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Cape Town - The South African wine industry must embrace digital platforms as well as look to Portugal for a road map to success in the US.

This was the message from New York wine importer Cape Classics at a gathering of the South African wine industry hosted at Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch, recently.

Cape Classics represents 33 wineries throughout South Africa and France.

Rob Bradshaw, Cape Classics president and chief operating officer, speaking to some of South Africa’s leading wine producers at the 15th annual “state of the industry” address, said the ever-growing trend was to use mobile phone apps to buy food and alcohol.

He said this new digitally fuelled economy was disrupting traditional retail models in the US.

“It is the changing face of retail, using an app on my phone to have goods delivered to my home. People are not going anywhere anymore. They are having everything brought to them. Uber Eats brings you your dinner and Drizly brings the wine,” said Bradshaw.

He said the use of digital platforms like Uber Eats, Blue Apron, Amazon Prime Fresh and Drizly was putting independent wine shops under threat and many restaurants were going out of business or turning into commercial kitchens which make food for delivery only.

“The restaurant industry is heading for mass closures. Studies show the US has 40-50% too many restaurants. This is a risk to us, because restaurants traditionally do lots of wine business.

“Independent wine stores, which were more likely to stock our wines, are also in trouble. The landscape is changing. Wine is being sold direct to the consumer via a screen, no longer being hand sold.”

Bradshaw said the scenario was chaotic, but represented a huge opportunity for South African wine, as it got the decision-blockers out of the way.

“The barriers between you and the end consumer are disappearing. Which is why Cape Classics is investing significant marketing money into digital retail platforms. We have to be there. To ensure the brands we represent in the US are ahead of the curve,” he said.

Bradshaw added that it was critically important that South African wine producers were alive on their digital platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook or their own app.

“This is how to make noise, and remember this new digital age is all about hieroglyphics, not words. So get onto Instagram as you South African winemakers live in photographic utopia.”

He said despite the technological upheaval rocking the industry, the past year had seen an 8% increase in South African wine sales in the US and in terms of the number of 90 plus point scores from respected wine media, the scenario has never looked better on paper.

“But our main focus, the consumer, still doesn’t know who we are. Sommeliers, media and wine buyers are not the challenge. We’ve got to educate and inspire the consumer.”

Bradshaw said to appeal to consumers, Cape Classics had revolutionised the way it marketed South African wine and it was now all about experiences rather than formal portfolio tastings at hotels, restaurants or trade shows.

These include hosting a hearty South African-style braai in New York at Citi Field baseball stadium.

“This was experimental, fun and memorable, a wine portfolio show masquerading as a party.”

Bradshaw added that with the backing of the EU and its national airline TAP, Portugal threw money at a campaign with a cohesive message saying Portugal was cool and by highlighting everything from their beaches to their chefs and wines, they went from a very small base to two million cases a year.

He said the wine industry was a big employer and tourist attraction, as well as a significant contributor to the country’s gross domestic product, so the South African government needed to step up and back a co-ordinated plan, drawing on the combined strengths of the wine, tourism and the country’s exceptional food culture.

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