Dani and Alan Pick

A mixed case at the 2011 Cape Winemakers Guild Auction
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This year's CWG auction held at Spier on the 1st October proved two things. Firstly, that the economic downturn has hardly pierced the wallet of the wine buyer, and secondly, that the generous spirit that pervades the wine world is still alive and kicking.

The charitable side of the auction saw an 18 litre bottle (yes, 24 'normal' bottles) comprising a blend chosen by Guild winemakers, achieve R25,000. Its buyer, who also purchased the previous two years charity auction items, then asked that it remain in Stellenbosch - 'the home of fine wine' - to be opened and enjoyed when the charity's first protégé (the charity nurtures young winemakers as part of an upliftment programme) becomes the first to achieve membership of the Guild.

On a similar generous note, the various wines and events offered by members received bids often way in advance of their 'paper' value and added some R132,600 to the scheme's coffers. Which is only right and proper.

The Guild's Development trust, set up in partnership with Nedbank, has now seen the fruit of one of its aims, to support deserving young winemakers who otherwise might not get the opportunity, through their education and training and into the real world. Already the scheme has produced Howard Booysen, articulate and passionate about wine and now producing wine under his own label. In addition, funds go to supporting two schools and few could argue the grass roots application of the Guild's efforts. This is a real and effective upliftment programme and Gary Jordan for one, is convinced of its value and good intention. The three charming students, overseeing the silent auction bids who are currently being supported, were in no doubt of its value.

So the charity side of the auction felt quietly reassuring. The main auction was less predictable. Auction wines are special batches, so there is no comparison with another product. Ataraxia's CWG Chardonnay, for example, is not their normal Chardonnay, so prices can be misleading to the uninformed buyer. These are special wines, created to showcase the winemaker's art. But it goes beyond this. Rianie Strydom of Haskell Vineyards sees them as important PR tools, showing the world what South Africa can do. She hopes a united industry, including the press, can get behind them and celebrate the quality that South Africa is producing.

"It's definitely not a moneymaking exercise", agrees Peter Finlayson, "lots of producers don't make great money here, just think of the special labelling, packaging and extra time and effort". Peter was bemused to see his 2009 Pinot Noir make less than last year by R110 a bottle (average), but remained 'very happy'. A feeling shared, perhaps, by guild Chairman Louis Strydom whose 2009 Ernie Els CWG red achieved less than last year as did Etienne le Riche's 2008 Auction Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Etienne was hoping for R2500 a case (average, for 6 bottles) and achieved R2393, so the disappointment was minor. Overall, the average price per case was up on 2010, from R1,683 to R1,788, but still not as high as 2007, 2008 or the R2,289 in 2009. Perhaps the only sign of a damaged world economy.

Bulk buying discounts were very obvious in the prices achieved. As in retail generally, it paid to 'go big'. Buying the sole ten case lot of Luddite The Chosen One 2008 would have cost you R14,000; or R233 a bottle, buying a two case lot would cost R5200, or R433 a bottle, a premium of 85%. Even bagging the top achieving Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2009 in its six case lot at R666 a bottle would have saved you 50% on buying the two case lots at R1000 a bottle. Those who can bid R31,000 (R35,650 with VAT, insurance and delivery) for the 10 case lot of Kanonkop CWG Paul Sauer 2008, will often win the day.

Some caveats, then, but the rest of the action was stellar. Records were set for the highest price paid for 6 bottles (R6000 for the Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Auction Reserve 2009) and the total amount spent (R5.28m) and number of cases sold rose by 28%.

A side to the auction that is harder to quantify is its role in establishing South African wines on the international stage and as investment propositions. The auction is open to private buyers and collectors and their numbers were steadily rising. In 2009, 71 of the audience were private buyers, in 2010, 76 were. This year there were 69 private bidders. Fewer, yes, but just as keen.

Some of the bidders are regular attendees. I spoke to one family who have been buying wine here 'for special occasions and as gifts for friends' for more than twenty years. "These are definitely investment wines, with long futures ahead of them," said Waterford's Kevin Arnold. A point increasingly being picked up by overseas retailers. This year, some R1.5m (30% of the total) was spent by 19 international buyers and will see CWG wines on (limited) shelves rubbing shoulders with the best of the rest of the world. The auction is providing an essential opportunity for top end South African wines to show what can be achieved and should continue to chip away at the image of exported South African wine as being of poor quality. Small steps, but in the right direction.

Several winemakers echoed the hope that gradually the numbers of private buyers will increase and that CWG wines will be driving the establishment of icon wines at home and abroad. These wines could form the basis of an investment market, traded as assets as part of the R21bn already being spent on trading wine worldwide. Asian buyers have yet to make a mark at the CWG auctions, but it can only be a matter of time before they take notice of the quality, prestige - and collectability - of these wines. When they do, the CWG auction could change forever. Very nice and well deserved by the Guild winemakers, but bad news for the local private buyer. A shame really, the CWG auction offers anyone the opportunity to purchase special wine and has an unstuffy 'local is lekker' feel to it despite its international intentions.

www.capewinemakersguild.com



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