The SAA of the Wine Industry

Our national carrier has been the subject of great scrutiny by the Competition Commission for a number of years now and often, on the receiving end of massive anti-competitive fines. This is due to the abuse of its hegemony over the local skies, offering travel agents illegal incentives and subsequently dissuading potential customers from using South Africa’s other carriers, like Kulula, BA-Comair and others. So, what do our skies have to do with our wines? More than one would think.

A similar trend is emerging in the wine industry. In fact, this problem has been a few years in coming. It has recently become worse however. Collusion and anti-competitive practices are almost endemic in South African industries; take the construction sector for example. Many companies over-inflated prices during the World Cup construction boom period and almost all of them, except Power Construction, were issued with hefty fines.

Walk into South African restaurants, particularly the chain establishments. What do you notice? Have you realised that wine lists often look mysteriously similar. Some are almost so alike, it appears like a copy-paste exercise, yet the restaurants in question do not have the same owner. This is by no means an accident.

You may ask: so what is the big deal? Simply, the restaurant patron is being duped and robbed of the best the Winelands has to offer. Rather than the owner of that restaurant in question going through a portfolio of various wines on offer from various companies and choosing the best for their wine list, they’re being bought out.  The restaurant patron is not getting the best wine list they can, they are not getting variety, they are not getting value-for-money and are not getting the opportunity to choose something out-of-the-ordinary. The patron is bombarded by the same wines over and over again, without consideration, by the establishment, if those wines truly add value to their restaurant.

You can walk into a grocery or liquor store on any given day and buy from a range of mass-produced wines. However, when you go out dining, what do you want to see? Most of us like two things; firstly value-for-money options where quality wines are on offer at affordable prices and two, a selection of boutique wines not readily available in the retail sector, for those special nights out when one wants exclusivity and estate-level quality. Establishments who put themselves up “for sale” rob you, the patron, of this need.

Restaurants exist that do not give in to the large wine marketing companies who throw cash, equipment, incentives and unlimited resources around. These establishments stand their ground, only choosing wines they want on their wine lists and house wines that offer value-for-money, not plonk foisted upon them by the merchant. Too often, these establishments are the stand-alone, owner-operated restaurants with a sommelier or manager with a fine palate that simply won’t settle for being a cultivar-sell-out.

However, there are many more establishments that wear an invisible For Sale sign. This is when the wine merchants and marketing companies with industry hegemony swoop in, dangling every form of a carrot in front of the owner or manager and effectively hijack the wine list. Can the restaurant be blamed for this? In the current economic climate, not completely; some establishments are struggling to make ends meet and in the winter off-season, many jump at the opportunity of a carrot that will pay for expenses and/or equipment they would otherwise deem unaffordable.

Who should know better? The wine company in question, dangling the carrot, should know better. Like SAA and their abuse of the skies, so these companies use monetary clout to rob the customer of real choice, real quality and real diversity. Using anti-competitive practices and frankly, borderline restaurant bribery, they force you to drink what they want you to. Should you be able to choose whichever carrier you wish to fly to Johannesburg, or should some large company decide for you? You would be pretty vexed if you were forced to fly a certain carrier at a lesser level of service for a higher price, so why tolerate establishments foisting this philosophy upon your dining experience.

There are two ways to get what you want; one, to demand better from the establishment, make your voice heard and say, “I want more choice and don’t accept this copy-paste wine list, or I’ll stop eating here.” Or two: wine producers can take the suspected parties to the Competition Commission. The latter option incurs large legal costs, costs most likely passed onto the consumer. The former option is free and is the simple expression of one’s right to the wine of your choice. Choose the latter and help us keep freedom of choice in restaurants. An establishment with happy patrons who habitually frequent them will be more successful and those corrupt carrots will become less enticing.

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