Kumala move will take strength

19 October, 2007

Bruce Jack has an MA in creative writing from Saint Andrews University, but even he would have struggled to invent anything as unlikely as the announcement that changed his life last week. Jack, one of the Cape wine scene's great independent spirits, sold his beloved Flagstone brand to Constellation, the world's biggest wine company, for a sizeable (if unspecified) sum.

If that piece of news was surprising, the postscript that accompanied it was a revelation. Jack has been put in charge of Kumala, South Africa's biggest, yet increasingly struggling, wine brand. In the past two years, Kumala has lost 850,000 cases of sales, dropping from sixth to 10th position in Nielsen's list of the UK's leading wine brands.

Kumala's decline has affected South Africa's overall position: the category shed 1.4 million cases in the same period. It has clung on to fifth position, ahead of Chile (7.1 million cases), but South African sales have dropped to 7.6 million cases.

A number of factors have contributed to Kumala's problems. The first was that its retail price went over £5 18 months ago, moving from £4.99 to £5.49 off promotion. The second was that the brand has been under new owners, Constellation, since September 2006 and is only now beginning to benefit from a sales, advertising and marketing push. The third, and arguably most important, is that most of the wines are mediocre at best, and sometimes much worse than that. How could it be otherwise when they were sourced as a finished product from one broker?

Why would Jack want to be associated with a brand in freefall? The answer is that he thinks he can save it. His first priority is to do something about the quality of , by "taking it back to the vineyard". Kumala will nurture its own team of growers and impose a "vineyard to bottle strategy to monitor quality" with the help of a yet-to-be-appointed viticultural consultant.

The contract with the single source broker has come to an end and Jack is now looking to buy a winery for Kumala. The sprawling range will be "refocused" to reflect what South Africa does best, rather than what happens to be sloshing around on the open market.

The most interesting aspect of Jack's vision is his commitment to "social and community upliftment". His aim is to make Kumala the world's leading ethical brand. "I almost feel I was born to do this," he says. "As a winemaker you seldom get the opportunity to make a difference. Constellation needs me and I need Constellation to achieve what I want to achieve for South Africa. It is very hard to be an entrepreneur and a social revolutionary in an industry that has very low margins. You need the skills of very good people that you just can't afford."

According to Jack, Constellation employs such people. He also says that the company is prepared to back his plans for the brand. "It's an enormous challenge to do this in a South African context and to prove to shareholders in New York that you need to develop brand equity in the long term to win the trust of consumers."

No wonder Jack is excited about his new job. (Fans of Flagstone will be relieved to hear that he will also continue as winemaker and will have a big say in how the brand is marketed.) Improving the quality of Kumala will be the comparatively easy bit. Persuading a multinational company to sustain a multi-million case ethical brand, in effect sacrificing part of its bottom line for a better cause, will test even Jack's considerable powers of persuasion.

Simplifying vine definitions is a welcome step but could go further

Old vines, vieilles vignes or viñas viejas: whatever winemakers choose to call them, it's high time someone came up with a legal definition of a venerable vineyard. In the absence of anything resembling an international consensus, it's good to see Yalumba establishing a few guidelines of its own in The Yalumba Old Vine Charter. From this year, the South Australian company will use the term "old vines" to describe wines made from vineyards that are at least 35 years old, "antique" for those that are at least 70 years old and "centenarian" (or more prosaically, "very old") for those 100 years old or more. The categories make sense to me, although why not simplify it further and say that anything over, say, 40 years old can call itself an "old vine" and forget about the other two categories, which over-complicate the picture?

Wouldn't it be great if other producers and appellation bodies adopted the 40-year plus definition? If it's true that old vines make more concentrated wines (and, generally, they do) the consumer needs a reliable international yardstick. While they're at it, they could also tighten up the following: Réserve, Réserve Personnelle, Single Vineyard, Special Cuvée, Vintner's Selection and Private Bin, none of which mean anything in legal terms.

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