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1. Many importers select wines by trusting their palate, their wine knowledge, understanding their market and using general business sense. Why is it so important for a smaller importer to visit the places where they source their wines?
It distinguishes us from the big guys. When my partner (and husband) Ian and I got into the business we were surprised by how open producers were to working with us. Producers who were renowned in South Africa and abroad, why on earth would they put their wines in our hands? We were new to the industry, we had no track record and no experience to speak of. Yet over and over we heard that they didn’t want their wines sitting in a huge portfolio, getting no love, no attention, and no hand selling. That was no problem for us. We had no book at the time.
It also makes us more valuable as importers. Our wholesalers have not been to South Africa. They’ve got good wine knowledge, but they’ve never visited the farms, dug their hands in the soil, or drank with wines with local foods. On the other hand, we have an emotional connection to these wines, and to the people who make the wines. Same goes for retailers and restaurant workers. Yes, it’s our job to give them every tool possible to sell the wine, but we represent with the winery. Consumers want to talk to us, people we’ve been there, who’ve had lunch with the winemakers, toured the cellars, walked the vineyard and slobbered on by the family dog.
2. How exactly does all that help with sales?
It gives you a general excitement for the wine that you can genuinely convey. That builds consumer interest and loyalty
Wine drinkers, both professional and lay people, are romantic. They want a story. Where did this come from, who made it, what does the vineyard look like? Why does the wine taste the way it does? Knowing your producers well makes the salesperson’s job easy. You can share your experiences and stories with the winemakers, just give them a reason to point to one of your bottles over someone else's. Make them feel something about the wine because you feel something about the wine.
Social media has really helped with this. For the first time, consumers can reach you, the importer. e. Consumers can get a sense of where the wine comes from various resources. They can look at pictures of the vineyards, read about the wine region, local food, the winemakers, the wine history in the area, whatever you want to share. And with wine, it’s easy. Wine is an art. Wine country is beautiful. You’ve got a lot to work with. Get consumers interested in the wine, get them to seek it out and then earn their loyalty by telling, and showing, them all they want to know. Take them on the journey with you.
3. How has visiting South Africa helped you establish a relationship with your suppliers?
Well for one they know we are invested, both with time and money, but also with a desire to learn everything we can to help them and their businesses succeed. They also get to know us as people. So much of our interaction has to occur digitally which means those few hours of face to face time are invaluable. We all know that there are few signed contracts in this industry, so having a human connection is always a smart business move. Yes, sales are important, but what if you do such a great job promoting a brand that a larger, better funded, company gets interested? Why will your supplier stay with you?
The other side of this is more personal. We also now see our suppliers as partners and as the unique, complicated, wonderful people they are. We want to succeed not only for us but for them. As importers of South African wine, the US market can be a challenge. Some people here in States don’t “get” South Africa. That’s understandable because they haven’t been and just don’t know what’s out there. Our job is to show wine drinkers that these are world class wines that they should be drinking. They are missing out. You can bet that after having a “sundowner” with Danie Steytler or walking with vineyards with Kevin Grant that we are more motivated than ever. It’s not just our business. It’s our mission and our motivation. Consumers can see that. They respond to it.
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