US-SA wine partnership takes off

28 February 2007

The first ever wine-making joint venture between the United States and South Africa is under way, with the aim of increasing exports of local high-quality wines to America.

US Ambassador to South Africa Eric Bost officially opened the Vilafonte winery in Stellenbosch on Monday.

The venture, started with US investment, is the first local winery to focus on producing wines for the luxury market in the US. About 75% of Vilafonte’s produce is destined for this market.

Despite South African wines holding a relatively small volume share of total world production, the local industry is oversupplied. This, says Vilafonte director Mike Ratcliffe, is symptomatic of low investment levels in international market development.

Ratcliffe, who is also deputy chairman of the SA Wine Industry Trust, says South African vintners should not underestimate the significance of the US market. With only about one percent of the country’s current exports headed to the US, it represents a lot of untapped potential.

The European wine market, on the other hand – “where the mass volume discount culture seems to remain king” – is overtraded, reckons Ratcliffe.

The US market, he argues, is not only one of the biggest in the world, but also, as a market “placing the emphasis on quality wine instead of quantity”, one that offers successful exporters and high-end brands such as Vilafonte a good return.

Ratcliffe believes a greater marketing focus on the US, together with the support of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), should be sufficient to ensure increased SA wine exports to America.

Speaking at Monday’s event, Ambassador Bost announced the formation of a Washington DC-based trust, the US-SA Foundation, which will raise awareness of South African wine in the US through fundraising and promotion.

The trust will also see up to 20 black wine apprentices spending three months a year in Virginia and California, working on wine farms and attending viniculture and viticulture classes at various institutions.

It has raised R4-million to date, and Bost said he hoped the project would assist in “expanding the horizons of previously disadvantaged persons”. reporter

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