the wine trade. I still have very clear memories of Colin Collard’s phone call to me. The wine in question was a young, vibrantly fruity unwooded cabernet from Excelsior, but bottled under my Eclipse brand. Due to the wine’s freshness I’d called it Picnic Red, and added some hand-drawn ants to the otherwise conventional label (so the signs were there to see, very early on, of the craziness that would later produce the likes of The Very Sexy Shiraz!). The problem was that Colin refused to send the ant-label to his members. I can’t recall what I said to him, but I’m quite sure that my unspoken thoughts about him were best kept private. Money talks, so I changed the concept to something more conservative.
Whatever I thought Colin may have lacked in terms of a sense of adventure, he more than makes up for in consistent application of his vision for mail order wine sales. Wine-of-the-Month Club has gone from strength to strength, and with Colin’s daughter (Natalie) and two sons (Tai and Giscard) running the business, it has a core of energy and professionalism that will drive ongoing growth. It’s a business I greatly admire.
The aim of the lunch at Asara yesterday was the handing over of awards to various wines that performed well in Wine-of-the-Month Club’s tastings over the course of the previous year. However, what left the greatest impression were a couple of presentations about their business model, and their plans for the future. This is a business that has (and always has had) a very clear focus on paying attention to their customers’ proven preferences and consumption patterns. I may have been despairing of their timidity when it came to distributing a bottle of delicious wine with ants on the label, but I have to admire their customer focus. At the end of the day, a business is nothing without customers.
By contrast, the Top Ten Pinotage event was – in absolutely every respect – completely divorced from consumers, and the lifestyle drivers that turn them on. I don’t mean to trivialise others’ religious practices and beliefs – I was in any case expecting someone to say Grace – but saying a prayer of thanks to God for the privilege of working with – and drinking – Pinotage, and then going on to pray for those poor souls that have never had that joy in their lives, is quite possibly one of the most remarkable moments I’ve ever experienced.
The Pinotage Association is made up of some wonderfully passionate people (none more so than the charismatic Beyers Truter), who expend a great deal of time and energy in evangelising the grape variety. I think, though, that if I were in the same position I’d be trying to make pinotage as sexy as possible. For instance, I would have commissioned a top chef (perhaps even an international one) to craft a seriously exciting pinotage-focused meal. Instead we got cheese cubes on toothpicks (when last did you see one of those?), cold soggy spring rolls, oversized crostini topped with grey roast beef, along with a number of other poorly presented canapés. The main course – lamb shank – was tender and tasty, but suffered from the watery sauce slopping around the rim of the plate, featureless mashed potato and – heaven forbid – cubes of mixed vegetables (probably out of a freezer bag). It also didn’t help that the lunch was held in an icy-cold barrel cellar.
The guests comprised pinotage producers, journalists and Absa clients, so wine consumers weren’t necessarily the target of the event. However, it’s hard not to extrapolate the tone of this event into a general communication with the market.
The tone of the presentations was extremely self-congratulatory. Given the unwritten prohibition on saying anything negative about pinotage, all I’ll say is that pinotage is a hard sell. Perhaps I’m totally naïve, but I would tend to believe that sales of pinotage would benefit more from reaching out to consumers with a compelling offer than from producers engaging in gratuitous mutual appreciation.
This is where my thoughts turned during the Wine-of-the-Month Club lunch. Both organisations are trying to sell wine (the Pinotage Association perhaps less directly so). The difference is that one of them has begun from the point of view of the consumer, which – largely – happens to be the difference between cost centres and profit centres. Getting the pinotage communication right makes the difference between pinotage vineyards being cost- or profit-centres.