So you have an idea for a wine brand you’re convinced can stand out from what is already available? Having the inspiration is one thing, bringing it to market is quite another. Ross Sleet, a well known figure from the South African wine industry from his time with Constellation Europe, Distell, and Kleine Zalze, believes he has a brand, and a concept based on quality, blended wines. Here’s the first part of his story of bringing Rascallion Wines to life.
Rascallion Wines will be unveiled to UK buyers at this month’s London Wine Fair. Ross Sleet explains what you can expect to see.
I don’t have any history or background in wine but I grew up near wine farms in Cape Town, South Africa and my father was involved in a business unit at the bank he worked for, that financed wine businesses. I was thus was exposed to the commercial side of wine from my mid-teens, and then later came to enjoy drinking the odd bottle that he would bring back from meetings. So I guess there has always been a latent interest in the industry.
In 2002 I was provided with the opportunity to change careers and headed off to the Royal Agricultural College to do a wine MBA where my focus was on the commercial nature of the wine industry rather than the ‘romantic’ side. It struck me then, as it does today, that the product we enjoy so much is largely made hundreds or thousands of miles from its primary markets, is an organic and agricultural product therefore it begins to decay as soon as it’s bottled, is mostly sold in heavy, breakable containers that can’t be posted through a letterbox.
Yet every year there are thousands of new entrants into a market where there are upwards of 400,000 brands, or brand variants, worldwide. This fascination turned into an obsession with trying to crack the code of building a successful wine business.
My commercial focus led me to roles in large corporates such as Constellation Europe and Distell, however, I have also been lucky enough to work for the far more intimate, yet no less taxing commercially, Kleine Zalze, a family owned wine business in Stellenbosch.
Over the years my wife and I discussed ideas around what type of wine business we hoped to have, should the opportunity arise and we could find an investor willing to help us make this dream a reality. The consensus that we came up with was that we wanted to create a wine business that was commercially successful yet made great wine sold at a good price. Not by itself a ground breaking concept. But, this wine business needed to behave differently, it had to be daring and make great wine, whilst capturing consumer’s attention with engaging brand visuals and a strong brand voice.
It’s not a romantic story, other than being a culmination of many years of thought and observation of success stories from South Africa and around the world, but it does represent many years of wrestling with commercial realities before we got the investment formula right. And a lot of luck in finding investors who were brave enough to trust me with their hard earned cash!
Rascallion is a négociant wine business. We don’t own any vineyards and work with various winemakers to create wine blends that reflect the character of the regions where the wines originate. And we will only be creating wine blends as I believe that this provides us with the perfect platform from which to display a full range of wine expressions. Our focus will be on visually strong brands that reflect the wines that are crafted for Rascallion Wines. We will engage consumers in conversations that we will drive to assist our business partners to sell our products.
Social media and digital mediums are vital to our business success. My wife and I have strong backgrounds in these areas (together they run the Sleet Consultancy offering specialist advice for businesses on how to engage with their customers) so this should help us grow brand awareness.
The planning – highs and lows
Planning the commercial side of things took a long time, as my business partner, David Kretzmar and his family – also owners of Broad Valley Wines – quite correctly, forensically examined my business plan. This turned out to be a major plus, however, as it meant that we dissected the business into its individual constituent parts to make sure that we were doing the correct things at the right time, for the right costs. So this process went from a potential low to a very significant high and is a discipline that I hope we will maintain.
Production planning remains a huge challenge. I haven’t had much exposure over the years to this nuts and bolts side of the industry, so to be thrust into the heart of it dealing with bottle, cork, and other dry goods’ suppliers was daunting. Thankfully, and as I worked through the list of potential suppliers, those that we currently use and hope to continue to use in the future, have been selected from the multitude of options that initially presented themselves.
Sourcing wine was also a challenge that took a number of attempts before we settled on our launch range, Word Collection.
The best experience from the planning side however was how the small creative agency I engaged exploded with fantastically creative and visually stunning artwork, which I am delighted to know will be a showcase for our products worldwide.
Key markets and why
Our focus markets for the next 24 months are: the UK, the most significant market for us in terms of establishing reputation and commercial relevance; Germany, vital to reaching a significant wine drinking and wine literate populous; Sweden, where we hope to push the wine and design style boundaries; Hong Kong, for so many brands, this territory is a gateway to the East; and Japan where wine culture, lifestyle, and embracing the aesthetic combine. The US is also on our agenda, but this is a slower burn as it takes many months of discussions and travelling to the market before one is able to select the right partner.
We will also look to sow the brand into the domestic South African market, with a particular focus for Rascallion being Johannesburg and the surrounding areas.
We have sourced wine from Stellenbosch, Robertson, and the Swartland for our wines. Within the blends themselves are components of Chenin and Shiraz that go towards the final wine presentation, so it has been a journey to get to the finished product, which we hope the folk at London Wine Fair enjoy!
We are using fairly standard Burgundy style bottles, with two wines under screw cap and two bottled using DIAM closures. Our labels are single, two-thirds wrap around labels, chosen for aesthetic reasons. On the left of the label, Rascallion Wines and our logo will appear, no matter what future ranges or label designs are launched.
Ready for launch
We are launching the wines in Johannesburg and London in May, and will be at the Wines Unearthed stand of the London Wine Fair with our sister company, Broad Valley Wines. We have chosen the UK for the first international foray as I still view the UK as the most important wine importing country in the world reputation wise, with London exponentially important.
A bit of Mr Sinatra if you will, if you can make it in London, then you should be able to make it anywhere. We have a very long and hard road ahead of us, but I am ecstatic to be able to finally present my own wine brand to trade and consumers.
- If you would like to know more about Rascallion Wines you can contact Ross Sleet at firstname.lastname@example.org.