Malcolm Jolley corresponds with South Africa wine legend Bruce Jack…
I have been fortunate to travel to South Africa, fall in love with its land, people and wine, and have been a big fan of South African wines ever since. But one South African wine industry figure has eluded attention from GFR so far, somehow. That’s Bruce Jack, who is part of the contingent of vignerons traveling to Toronto on October 15 for the Sustainable South Africa wine show. As much as I look forward to meeting him in person at the show, I thought I’d jump the gun and ask him a few questions first. Through the good people of Wines of South Africa, I secured Mr. Jack’s email address and sent him a few questions, hoping for a line or two of response. Instead, as you can see below, I got a lot more than I bargained for (a bit like South African wines in general), and I’m pleased to share his insight into the wine world in general and the South African wine world specifically in this post.
This interview has been edited for style…
Good Food Revolution: What are you bringing to Toronto with you and what are you pouring on October 15?
Bruce Jack: We’ll have eight wines:
- The Drift Estate “Over the Moon” Ancient red blend 2018;
- The Drift Estate “Moveable Feast” Estate Red 2015;
- Bruce Jack Heritage “Boer Maak n Plan” 2018 – single vineyard, registered old vine vineyard from Rawsonville;
- Bruce Jack Heritage “Heartbreak Grape” 2013 – single vineyard, low sulphur, mountain fruit;
- Bonfire Hill White;
- Bonfire Hill Red Blend;
- Bruce Jack Lifestyle Sauvignon Blanc; and
- Bruce Jack Lifestyle Pinotage & Malbec.
Good Food Revolution: You’re known for many wine projects going at any given time. What are you excited about right now?
Bruce Jack: Right now? I am excited by the world of wine – wow, its so dynamic and so endlessly fascinating. I don’t think things have ever been changing so quickly or so dramatically; well maybe not since that wedding at Cana or the phylloxera scourge!
I have four main winemaking projects on the go:
- My super premium estate (called The Drift Estate) in the Overberg Highlands of South Africa
- The global Bruce Jack Wines brand, which is one of the fastest growing brands in South Africa (and we are about to launch from Chile as well);
- An organic winemaking project in Spain (mostly from Terra Alta) called La Bascula, made with Ed Adams MW; and
- A new wine consultancy business called Bruce Jack Wine Services.
This all means I get around and meet lots of our wine tribe. What’s so fascinating is not so much that change is afoot, but how the consumer is changing the world of wine. Social media has obviously had a lot to do with this and it is freeing the wine industry in many ways.
Younger drinkers are drinking less and better. They are demanding to know how sustainable a brand is, what the brand stands for and the authenticity of the wine and the brand’s communication – this is so cool, because it’s exactly what I believe in and what I’ve been preaching since I began – 30 years ago.
As a result, we may see some (not all) of the big, commercial brands loose ground, because they can’t easily offer all these things. Its really tough running a wine business in this transparent, sustainable way when you have to report quarterly and always show a profit – that’s basically impossible, even with supreme distribution.
But some big family players manage to be profitable, produce consistently amazing wines and stand for something, like Concha y Toro, Spier and Torres for example – there are some inspirational, generational businesses still kicking butt out there. It’s good to see.
The wine world is starting to tear apart between the luxury offerings like 1st Growth Bordeaux and those producers who can offer innovation, accessibility, a reason to believe and incredible value.
There are a gazillion players in-between who are suffering and struggling to make ends meet unfortunately – a lot of small and medium-sized family businesses that are finding it really tough, because of usual market forces – over supply of brands mostly.
You just need to spend a day at the world’s largest wine show (Prowein in Germany) to see how bad it is – you can smell the desperation. But therein lies other opportunities – especially for produces who stand for something that resonates with today’s consumers. All they have to do then is find alternative strategies to make themselves heard and noticed – and of course get some level of meaningful distribution…
I am afraid at the very top luxury end of the wine business, value-for-money is less and less evident to consumers. Those wines now have to play by the rules of fashion, not value, which can’t be sustainable for much longer. Obscene pricing and marketing bling won’t be all that relevant as the world’s consciousness awakes to greed-driven climate change and unchecked, unregulated and unsympathetic capitalism. Where is the deep meaning in that? This goes beyond wine, of course, but as consumers become more sophisticated and think deeper about what and how they consume (a trend very much in evidence in younger consumers), brands built merely on fashion will have less relevance. Similarly, most thoughtful producers want customers to buy their wine so they can show off how canny they are, not how rich they are.
Another development that excites me is the change in packaging formats. I love the growth in wines-in-a-can. This is being driven by environmental concerns (a radically lower carbon footprint and fully recyclable), but also smaller serving sizes and of course, convenience over snobbery – what’s not to love!
Good Food Revolution: While we’re talking about the environment, the theme of the October 15th show seems to be “sustainable”. What does that word mean to you?
Bruce Jack: I am really not worried about the planet. That’s a misnomer. The planet will survive, but the important take-home message is that we won’t. The planet is just going to kick us off – extinction is a real probability. The self-destructive trajectory we are on as a species is so telling – we’ve forgotten that collaboration, generosity and empathy will save us and greed and ego will destroy us.
Sustainability in wine isn’t only about crucial things like a carbon-neutral mindset, its about standing up to the short-term, greed-driven people leading our species off a cliff. It’s about emphatically and fearlessly stating that we won’t be lemmings and we are going to do business differently. Only the idiots will be left slavishly following a destructive model that clearly isn’t working. Somewhere a revolution is brewing, and my bet is, it’s with the new consumer and the power they bring.
What’s great is that it’s so much easier now to follow a sustainable, generational business model and pay the bills, because the new consumer is listening and looking out for businesses and products that stand for (and live up to) what’s right and good for them.
Good Food Revolution: I asked Steven Campbell from your Canadian agent, Lifford, today what I should ask you in this interview, and he said I should ask you for your “vision of the South African wine industry’. What is it?
Bruce Jack: The South African wine industry is in tremendous flux. We have been poor at growing large brands that can drive the country of origin on a global scale ever since Mandela was released. This makes it very tough to build a segment that often falters from the consumer decision-making process, which, after “price?” goes to “what country shall I go for?”
So, if South Africa isn’t front of mind, for whatever reason, consumers often shop other countries first. This isn’t such a bad problem in Canada, because Canadians are generally well educated and open-minded. In many other important wine-consuming countries, it’s a huge challenge.
On the positive side, our wines are wonderful and offer breath-taking value for money – consistently. Once a consumer stumbles across our wines and is able to recognise the value they love supporting wine from South Africa – there is so much to discover, but simultaneously, it isn’t overwhelming.
On the ground, farmers have also suffered from a lack of big, strong South African-owned brands, and too much wine is sold in bulk and into anonymous labels that have no provenance, no authenticity and don’t stand for anything. These labels buy what’s cheap and will often fill from wherever the wine is cheapest. There is no loyalty for the farmer in this model. This results in a boom and bust cycle for growers, always sliding down the slope and making less and less money as time marches on. So, growers are pulling up vineyards and planting other cash crops like citrus and vegetables.
The solution is threefold I believe – firstly, the small, quality obsessed producers (of whom there are hundreds) have to continue to get out there and sell their wines and build their businesses where consumers are open-minded and prepared to pay a bit extra for amazing quality. They mustn’t play the price game. They must stick to their guns and charge what is fair and what offers a realistic, survivable return on investment.
Secondly, there have to be a few big, authentic, South African-owned brands that build the category. The small guys need to see the benefit of these brands and support them, not knock them. They need to realise that with a higher-profile category, their higher-priced wines like theirs will sell more easily.
Thirdly, the South African government must wake up and start supporting the South African wine industry properly. Other than some support from the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), focused support from the SA government is generally pathetic.
While it doesn’t help that many in government are on the incompetent side, it also isn’t rocket science to have a look at the GDP and jobs the wine industry is responsible for, and to see this is a gem.
By supporting the industry, the whole country benefits exponentially. It really is time someone in government woke up. Our research and development organisations (universities and VINPRO) require much more funding and support. Our marketing organisations like WOSA need a budget 20 times the size to have real impact. Grow the marketing, grow the industry, grow jobs, grow GDP. As I said, it isn’t rocket science. And finally, government must sort out their story with regards to tourism. We have done a great job at putting people off visiting South Africa over the last 5 years. Visa regulations are ridiculous and stifle tourism for example, and this is such a simple thing to fix. As soon as people visit this amazing country and taste our wines, they become fans for life.
So, my wish, rather than a vision, is that the above three things happen.
Bruce Jack will appear at the October 15 Wines of South Africa trade and consumer tastings ‘Sustainable South Africa’ in Toronto, October 15th, at the Steam Whistle Brewery. Click here for more information.