Bring your own: Business is booming at Wade Bales Fine Wine and Spirits because of its focus on what affluent but time-poor consumers need. Picture: SUPPLIED
Bring your own: Business is booming at Wade Bales Fine Wine and Spirits because of its focus on what affluent but time-poor consumers need. Picture: SUPPLIED

Entrepreneur Wade Bales’s love for wines began with the industry’s renaissance in the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela’s release from prison opened doors to international markets and best practices.

“With work experience in international trade, I looked at what growth opportunities in the Cape would be,” he says. “Wine seemed the most appealing so I spent a few months researching the industry and compiled a report that gave me access to industry players. One meeting with the owner of the Wine of the Month Club resulted in a job offer, which was the beginning of my career in wine.”

Twenty-five years ago, he was surprised at how closed and conservative the industry was. But exposure to international competition and critics was a much-needed wake-up call for an industry stuck in the past, where the local market was responsible for most sales.

Origin story: The aim of the Regional Series is to position wines based on regions in an effort to overcome the ‘country discount ’. Picture: SUPPLIED
Origin story: The aim of the Regional Series is to position wines based on regions in an effort to overcome the ‘country discount ’. Picture: SUPPLIED

“I was fortunate to work for a company that had a strong presence in the local market and was a key player in the premium sector,” he says. “Relationships built in the early days have been the bedrock on which I have built my career.”

Indeed, what he loves most is the creativity of the people, in particular the winemakers who strive to express themselves and their terroir under challenging circumstances compounded by the unpredictability of nature, an overwhelmed consumer, and one of the world’s most competitive markets.  One key challenge is to convince consumers to escape their comfort zone and forgo their go-to brands.

“The ability to develop and nurture relationships together with a curious and growth mindset are indispensable skill sets,” he says. “I want consumers to become more adventurous and explore the diversity of so many great products made by passionate people available at incredible value.”

Wine society

This desire was the inspiration for Bales to create a platform in which South African wine producers could offer their products directly to interested consumers; a “new distribution channel, outside of the traditional retail options, where passionate winemakers could showcase and share their stories”.

“It started out as the Diners Club Wine Society, which gave us access to a large affluent target audience,” he says. “That meant little marketing costs, immediate payment from consumers and terms from the wine suppliers that enabled the business to operate in a cash-positive environment from the beginning.”

The name changed to the Wade Bales Wine Society and later to Wade Bales Fine Wine and Spirits. But the objective is still to get more and better-quality local wines into the homes of as many consumers as possible.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

“Typically our  [clients are] affluent but time poor and wine is an integral part of their lifestyle. The crux is that wine is a complex product. There’s so much choice it’s confusing and leaves the consumer overwhelmed. Our role is to help navigate the complex world. It’s all about trust.”

Bales’s main role in the business is to source and select the wines to ensure its customers have access to the best available.

“We offer a personalised selection of wines to our customers which is determined by their taste, budget, and for what occasion the wine is required,” he says. “It’s then delivered directly to their door with the right knowledge to serve and enjoy it with confidence. It’s a game-changer in that the customer only receives exactly what he or she wants, versus other clubs that send the customer what it has selected.”

Events

Bales also hosts several upmarket events throughout the year, giving guests the opportunity to engage and interact with top winemakers and distillers in stylish and sophisticated settings. It’s an unwavering focus on the consumer that he credits as the reason the business is doing so well.

“The current state of the industry — low economic growth, lots of competition, a complex product that feels inaccessible to large swathes of the market, dominance of big brands and rising price pressures from drought and currency movements — is challenging for the majority of wine producers,” he says. “The upside is at the premium end of the market where South African wine quality has never been better.”

Despite the drive by “energised, talented and passionate winemakers”, recognition from international critics is yet to filter through to meaningful sales at the top end. This belief that SA wines are fundamentally underrated and undervalued, partly due to “poor perception created by a bad marketing job”, inspired a new concept Bales calls the Regional Series.

“South African wines have a reputation for being cheap and cheerful,” he says “One way to remedy this ‘country discount’ is to position wines based on regions. We need to identify the premium regions and, together with the winemakers, decide what signature style best showcases that region, just like cabernet blends in Bordeaux, chardonnays and pinot noirs in Burgundy, shiraz from the Rhône, malbec in Mendoza, sauvignon blanc in Marlborough, and so on.”

Bales began in the birthplace of SA wine with The Constantia White, a classic blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon made in partnership with winemakers from seven farms. The Stellenbosch Red will be released in the second half of 2019 with more wines to follow after that.

“My role in the industry has been that of a négociant, a French tradition where a merchant doesn’t own the vineyards but rather works with the winegrowers to make the wine and bottle it under his or her own label,” he says. “My mission is to ensure South African wines take their rightful place alongside the finest in the world. It’s time.”