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The ĎParkerisationí of South African wine—is it imminent?

Greg Sherwood
January 2002

If I had to try to characterise sales trends in fine wine from the new world in 2001, it would be hard not to focus on the 'Parker Effect'. The influence that Robert Parkerís scores have on fine wine prices from around the world are well known. Scores of magazine articles have documented and highlighted the trend over the years. What does fascinate me however, is how slow Parker's publication The Wine Advocate has been to latch onto the top offerings from South Africa. Only occasionally has he tasted the wines, with just one or two garnering coveted 90+ point scores. But to my knowledge, no large and comprehensive tasting of all the top wines has been carried out recently in the way Mr Parker has just done with boutique Australian offerings (Wine Advocate issue #135).

Admittedly, a number of factors have to be in place before such a large feat is undertaken by anyone. The availability of certain wines is always crucial to proceed, but if they really wanted to get hold of any rare and fine offerings, I am sure most if not all producers would oblige with several samples, on the chance of receiving a 95+ score and forever more being touted as a 'must have' boutique wine with eternal stardom in the international world of fine wine. But either there are not enough top offerings to merit such a tasting (which I canít believe), or American market forces have not shown enough interest. But who leads who? Does Parker rate wines the market wants to drink, or does the market buy the wines Parker rates?

The American market has always had a strong interest in Californian reds, top Bordeaux and super-Tuscan offerings, and as such, every other issue of the Advocate or Wine Spectator is filled with the latest releases from Napa etc., France and Italy. But who was, or is, responsible for the growing interest in wines from Australia, for example? Is it an independent demand from the market or has it been led by US wine merchants/importers who can no longer get sufficient allocations of Californian cult wines to sell commercially? Is it a coincidence that Australian wines fit comfortably into the big, rich, overblown flavour and style spectrum that Mr Parker is unashamedly partial to? I donít know. Maybe I am just not giving the Australian wine promotion agencies enough credit. The USA is a pretty lucrative market after all.

While no great trail-blazing fame has been accorded to South African wines apart from Rust en Vredeís 1996 Estate Red Blend (92/100) and Rustenburgís single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, the Peter Barlow (92/100), there is a growing array of super classy wines being produced (and exported), especially over the past 3 years. But this does beckon the questionÖ.does the South African wine industry necessarily want to become 'Parkerised'? Itís not a straightforward, 'Yes of course' answer either. The long term future of South African fine wine sales would probably be better served if they established committed market following without the help of Parker points. On the other hand, there is nothing quite like the feeding frenzy that occurs when a commercially available wine cracks the 95 point mark. It can do wonders for a wineryís much needed cash flow and international credibility provided they manage their new found fame strategically as well as modestly.

Working as marketing manager for a fine wine merchant in London, I have seen first-hand the impact Parker points can have. No sooner has a blockbuster score been published and you get e-mail after e-mail of enquiries from primarily US buyers enquiring whether we stock and can ship the relevant wine to the USA. Thereís just nothing like building up that 95+ Parker point cellar! Hmmmm. Maybe not.

Ironically, though, itís the consumer that loses out in the long run as that £10.99 or £15.99 bottle of wine rapidly becomes a £20+ bottle of wine, if for no other reason than to stop other wine merchants ('cherry pickers' as we call them in the trade), buying up retail stock in order to sell it on to deep-pocketed Parker point sheep. And thatís only the beginning of the fun. All eyes are then fixed on the next vintage release from that winery and the inevitable price increases that usually follow, often unjustifiably in my opinion. One good Parker score should not necessarily be a free ticket for wineries to manipulate the consumers that have effectively made them famous, or equally, for wine merchants to use as the written law regarding whatís worth buying and selling! Remember, there are hundreds of superb wines from all over the world that do not necessarily have a corresponding 100 point rating, perhaps for the sole reason that they have never been tasted by Mr Parker, a single individual. Or as Hugo Rose MW put it so concisely, 'I believe we are entering a dangerous world, where the score is paramount and the concept of expertise is defined as the speed with which one can open a copy of the Wine Advocate.'

For South African wines, the end of apartheid heralded a flood of exports to the US as a 'reward' for coming to the political party so to speak. However, like all highly competitive industries, only the fittest survive, and the number of SA wines now exported to the US has dropped off quite markedly precisely at a time when quality has never been higher. Perhaps exciting ventures like 'Africa Disney' in the USA, where only South African wines are served at the grand tourist hotels, will act as a little match to re-ignite some of the lost interest. But realistically, I suspect that that can only be done with a lot of hard work, by wine merchants who are convinced that the wineís quality (and price) is beyond question and represents an opportunistic gap in the wine mass market. Or perhaps Sophie Wagget of Wines Of South Africa should invite Mr Parker to their next National Day tasting and give him a separate day to himself to assess all the wines! Itís always worth a try.

From my experience to date, the pot is boiling merrily and itís only a matter of time before the top South African offerings become even more rare and more expensive. Stock your cellars now is my advice. Only just yesterday, Alex from Londonís Athenian Hotelís Concierge called us to order a case of Veenwouden Classic for West End (The Graduate) and TV star (Dallas), Linda Gray! No Parker points involved there, just a good reputation Iím sure!

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