Prohibition is over – where are the bubbles?! On second thought, this is not entirely the right question just yet. The Covid-19 pandemic stripped the South African wine industry to the bone, and as much as it irks me to say this, the romanticism of wine was hit with a heavy dose of realism. It altered life as we know it, and that was even before the alcohol ban bared its ugly teeth. Looking back, this year will go down as a year marked by a sense of loss. Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention and times of crisis bring drastic change, forcing the established to evolve. Given these circumstances, Who do I have to be to get a glass of bubbles? might well be the sounder question.
The ravages of the ban felt like a short, but a highly significant, slow-motion sequence of unfortunate events, which created a note of melancholy and a feeling of hopelessness that is hard to understand just yet. Jobs, homes, relationships, lifestyles and lives were all lost. Businesses closed down, ventures that were planned never even took off. The wine industry is by no means in a unique position, and I believe that through this immense loss, something greater will come in its place. That as we sacrifice or let go of certain ideas that we have of how the wine world should work – our “angel’s share”, perhaps – we might gain so much more. Sometimes the vastest progress we make is forced upon us.
To look ahead at this time might feel like navel-gazing as we subject ourselves to nothing but frustrated speculation, but when we’re all enduring a common crisis as we have just done with the alcohol ban, the problem to be solved is pretty well-defined. We are at the pivotal moment where we can look back at what we lost, and forward at how we want to rebuild. It is going to get tough(er), and creative planning and execution will leverage the industry against any (more!) economic blows that will follow over the next few years.
If we ever wondered how to solve fragmentation, we do now – collaborations and community will and should be one of the building blocks going forward. Wine brands and regions should think beyond themselves and be leaders in many ways. One way is by doing more – providing practical help to solve problems and look to do more than just selling. Marketing should also be thoughtful and ongoing, as we underestimate the reach and influence brands have, especially with products that are slotted into the ‘lifestyle’ sector. According to Forbes and MediaPost, 43% of (American) millennials think brands play an important role at this time and show a desire for them to step up their support. One in four feel they can be as impactful as the government. One in three say brands should even communicate more than usual; half say the current context needs to be addressed in communications, and 83% want brand initiatives that help now, not later. Keeping the marketing budget, and an eye for responsible and progressive social change is crucial if a wine brand is to survive in South Africa now.
We can merely guess at what the knock-on effect will be of the alcohol ban, Covid-19 and the looming recession, or when we will see the end of the pandemic. This is a time of extensive change and serves an incredible opportunity for the industry to reconstruct ourselves. One of the most beautiful things about South African winemakers and wine professionals is the stubborn resolve to succeed – we are an industry of doers, not talkers. By the end of the year, I am hopeful that we will have small, yet significant success. Now is the time to be resolute and blend the best of what we have to build better prospects for ourselves and everyone who adds to the success of our brands. We have no one but ourselves to rely on, after all.
Catea Sinclair is a freelance writer and runner-up in the Veritas Young Wine Writer competition of 2016 & 2018. In her free time, she enjoys trail running and spending time with her loved ones.