Finally after weeks of turmoil and damage across the South African drinks and wine industries, and all the retail and hospitality sectors they support, the government’s domestic ban on all alcohol sales has been lifted. For the last few months all those outside the country could do was show their support by promoting, buying, and in The Buyer’s case write and talk about South African wine. Which is what this week’s video interview is all about and the chance to talk to Jean Claude (JC) and Carolyn Martin, the charismatic and inspiring couple behind Creation Wines, who encapsulate the extraordinary efforts that producers have had to go to in order to keep innovating and selling their wines overseas, so that they could support their staff and local communities that rely on them for their livelihoods. In particular, they have shown the way forward with the number of virtual tastings and sampling packs they have created for their international markets. It’s why today The Buyer today ‘Raises a Glass To’ them – and all South African wine producers at this time.
Creation Wines is typical of the huge advances there have been in South African wine over the last 10 years, producing wines that have helped keep its industry going around the world whilst it has spent weeks battling the domestic ban of alcohol sales. JC and Carolyn Martin talk to Richard Siddle about how they have adapted – particularly online – to cope with Covid-19.
(Click here for Richard Siddle’s full video interview with JC and Carolyn Martin of Creation Wines)
We have all had to find ways to cope and respond to the Covid-19 global pandemic but none more so than South Africa which has gone through a series of domestic and international bans on the sale of alcohol, as its government has followed a very different strategy to most of the world in how to control the virus.
A series of domestic and international bans on all alcohol sales has hit the drinks industry hard, and the retail and hospitality sectors, and all the thousands of people it supports. Although the export ban, which covered most of April, was finally lifted on May 1, it had already caused huge damage to so many wineries, particularly smaller, boutique operators that relied so much on their international sales.
A situation that got so much worse when the country was forced back into a domestic blanket alcohol ban from July 13, with 1,000s of businesses now said to be in very real danger of collapse.
Even the lifting of the export ban did not solve that problem, stresses Carolyn Martin, as there was such a backlog at the ports to get the wines out. Thankfully the situation has been slightly improved with the news that six new terminals have been opened at Cape Town harbour to allow for more wines to be moved out of the country, she adds.
Now, after weeks of damage and uncertainty, the domestic alcohol ban was lifted this weekend bringing enormous relief to the drinks industry and all the sectors it supports.
(Click here for Carolyn Martin’s reaction to the impact of the alcohol ban on the wine industry)
But the bottom line is the South African industry is still “under serious threat,” she adds. For every week the domestic ban was in place the wine industry, she says, was losing an estimated R300 million in revenue – with domestic sales down by over R5 Billion since the beginning of lockdown.
“The two greatest concerns are job losses and surplus wine and how we manage that going forward. It is not so much a problem for high end producers, but the larger producers. We are also concerned about smaller wineries having the cashflow to weather the storm. We can only hope that our international friends, customers and clients will support us with listings and export purchases of South African wines,” she adds in an interview that was carried out at the beginning of August.
JC Martin says the biggest problem they have faced is “uncertainty”. Both at home with the domestic ban, but also in all its main export markets where the recovery is happening at a different rate with the threat of further lockdowns and restrictions being put in place across the Europe and the UK where it sells most of it wine.
It means it is impossible to plan for even three months down the line and “you have to take it as it comes along”. But he likens the current situation as like being in a “down spin” where you don’t know what is coming next. Although the subsequent lifting of the domestic ban will go a long way to giving some much needed direction.
(Click here for JC Martin on dealing with uncertainty and not being able to plan its future)
Acting fast to change
Creation Wines, like so many other producers in South Africa, has had to act fast and respond to the crisis by finding new ways of working and selling wine. Over the last 10 years it has built up a reputation and a strong restaurant business at its winery, in the heart of the Hemel-en-Aarde Hemel, for its wide range of tastings and food and wine matching menus.
Skills and knowledge it has been able to use during lockdown to create a new package and range of tastings that it can offer to its large database of customers, both at home, when it can, but also internationally in each of its key markets. Particularly the UK.
Carolyn Martin explains: “Wine tasting is an integral part of the Creation experience, so we put our heads together and designed a new ‘Creation Tasting Kit’. To enjoy a tasting, you simply order a kit online and set up a date and time with a Creation personal shopper or winemaker. Sommeliers, chefs and viticulturists can also participate in this experience, depending on the client’s interests.”
It initially developed the ‘Creation Alchemy Kit’ for its customers in South Africa to enjoy at home, that included six wine samples paired with six dishes, when it was not possible to serve wine in its winery restaurant. Then to get round the latest alcohol ban it has created a ‘Creation Care Kit’ including a number of non-alcoholic cordials paired with a variety of snacks prepared from locally grown ingredients.
“We are now shipping our Creation Tasting Kits to our international agents who are shipping them to their clients. In the UK we can ship them to our database who then do the virtual tasting with us and can buy online afterwards,” she explains. “We are also working with event and concierge companies to create bespoke experiences for their clients around the world.”
(Click here for how Creation is running virtual events, and tasting kits for consumers and the trade in the UK)
Brand awareness and keeping momentum
Rather than lick their wounds JC and Carolyn Martin believe it’s important to do what they can to innovate, keep their brand going and do what they can to engage offer different ways in which their clients and customers can still at least taste and enjoy their wines.
“Clients across the world, in places such as Mexico, have contacted us, to say they feel like they are with us even though they are 1,000s kms away. We are trying to find ways to get our wines to these clients, and this is good as it’s stretching our capacity.”
By still producing food and non-alcoholic tasting kits for its domestic customers it has been able to continue and support local food producers, from which it sources all its ingredients within 80 km of the Creation estate.
They have also taken the time during this lockdown period to really understand how best to do virtual tastings and make them as interesting and professional as they can to watch and invested in camera and recording technology in order to broadcast and record them in the best formats.
She adds: “Our concept is to bring the Creation sensorial tasting experience into people’s homes in a relaxed way. We have set up some special tastings collaborating with our wine friends.
“We will be doing a tasting with Rose Murray Brown for her wine club, where clients get to do a virtual ‘meet the winemaker’, tasting a mixed case of four wines which are pre-ordered and paid. The cost is £98 pounds per person.”
It is also looking to set up a consumer UK virtual tasting soon, to showcase its range of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, where it will will ship 6 x 50 ml samples at £25 a person to people’s homes, and then take part in an interactive online tasting with JC and Carolyn.
“We are delighted to have already done both trade and consumer tastings between our Netherlands agents, their clients and ourselves. We have just done the same with the Bibendum sales team (its UK distributors) and look forward to doing the same with Sonoma University wine business students.”
It has also done three hospitality training sessions with the SABA International Academy that featured virtual food and wine pairing classes for students from 30 countries.
Although it can’t do its normal wine dinners in key markets, Creation is setting up its first virtual restaurant Euro-pop pairing with SALT in Tallinn, Estonia.
Carolyn says it has also been planning for when the alcohol ban is lifted in South Africa and is planning a series of ‘Creation Nights’ on South Africa’s Kaya TV. “We have many other cool ideas collaborating across disciplines with DJs and fashion designers,” she adds.
You can see the range of virtual experience tastings Creation runs here.
It has also been able to keep its restaurant open throughout the alcohol ban so that customers could come and enjoy the atmosphere and open space. “We are working on developing a campaign to make sure restaurants can use outdoor spaces such as pavements and streets after 6.30pm. This has to be set up with local authorities, and we want to make sure the red tape is sorted out in time for spring in South Africa.”
In keeping with the times it is currently running an an exhibition of sculptures from Janko de Beer called ‘Metamorphoses’ which the Martins also says sums up how it is “implementing constant changes over the past few months”.
(Click here for Carolyn and JC Martin on how 10 years of innovation is helping them now adapt and cope with this crisis )
With so much of its international sales going through the on-trade, Creation has taken a big hit in all its key markets. Although most on-trade sectors are now back open again, sales are still low, and now there are growing concerns that there could be further shutdowns in Europe and the UK.
“We have, with the help of our agents, managed to pivot our business and become more channel-agnostic. We managed to open up new markets and rethink our strategies and technical capacity in specific markets to allow us to expand our client base and have better data,” she explains.
“Agility is what matters most – it simplifies logistics for the end-user, creating better shopping experiences.”
But then, as Carolyn Martin says, Creation has always “strived to live up to our evocative name”.
“The name is a promise of constant renewal and this spirit of innovation is a way of life. It has shaped our vision and led to many of our achievements. We plan to maintain our reputation for innovation even now under these challenging circumstances.”
(JC and Carolyn Martin on how Covid-19 has been a wake up call for producers to use DTC & technology to sell and engage more with trade and consumers)
One thing that does not change is the vines, and the quality of the grapes and wines being made on the Creation estate. JC Martin says it is at least some sense of normality to be able to be in his vineyards, and working as normal in the winery.
With no international travel possible for some time it could also be the first time he has ever been able to spend a full year working with his vines. Which is an opportunity, as a winemaker, he is very excited about.
(Click here for JC Martin talking about great 2020 vintage and prospects for a strong 2021 vintage too)
Yes, it is frustrating that he can’t be out showing and tasting the quality of his latest vintages with the trade and consumers around the world, but at least the wines are there to stand up for themselves.
(Click here for JC Martin on big quality improvements in South African wine & its image around the world)
Come a long way
They have certainly come a long way from when they first started Creation wines 20 years ago when it was a “little more than a wilderness with a few sheep grazing among the fynbos with no infrastructure, electricity or even running water”.
“We know about the struggle and effort it takes to raise a vineyard and about all the hands and hearts that go into it,” says Carolyn Martin. “It took more than a little courage to overcome the many obstacles but thanks to the determination and innovation of our entire team we are where we are today. I trust that the lessons learnt in the past, and more recently, have equipped us with the fortitude to face the future with confidence.”
The vines, as they say, don’t stop for any virus, and Creation can also claim to be one of South Africa’s leading producers with virus-free clones and is now able to provide “virus-free clonal material for the South African wine industry”.
“It also means improved quality as healthy vineyards yield healthy grapes which, in turn, help us produce world-class wines. There is an affinity between specific cultivars and the place where they are grown here at Creation,” says Carolyn Martin. “There is a reason why the Hemel-en-Aarde or is called the place of Heaven and Earth.”
Raise a Glass To…
For all the changes it has made during lockdown and how it continues to innovate and show what is possible in terms of virtual tastings and experiences online, The Buyer wanted to recognise those by including JC and Carolyn Martin and the Creation team as our latest recipient of our ‘Raise A Glass To’ initiative that we have introduced to highlight and recognise the achievements of people and businesses during lockdown.
(Click here for The Buyer’s Richard Siddle as he ‘Raises a Glass To’ Carolyn & JC Martin for how they adapted and embraced DTC and virtual tastings during Covid-19)