just the answer - Kumala and Flagstone
In February this year, Constellation Europe completed the purchase of South African winery Flagstone. The purchase, initially announced last October, saw Flagstone's viticulturalist and winemaker, Bruce Jack, join Constellation as chief winemaker for South Africa, with a view to revitalising its flagship South African wine brand, Kumala. In this month's just the answer interview, we talk to Jack about his role so far, what he hopes to achieve with Kumala and what the prospects are for South Africa's wine industry overall.
just-drinks: What prompted you to make the move to Constellation once Flagstone was purchased?
Bruce Jack: Not only was this an opportunity to expand sales for Flagstone around the world, but there's one commodity you don't have when you're a small guy and that's time, to go round and talk to people. The biggest thing that can make the wine industry more effective is a better connection between the principal and the supplier. But you just don't have time when you're a small guy. What Constellation offers the Flagstone brand is a worldwide platform for distribution and sales, with support like PR. The other thing that was offered was for me to get involved with Kumala - the biggest South African brand in the UK. That's really exciting. We have a brand that's growing strongly, not necessarily off promo, as it was before. I'm in charge at Constellation not only of continuing to drive Flagstone in quality terms - we want to make Flagstone the premium wine of South Africa - but also to bring a sense of provenance, integrity and authenticity to Kumala.
j-d: What was your opinion of Kumala before you made the transition?
BJ: The brand had lacked that provenance, integrity and authenticity because of how it was designed, sold and sourced before. The previous owner, Western Wines and Vincorp, only really dealt with the growth - without any substantial infrastructure in South Africa - by sourcing the finished product to a broker - that's why there wasn't any control over quality or consistency. So, Kumala was more of a hindrance than a help in terms of driving Brand South Africa.
My personal target is to get to 6m cases in three years' time from the current 2m. When Yellow Tail hit 6m case, it was a phenomenon - a category of its own. We need to do that for the South African category. When you add all the big players together in South Africa, it comes to just over 6m cases - we really need to have it under one brand.
Bruce Jack, chief winemaker for Constellation Wines, South Africa.
j-d: What does South Africa as a category have going for it, and how do you think the country can up its profile?
BJ: In South Africa, the biggest challenge we have is soil. It's a kaleidoscope of different types - within 10 hectares, there might be five or six different types of soil. This is something that S Africa can use to its advantage,but we can only embrace it through technology. Look at Gallo, they have their own lab and research facility - it's groundbreaking research. We need to do a similar thing in South Africa. We need to use infra-red photography, soil mapping and GPS, to help calculate where and when to pick grapes. That's never been done in the world before.
Other options are to emphasise our approach to eco-friendly wine production. We have a ten-year-old programme, with 99% of all growers signed up and audited, which is called Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) - this system is about five years ahead of any other country when it comes to eco-friendly grape production. We've got a built-in advantage in an area with huge growth potential. We just need to communicate it properly.
I think we're on the brink of a really exciting ten-year period for South Africa. It's a coming of age - we're teenagers just getting over our pimples. We're maturing.
How did you feel about getting on board with Constellation?
BJ: I was concerned, of course. I was worried about how I'd fit in, and how I'd handle the corporate stuff. That's not something that comes naturally. The head of Constellation Europe told me that the reason we acquired Flagstone was to get you involved, and the reason we got you involved was because we need you to change us, and not us to change you. The other thing I was worried about was the expectation within the industry locally for a brand like Kumala to raise the flag. We are a country that needs success to cement our stability - we're still licking our wounds after 300 years of colonialism and apartheid. The responsibility to step up to the plate and make a difference to the people on the ground in South Africa is terrifying and I'm not sure I'll be able to do it - but I'll give it a bloody good go.
j-d: A widely-perceived issue with South Africa is its lack of provenance - how do you intend to counter this?
BJ: I'll try and keep it short! In South Africa, we have regional diversification in spades, and we've never been able to get that message across - even Australia's struggling to get that message across, and they're the ultimate communicators. I think there are other keys to wine provenance which the consumer is looking for, beyond regionality. To use a car analogy, I think Seat suffers from it - we all know it's a Golf made in Spain, but what is it? A VW? A Spanish car? Kumala needs to have an essence, a home. That doesn't need to be regional - we could focus on the ethical angle, for example. The only way we can secure provenance, primarily, is to know where the grapes are coming from. It's going to be a challenge, but we want to be able to know where more and more of our grapes are coming from. It's a long process, but we want to be more involved in the viticulture side of the Kumala vineyards. We want a structure that incentivises the Kumala growers, who historically don't have any incentive under the co-op system in S Africa. You can understand the intricacies of the project I'm creating for myself. You could get away with not doing that, but then, where would the provenance be? I want to take the brand back to the vineyard.
But, of all the countries in the world that I'd want to be in, making wine, South Africa's the winner - we can sell more wine more profitably. What other country can do that easier than we can?
j-d: But Constellation doesn't have a reputation for focusing on improving value.
BJ: That's what I was worried about, but that's not been my experience. It was one of the concerns I rose right at the beginning - if I'm going to take on this stupid challenge of trying to change the world through Kumala, I don't want to fall on my face and let my country down. So we have to drive value - we don't have the advantages that Australia and Chile has, which is homogenous soil, so value's the only place we can operate.
In a year's time, if I've committed suicide, you'll know it didn't work out!
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