Remember when wine buying decisions were so easy? In the 1970s and ‘80s there were relatively few private, independent wineries where one could taste and buy. Purchases of two cases (12 bottle cases in those days) of the same wine was our norm, except for Groot Constantia, where, because of the red wine shortage, customers, who queued in orderly fashion on a Wednesday morning, were allowed one case only. A limit which ensured the wines were for special occasions only. For us, that meant a bottle each year with the Christmas meal. Some are still tucked away in the cellar, offering even more of a special treat when opened. For everyday drinking, Perdeberg Chenin Blanc and Paarl Vallei Rouge were among the wines which satisfied our needs.
I was thinking about loyalty buying recently, when my annual purchase of Newton Johnson Pinot Noir arrived. I’ve bought this wine since the maiden 2008, never more than six bottles, just three this year with three of their Albariño – and there’s the problem, a problem rampant across the winelands. So many great and interesting wines from a limitless succession of producers sees this loyalty issue become a headache.
The issues aren’t complicated. There are only so many wines one can and can afford to buy but people who love wine, including myself, like to explore and perhaps follow new trends. Something has to give.
Very rarely has that involved wines I no longer like, a sad frustration. There are other individual wines I buy annually apart from the N-J’s pinot, and many other producers where I pick and choose from their range.
Doubting I’m alone with this dilemma of an embarrassment of riches, I checked with friends who are serious, regular wine buyers.
It transpires Johan Smuts, Tim James, partners Maggie Mostert and Hennie Coetzee, as well as Leeds UK-based Lisa Harlow, a huge South African wine fan, are a pretty loyal group in regard to the producers and even specific wines they purchase annually. If many of the New Wave producers feature strongly among all lists, long-established names, such as Kanonkop, Bouchard Finlayson, Springfield, Iona and De Trafford are also mentioned; I’d add Vergelegen. Length of loyalty often depends on how long the producer has been around, as well as how long these enthusiasts have been buying wine (it strikes me they are all younger, some much younger than me!), so their constancy stretches anything from two to 15 years.
I hadn’t stipulated South African wines only and, being the involved winelovers we are, all do buy foreign wines with varying degrees of loyalty to particular producers.
Surely, with such a spread of producers and an even greater number of wines (a rough guess would be anything from 15 to 37), even the most ardent and wealthy of wine lovers would have to limit purchases. Six or, more usually three bottles are the norm with the odd case or odder two cases, of 12. Increased competition and the wish to explore accounts for a decrease in purchases.
The question of how one decides what to buy in the first place, beyond quality, which is a given, is now more complicated. As I suggested early on, there was so little choice compared with today. Factors offered by the others include visiting the winery, word of mouth from trustworthy friends, stylistic appeal, value for money, the Swartland hipster movement, icon brands, investment and age worthiness, not yet proven in many of the more recent South African producers.
Having taken that first dip into a new producer or wine, what persuades one to become a loyal customer? Apart from continuity of quality, it can be as simple as liking the wine, supporting the smaller guys, monitoring maturation – I find it fascinating how Newton-Johnson’s pinot has developed from vintage to vintage as the vines age, as well as how more recent vintages are ageing better than earlier ones. On the other hand, two of my other annual buys, Vergelegen GVB (sauvignon-semillon) and Beaumont Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc from more mature vines, become more interesting with age.
Loyalty remains only so long as …… When quality drops, cost: quality ratio makes the wines too pricey, especially when there are many other equally good ones around; a bad experience at the winery, tastes change, one forgets about the producer’s existence – all fair reasons to stop buying.
Do producers have any excuse to be forgotten in this social media age? Far too few manage it to their best advantage but people still like the personal interaction with winemakers and those beyond the grape curtain believe winemakers could show themselves more often. At the coal face in the tasting room, there’s always room for improvement; staff need to remember they are the face of the brand. A personal memory-jogger was the set release date. Come 1st September, there used to be a rush to Thelema where the latest vintage of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet went on sale and it wasn’t long before the sold-out signs went up. The only winery I can think of where this continuity remains is Kanonkop, where Paul Sauer is available from 1st July.
As winelovers, the wine world is our oyster; loyalty obviously means something to me and my fellow enthusiasts, but winemakers shouldn’t take it for granted and need to think broadly and with imagination beyond quality to retain our custom.