There’s one job I wouldn’t want under any circumstances: CEO of WOSA (Wines of South Africa). In an industry where there are more organisations than tons per hectare in the Orange River, many seemingly overlapping and enough in-fighting to start WWIII, trying to harness Brand South Africa into the sort of image it and its wines deserve demands someone with tenacity and a durable, thick skin.
For the past 13 years, Su Birch has shown both qualities and, despite several, sometimes vicious detractors (some making ‘noise’ for the sake of it), is leaving the body after a job very well done. Today, South African wine attracts not only international accolades but exports have reached record levels.
At a recent chat with Birch over a glass of wine, we discussed some of her successes and other goals she would like to have achieved.
Birch laughs at the memory of her first week in the job; May 2000, which coincided with Cape Wine 2000 – talk about being thrown in the deep end! But it wasn’t the first time she’d touched sides with the wine industry. As International Marketing Manager at Capespan for five years, she ran promotions for Unifruco when Lynne Sherriff MW requested her help to promote Vinfruco’s ArnistonBay brand. Even earlier, when she was officially handling spirits, Birch remembers being involved with the launch of Graca.
Of course, WOSA was a much larger and more treacherous playing field; Birch’s predecessor, Kim Green, who had suggested Birch apply for the position, had enough of the politics. While these too must’ve been stressful for Birch, she unhesitatingly claims a major achievement is establishing WOSA as a brand, quickly acknowledging the input of ‘the very high calibre of people’ working with her.
Her strength of mind and conviction is surely measured by the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative, a movement which still sets South Africa apart from other countries. ‘I thought it would be easy to position South Africa when I started,’ Birch recalls, ‘but it wasn’t.’ Her search for the story that would give the country a unique selling proposition and emphasise provenance was the Cape’s abundant floral kingdom
Initial criticism for the ‘Diversity is in our Nature’ campaign came from some well-regarded UK journalists, as locals; the big brands wanted ‘Sunshine in a Bottle’, already overdone by the Aussies, who have since come to regret that ‘one size fits all’ focus. In the long run, Birch confirms the diversity angle has been a big success, not least because it’s drawn attention to many endangered indigenous species which otherwise might have been lost. Much alien vegetation has been eradicated and water supplies increased.
Birch agrees consumers don’t understand the Sustainability or Ethical seals, which will hopefully be combined in a few years’ time. ‘But winemakers can explain these seals represent authenticity when presenting their wines,’ she claims. ‘They also give importers confidence in the production of South African wines.’
If the sustainability issue is now well accepted and spreading, the ethical production of wine remains a contentious and sometimes fiery issue.
Pressure for Wieta (The Agricultural Ethical Trade Initiative of SA) accreditation, especially since the damning 2012 Human Rights Report, has come from Scandinavia and Britain, who import a valuable quantity of Cape wine. Apart from problems with the body itself, I put it to Birch that many producers find getting such accreditation too expensive. ‘If a producer passes, half the approximate R5000 fee is returned,’ Birch advises, continuing ‘It doesn’t have to be completed in one go.’ To give an idea of progress so far, Birch says Wieta has 760 members, 250 units have been accredited and there are 200 assessments booked with all the big companies pushing through their growers. ‘The bottom line is if we don’t have our house in order, we can lose orders. No one has had their farm expropriated, surely it’s better to become ethically accredited than face that?’
The advantage Birch sees Wieta has over Fairtrade, an international ethical grouping, is that the latter adds costs all the way down the supply chain, plus it’s difficult to sell Fairtrade wines at a premium price point (£7.99), meaning there’s little money to flow back to where it’s needed.
As Birch leaves WOSA, there’s not yet a mutually satisfying ending to this ethical issue. ‘There are too many uninformed critics of WOSA,’ she maintains. I suggested her successor, Siobhan Thompson should make it her business to start her term as CEO with an information day for journalists, a move which should eliminate much of the misinformation put out by sectors of this group.
But there has been plenty that WOSA has achieved which has given Birch satisfaction: she sites the several editions of Cape Wine (even at the Convention Centre, which drew howls of disapproval when it was decided to move there from Nederburg!); this year’s inaugural The Beautiful South (the two-day show in London in conjunction with Chile and Argentina), with the inevitable teething troubles and the ‘pods’, areas at wine shows devoted to different styles or varieties, which were a first for any country but are now copied.
If there’s one area she would have liked greater success, it’s in the notoriously difficult US market.
Over the past 20 years, the export curve shows a significant upward curve, from 20 million litres to 500 million litres this year. ‘Projections for 2014 are 420 million litres,’ says Birch, explaining ‘the drop is due to much of this year’s figures going to Italy and Spain in bulk to make up their shortfall.’ She worries that those farmers who have pushed yields to meet this demand will forget that it is transitory and not find a market for their wine when demand falls. Bulk shipments have proved another contentious issue, especially in regard to loss of jobs. ‘Things are changing on that score,’ advises Birch, ‘companies such as Accolade (owners of the Kumala brand) are now again bottling in South Africa. There will be more.’ Value also shows an encouraging upward curve; ‘Marketing South African wines has certainly become easier with the much improved quality,’ the departing CEO admits.
Birch confirms her retirement after 13 years was planned: ‘The job became 24/7 and anyway, people become tired of you. No, I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do but it will include community work and yoga.’ With a new office above Olympia Café, good coffee and food are likely to be included; an altogether more relaxed setting than the one she leaves.
‘It’s been an honour and a privilege,’ Birch says of her 13 years heading WOSA. I would add that this body at this stage of South Africa’s history needed someone strong, even if sometimes controversial, and I believe few could have done as much as Su Birch for South African wine and its image internationally.
In turn, she has received international recognition for her work, including:
2005 Lanson Woman In Wine Trophy, International Wine and Spirit Competition, London.
2006 Cape Masters of Wine “Wine Personality of the Year”.
2009 Drinks Business Woman of the Year
2012 Wine Intelligence top 10 influential personalities
2013 Drinks Business Green Awards: Lifetime Achievement Award
Farewell, Su, and good luck with all your future endeavours, whatever they entail.