Cape Classics win over US wine lovers

11 October 2010

When Andre Shearer founded Cape Classics in New York in 1992, the American wine market was regarded as too tough for South African exporters to crack. Today, his company is the biggest US importer of high-end South African wines, representing 21 of the Cape’s finest estates and labels.

On arriving in New York in June 1991, Shearer arranged the first tasting of South African wines in the United States – barely three weeks after then-president George Bush lifted sanctions on a South Africa just emerging from apartheid.

South Africa in the Washington Post Today, Cape Classics distributes in 49 states in the US, with partners including the Darden Restaurant Group (Seasons 52, Capital Grille and Red Lobster), Uno Chicago Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Walt Disney World, Trader Joe’s, COSTCO and Whole Foods Market.

Ken Forrester Vineyards, internationally recognized as one of South Africa’s top producers and one of the most visible South African wine brands in the US market, appointed Cape Classics as its sole US importer as of 1 October 2010.

With this addition to its portfolio, more than one-third of all bottled wine from South Africa available in the US will bear the Cape Classics seal.

Unofficial ambassador

Dividing his time between Cape Town and Katonah, New York, Shearer has for years acted as an unofficial ambassador for the country of his birth, showcasing South Africa as an investment destination through wine-tasting dinners at top New York restaurants in collaboration with US fund managers.

Claire Bisseker, in a Financial Mail interview, writes of his dinners: “For each course, Shearer gets the guests (most of whom have never set foot in South Africa) to blind-taste an SA wine against other well-known international brands.

“‘At the end of the evening,’ says Shearer, ‘even if they prefer only three of the South African wines out of five, or if the SA wines fared close, the message is that a country couldn’t produce wines like this if it didn’t have First World attributes.'”

His message appears to be getting across. Over half-a-million cases of South African wine entered the US in the first seven months of this year, according to the US International Trade Commission. South Africa now ranks eighth as source of US red imports, and 10th as a source of whites.

Along the way, Cape Classics and its labels have been featured in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Departures Magazine, The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator, and the company was named best wine importer at Food & Wine Magazine’s 2001 American Wine Awards.

Indaba Scholarship, Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz

And Shearer is intent on helping to develop the South African industry in other ways, too. In January 2010, Stellenbosch University student Arlene Mains became the eighth recipient of Cape Classics’ Indaba Scholarship, which is open to aspirant winemakers, marketers and viticulturists from communities historically excluded from senior positions in South Africa’s wine industry.

Mzokhona Mvemve, the first recipient of the scholarship, became one of South Africa’s first qualified black African winemakers after graduating from Stellenbosch University in 2003.

Besides self-belief and perseverance, innovation is one of the typical South African qualities that Shearer has brought to Cape Classics. In 2009, the company launched Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz, a unique semi-sweet red wine made from grapes grown in South Africa’s Paarl region, nationally in the US.

Unapologetically accessible and populist, Jam Jar’s distinctive recipe and evocative packaging – featuring a red-and-white checkered screwcap inspired by traditional jam jar lids – has been a hit, to the point where people have been ordering the wine untasted, based on the name, packaging and style description alone.

Through such initiatives, and an expanding, award-winning portfolio, Cape Classics continues to contribute to South Africa’s emergence as a wine-producing nation worth toasting.

This article was first published in South Africa Now, a six-page supplement to the Washington Post produced on behalf of Brand South Africa. Download South Africa Now (PDF, 2.12 MB).