Last night (Tuesday December 3), I attended a tasting of Balblair vintages. We tasted five whiskies, 2003, 1997, 1990, 1983 and 1969, prefaced by a glass of Balblair’s base spirit.
The man who led the buy out from the US drinks giant, Constellation, was talking to Drinks International at Cape 2012, the bi-annual showcase for the South African wine industry.
Accolade, which is now owned by a private equity group, Champs, is a major player in the Rainbow nation owning one of South Africa’s pillar brands, Kumala along with Flagstone and Fish Hoek. Kumala used to be the number one SA brand with 3 million case sales. The brand was neglected as ownerships changed and it is now selling about 1m cases.
In respose to Kumala’s decline, Christensen bought out well known South African winemaker, Bruce Jack, and put him in charge of the whole South African operation. His priority has been sort out sourcing and quality issues with Kumala. With that job virtually done, last night (Sept 25) Jack unveiled a Pinotage under ‘his’ Flagstone brand, which will retail for a staggering £62. The wine had all the credentials of a New World ‘icon wine – full bodied with upfront ripe dark fruit and soft tannins, poshly packaged.
Christensen told DI that the increasing popularity of sweet wines such as Moscato in the US, has led Accolade to introduce a semi sweet Kumala variant for the Polish and Russian markets, where they favour sweeter styles.
Christensen is no wine purist. If getting younger consumers into wine drinking, means offering sweeter styles and different packaging formats, he is up for it. He cites Daily’s as a brand that comes in a pouch which you put in the freezer, which has taken the US by storm. Accolade has responded by introducing Stone’s, its traditional British ginger wine brand in a ready-to-serve (RTS) pouch. The brand historically sourced its ginger from Jamaica so it still retains a strong following in the Caribbean.
The dust having settled on the move away from Constellation, Accolade has bought the Geyser Peak and Atlas Peak brands, the former is a historic Sonoma brand selling 200,000 cases and the latter is a 5,000 case brand from Napa valley. The acquisition means Accolade’s US operation has gone from one to 90 employees, mostly in the production side. Christensen’s strategy is to use this toehold to bring in the Hardys and Kumala brands. At the moment Accolade is 93% UK and Australian.
While people in California, Washington State and Oregon are “homers” as Christensen calls them, buying locally produced wine, he sees the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada as a viable opportunity for Accolade. At the moment he sells 40,000 cases through Direct Wines’ US operation.
Christensen is watching keenly the rising popularity of sweet, lower alcohol wines such as Moscato. While wine purists may turn their noses up at such developments along with coffee or chocolate Pinotage, the Accolade CEO only sees it as an ideal opportunity to take away the intimidating nature of wine and recruit younger consumers into wine drinking.
“It is about ‘share of throat’,” Christensen told DI. “We cannot bring them in with Pinotage but we can with Moscato or White Zinfandel. The spirits industry has had more success with taste profiles and even old British brands such as Babycham and Stone’s, technically, have the profile.
For people of a certain age, it is hard to envisage Stone’s as a ‘cool’ brand but, according to Christensen, its popularity in the Caribbean has spread to the US and as ginger is a key component in Chinese cuisine, he sees great potential for it in China. When a certain crab (Christensen shows a picture of one on his Blackberry) comes into season, the Chinese create an event to feast on it. Christensen can see a place for Stone’s alongside the “hairy crab”.
So as Accolade was “flicked out” by Constellation, Christensen is now providing a new vision for the company and that starts with rebuilding the brands, developing new concepts and plugging a few gaps in the portfolio such as in the US. Sitting on the company’s laurels isn’t an option.