Letter from America

SOUTH Africa is Nelson Mandela and Marikana, miracle and mayhem, ubuntu and femicide, Square Kilometre Array and Limpopo textbook scandal, King 3 and corruption, a member of Brics but not, in the Goldman Sachs sense, a Bric. In short, the country can be a bit of an enigma.

Likewise, South African wine, certainly in the US where not only is the stuff still relatively hard to find, it comes in so many varieties and permutations that even knowledgeable imbibers are perplexed by it.

And that, says Wines of South Africa’s dynamic new US representative, Annette Badenhorst, is a big part of why it has struggled to gain a foothold here since sanctions were lifted in 1991. "There is not something you can distill out of our offering and say ‘Voila! This is South Africa!’ We are so diverse, and that is what the trade finds confusing."

South Africa’s share of US imports reached a high of 1.2% by customs value last year from big US brands like Kendall Jackson buying by the 1,000l bladder to blend into generic plonk.

In bottled form, the US (by its own count) imported 990,000 cases of South African wine last year, down from a high of 1.1-million in 2007, but well up on 150,000 in 1996. Contrast that with imports from Argentina, which went from 215,000 cases in 1996 to 6.8-million last year, and New Zealand — 27,000 to 2.8-million over the same period.

What magic did Argentina and New Zealand possess that South Africa does not? A simple selling proposition based on two grapes is one quick answer. Though their popularity may be peaking, Argentinian Malbecs and Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs have become hugely popular here. Nonexpert consumers trust they will get value when the cork is drawn, whatever the winery.

Sheetz, a chain of petrol stations, is selling a line of six South African wines, including a pinotage rosé, branded as Wildlife, with the slogan: "Track down your inner party animal!"

This critic would add: "And when you’ve found it, use the cabernet to kill it."

More enticing is the Seven Sisters line created by Vivian Kleynhans and her Paternoster siblings, which Walmart is starting to stock in US stores. The initial choices include Dawn, a pinotage-shiraz, Odelia, a bukettraube and Carol, a cabernet sauvignon.

KWV has introduced African Passion, a seven-wine range for African-Americans, and has promised TransAfrica Forum, the old anti-apartheid lobby, 10% of the profits. Makaziwe and Tukwini Mandela are extending the brand with the Royal Reserve and Thembu Collections from the House of Mandela.

Then there are the wines — the majority — that sell more strictly on the basis of what is in the bottle, without a story or a tagline. An estimated 18 importers, each representing different wineries, and some little more than mom-and-pop operations, are involved.

Getting wine from importers to market is a challenge. Under rules hanging over from Prohibition, importers can sell only to distributors. The latter are loath to take on inventory unless confident they can turn it over quickly, either in volume or at a respectable markup.

Such confidence has been hard to build. Stonebridge, a market research group, recently interviewed 55 US distributors, wine store owners, hotel and restaurant managers. What they said about South African wine is sobering. Only three were more or less positive. "Nearly every other account said they could not sell it."

Comments included: "has a cheap image", "has no traction", "have had some good wines, but there are too many bad wines", "wish they would give up on pinotage", "too many cute labels", "expensive to ship".

Master sommelier Fran Kysela, a US importer based outside Washington, begs to differ. He is a new and passionate convert to the South African category.

He holds braais to promote it, although it accounts for only a fraction of his business. He takes wholesalers and retailers to South Africa at his own expense. In 30 years he has sold more than $300m worth of wine. He added South Africa to his line-up in 2010. Last year he sold 14,329 cases. Mr Kysela would like to sell 50,000 annually and thinks that, all told, the US market could take 5-million, which is about where Spain is now.

South Africa, he says, needs a Len Evans. Mr Evans, an Englishman revered in Australia as a founding father of its modern wine industry, persuaded Australian wine makers to play together.

Australia today trails only Italy as a source of US imports.

• Barber is US country manager for Brand SA.