There are no tasting notes or reviews on this blog. Never have been. Never will be. Some people like writing them and, I guess, some like reading them. Chacun à son goût. So, I’m not going to tell you how impressed I was by the first 10 vintages of Vilafonte wine Mike Ratcliffe, Zelma Long and Phil Friese, the three partners behind this South African estate, showed in London today. What I am going to talk about briefly is the skilful way that Ratcliffe, who also heads up his family’s Warwick Estate winery, has combined great wine with great strategic thinking and marketing. 

First, there’s the fact that 50% of the wine is sold every year to Vilafonte Wine Club members  who get a six-pack of one of the estate’s two wines in the first half of the year, and a second six-pack of the other style, a few months later. Everyone who has joined the club – there are around 800 – received a personal call from Ratcliffe, and gets a regular newsletter. Twenty-two top restaurants in S Africa are lucky enough to be able to buy and list the wine. Others have to wait their turn – just like anybody who now wants to join the Wine Club.

In the US, this kind of subscription wine club is commonplace; in South Africa it’s rare and in Europe almost unheard of. But there are some other little things that set Vilafonte apart. For people who lack a cellar or wine fridge, the winery offers perfect storage conditions to ensure that the bottles they have bought survive into maturity. 

For those who enjoy mature wine but haven’t already bought and kept any of their own, Vilafonte recently released limited numbers of cases of its 2004. Next year, the offer will be of the 2005. Whenever I suggest that wineries run this kind of classic release programme, people condescendingly accuse me of lacking business sense, pointing out that it’s not practicable because no-one can afford to hold the inventory. Ratcliffe disproves that theory by charging five times as much for the older wines – and selling every bottle. 

The highly-priced classic release bottles are also beginning to form part of a – for Vilafonte – virtuous circle, in the shape of a growing secondary market for its current and older wines. Anyone buying a Vilafonte bottle now has a credible reason to believe that its value will rise – unlike customers of some other wineries that sell their old wines far too cheaply.

I could also mention the emotional quality of the photography on the website and at the tasting, and the cleverly textured labels that are intended to reflect the texture of the soil. And then I could go on to talk about that soil, the winemaking and the particular brilliance of the 2007 and 2011 vintages. But, as I say, I don’t do tasting reviews and wine descriptions, though I’m sure you’ll find plenty of great ones online from other people who were there. Chacun à son boulot

  1. Robert, as you know because I approached you for comment, I've written an article on wine clubs in South Africa. They're currently a bit like rabbits, increasing at a rapid rate and attracting a positive response. Of course, some details eg how much each sells via the club annually, is considered confidential but re-releasing older vintages is not uncommon, so Vilafonte is not alone (sadly Mike declined to respond to my request for information on either Vilafonte or Warwick's clubs for my article). Websites are another matter; it's a favourite rant of mine how out of date or overly fancy or or or they are – and that doesn't apply just to South Africa. But glad to read between the lines how you enjoyed the tasting & the wines; it's always a pleasure to taste with Phil & Zelma.

  2. Angela, thanks for the note. And the implied correction. I think the fair point is that, compared to the US, there are still very few established clubs with definable numbers of members. The point about releasing older vintages is to do with the price. From what I understand, Vilafonte is unusual in keeping as large a proportion for rerelease and/or selling it at such a high price.
    In any case, when it comes to marketing, the fact that I know about what Vilafonte is doing and you had to go looking for your information supports my point about the quality of its marketing. (I'm not saying they're unique – far from it – merely that effective marketing is still far rarer, even in countries like SA, than it ought to be. Or than it is in the US.

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