Buying blind

Wine sales in South Africa are booming. A very strange statement given alcohol sales are banned under Level 4 of the Disaster Management Act. Yet it’s true; consumers are buying and paying for an extraordinary amount of wine online – with delivery to be made once the ban is lifted, anticipated at Level 3. Imagine the task force of delivery vans then!

What led me to find out more about these unprecedented wine sales was my own purchases, both for wines I haven’t yet tasted. Chris and Suzaan Alheit’s Wine Dark Sea is a totally new wine, red but apart from that I can’t remember anything else. It was offered to long-time buyers, who obviously snapped it up, as the Alheit’s soon sent out the ‘Sold Out’ notice. As I enjoyed their cinsaut under the now-discontinued Flotsam & Jetsam label, I had no hesitation in buying six bottles of WDS, described, if I remember correctly, as ready for drinking.

Subsequently, I’ve purchased a few bottles of Lukas van Loggerenberg’s Breton (cabernet franc) and Graft (syrah), both 2019. These needed no second thoughts; I’ve bought earlier vintages and know Lukas isn’t about to make a wild swing in style; any differences will be due to vintage.

How gratifying it is to know there are an increasing number of producers whose style shows sufficient maturity that it makes tasting before buying unnecessary.

Van Loggerenberg, as well as Mick and Janine Craven Craven’s Wines and Bernhard Bredell’s Scions of Sinai range all fall under David & Jeanette Clarke’s Ex Animo Company portfolio. Prior to lockdown, David Clarke had delivered samples of the latest vintages to Winemag’s Christian Eedes, who has since tasted and reviewed them on that website. This has no doubt encouraged sales, which are now available directly from the Clarkes. It’s worth noticing their portfolio is packed with top and sexy, New Wave producers, many of whose wines are on allocation.

In the normal run of things, Ex Animo’s business is mainly with the on-trade, restaurants with appeal to the international tourist trade in particular, but the huge downturn of business even two weeks before lockdown required some quick thinking. It’s none too certain when restaurants will re-open and whether some will if only the number of people permitted at any one time would be economically viable. Although there’s been a great response to the new, direct sales they haven’t entirely made up for the restaurant loss. The good news is that once lockdown is lifted and every business that is able is back trading, the local market will receive much of Ex Animo’s attention and direct sales will continue.

I’d earlier picked up Wine Cellar’s Roland Peens’ enthusiastic comments on the excellent trade they were doing, so sought his thoughts on the situation.

He does confirm online sales are up 250% since lockdown and a record month in April; add those the further record orders that Peens anticipates after the alcohol ban is lifted and ‘It all means deliveries post lockdown are going to be enormous!’ I guess that applies to everyone who’s been selling online; judging by the number of emails and social media posts, that is widespread, usually with discounts offered. Peens admits there are areas where Wine Cellar’s revenue is down, as the business isn’t 100% online.

In addition to record sales, Peens says they’ve gained a large number of new customers; many of these are buying six or 12 bottles of different, moderately priced wines. Traditionally, Wine Cellar’s customers buy high-end wine for long-term cellaring; in the past this would have included a good number of imports but due to the Rand’s crash, South African wines offer increasingly good value. Customers have been quick to pick up on this; big numbers such as Boschkloof Epilogue have sold out more quickly than usual.

Peens reckons one consequence of the lockdown is that customers spend longer logged in with more time to read, buy wine and bid on auctions. He noted that the last Strauss & Co auction, featuring local and Bordeaux blends, attracted excellent prices, something he also puts down to a refined model of said auction.

Of necessity, e-commerce has become hugely popular, something that I’m sure will endure post Covid-19. Having had a taste of buying online, consumers will have greater confidence in making future online purchases.

Now it’s up to wineries, retailers and others with direct sales to make their websites consumer-friendly, attractive and, above all, up-to-date if they wish to extend the benefits they’re currently enjoying.

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