Out of the frying pan, and onto the screen: SA Wine’s digital revolution in the face of a global pandemic

by | Jan 11, 2021 | Article

This is the winning essay that earned Kristen Duff the Veritas Young Wine Writer of the Year 2020 award. Kristen heads up online communication for Publik Wine and its subsidiary CyberCellar.

I’m typing with my laptop balanced precariously atop the microwave in my small Sea Point kitchen, while I attempt to coax the aromas from a pan of sizzling onion and garlic. Alas, no dice. I’m recovering from Covid-19 and still suffering one of the virus’ tell-tale symptoms: a total loss of smell and taste. Despite my dismay at the shutdown of my olfactory system, I can’t help but see the allegory here: as a wine industry, Covid has been a thief of the very things that bring both seasoning and sustenance to our collective lives.

Like a sumptuous Cape Malay curry, the SA wine industry is a unique fusion of local elements that form a richly diverse food and wine scene. This melting pot was gravely threatened when our nation was plunged into an extended lockdown and alcohol ban. While the fallout has been dire for many, a number of forward-thinkers have demonstrated that the industry has plenty of kick left. As the Afrikaans proverb goes: ’n Boer maak ’n plan. And boy, did our farmers (and winemakers, and sommeliers) make a plan in 2020.

Looking (a)live

I slid into WOSA CEO Siobhan Thompson’s Instagram DMs to get her take on the biggest innovations this year on the international scene. “I think what’s been quite interesting to watch unfold is the growth of the combination of online and live events”, Siobhan mused over a voice note exchange, citing two particularly successful examples: a South African wine tasting live streamed by prominent Swedish MW Madeleine Stenwreth, as well as the heavily digitised 2020 WOSA Roadshow in China. “Online’s always been around, but it’s been a lot stronger this year due to necessity. But there’s also been a rollout of what I call the live vs. online concept, which has led to far greater reach around the world and a lot more interest and buy-in for South African wine.”

A friend in need

Closer to home, Alex Dale, founder and MD of Radford Dale, spearheaded what ultimately became one of the most impactful wine industry movements of 2020. When the hard lockdown hit, restaurateurs like Grub & Vine’s Chef Matt Manning, a close friend of Alex, found themselves in dire straits. “I know how it feels to be in that position,” Alex told me over a Zoom call from his Somerset West home. “My idea was an imperfect one, but it was the notion that I could save one Cape Town restaurant. And if that worked, I could convince other wineries to save one restaurant at a time.”

Realising that he was sitting on a valuable (liquid) resource, Alex pledged half a million Rand’s worth of premium wine to be given free (for delivery after the ban) to customers who purchased Grub & Vine restaurant vouchers. Through the strategic use of digital channels, the Restaurant Rescue Project went viral, raising over R300 000 in a matter of days. This resulted not only in Grub & Vine keeping its doors open, but allowed it to be in a position to open a new wine bar in the vacant space opposite a mere three months later, as well as inspiring other wineries to rescue 19 local restaurants in total.

Bringing it home

As the driver of the #SaveSAWine campaign which has generated over 600 000 impressions and 35 000 engagements, Erica Taylor knows a thing or two about running an effective digital campaign. When asked what had struck her as particularly innovative this year, her response brimmed with enthusiasm: “I love the small tasting kits [championed locally by Creation Wines and purchasable online] so people can do tastings from the comfort of their home. While I will always love an in-person tasting, this option has the potential to reach people all over the nation, and eventually internationally!”

Covid-19 may have threatened to rob the SA wine industry of its zest, but the innovative uptake of online tools shows that its dynamism and (now virtually borderless) spirit of ubuntu will not be smothered. Like my olfactory system, the industry will gradually regenerate – and what a sensation it’s going to be.

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