A scotch whisky distiller, when asked recently if he made any blends, was gloriously sniffy and dismissive of blended whisky. It would have been interesting to see and hear what he would have made of the Johnnie Walker Directors Blends, which I got to taste last Thursday (November 28) in London.
Schaafsma was speaking to Drinks International at Cape 2012, the showpiece exhibition in Cape Town for South African wines. It is Schaafsma’s first time in the country and the night before he had met the company’s mercurial South African winemaker, Bruce Jack.
He said that he has been given 90 days to come up with a strategic plan for the regions he is responsible for. “It is week four, day 17,” a relaxed Schaafsma quipped. “It is an opportunity to look at the business and present my strategy for the right way forward.”
Schaafsma is a high profile, at times controversial, figure in the UK wine trade. He has overseen the progress of the McGuigan from a wine brand that was primarily in the independent retail/cash and carry sector in the UK to a mainstream multiple retailer brand that is now larger than Wolf Blass and hot on the heels of Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek with approximately £83 million in retail sales.
Boasting 33% year-on-year sales growth and now the 8th largest wine brand in the UK, you can see why Accolade went after the affable Australian.
Accolade Wines was part of US drinks giant, Constellation, until it was bought out by an Australian private equity group, Champs. Its brands include the major Australian wine brand, Hardys, South African brands Kumala, Fish Hoek and Flagstone plus Californian brand Echo Falls and Stone’s, an old UK ginger wine brand which is being rolled out.
A rather overlooked jewel in the Accolade crown is its packaging facility near Bristol, in south-west England. The facility can fill 600,000 bottles a day and 160,000 bags a day for bag-in-box. It recently announced a contra deal with rival Treasury Wine Estates, itself a buy-out from Foster’s, whereby they fill each other’s wines in their respective bases. The facility is sold as a ‘one-stop shop’ for all multiple retailers’ own label and buyer’s own brand, filling and packaging.
Obviously saddened to be leaving the likes of Brian and Neil MGuigan, the former being the godfather to his son, Schaafsma nevertheless appears excited at the prospect of new brands and new countries to sort out.
Kumala used to reign supreme as South Africa’s number one wine brand but as Western Wines, its creator, was sold to Vincor which was in turn bought by Constellation, the brand was neglected and slipped from 3m cases down to 1m. The irony is the American company never brought Kumala over to the US where South African wine sales are negligible.
In an effort to steady the South African operation, Constellation Europe lead by Troy Christensen bought out one of South Africa’s leading winemakers, Bruce Jack and put him in charge of reviving Kumala as well as progressing his own premium brand, Flagstone.
Schaafsma applauds the decision to split away responsibility for continental Europe from UK and Ireland. He sees growth opportunities in Scandinavia, the Benelux countries, eastern Europe and Russia but with different, languages, cultures and distribution and retailer channels, the region requires specific attention.
Schaafsma is not daunted by having most of the rest of the world to deal with. “There is a big opportunity with Africa itself,” he said. “I also think there is a great opportunity in Brazil. I think it is quite exciting to develop new markets.”
Bruce Jack is key to Schaafsma’s strategy to revive Kumala and build on the company’s presence in South Africa. “He’s a maverick but we need people like him in the industry. People like Bruce make is so much more interesting.” He hopes to meet up and use Jack at least twice a year in key markets.
The clock is ticking but Schaafsma isn’t a clock watcher. He’s got enough to do.