Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 7 August 2013

A smous as smooth as his wine

Piet Dreyer of Raka winery is a smooth-talking salesman with a salt-of-the-earth edge that keeps him as grounded as his vineyards.

Raka’s Piet Dreyer is a caricature of himself and becoming more and more so every year. The sometime sea-salt (he still owns fishing boats) who bought an out-of-luck onion farm in Stanford (or more accurately Kleinrivier) in the 1990s and turned it into one of the industry’s few success stories understands there’s no point in being a shrinking violet. Having made that decision it was easy enough to make “larger-than-life” a guiding principle. He is outrageous and charming, shrewd and cagey, generous and calculating – the perfect protagonist in the drama of his own life.

He’s only just turned 60 (though it’s clear that everyone one of those years has seen plenty of mileage). The first vintage on his Stanford farm was a mere 10 years ago, but in that decade he’s piled up enough awards to give substance to his wildly boisterous self-promotion. Piet is something of a legend at the regional wine shows to which he brings a bakkie load of wine to conquer the country towns and provincial capitals of South Africa. He outsells all the other exhibitors, often by a factor of two or three, unashamedly editing his pitch to his audience, the place and the time.

In Polokwane a few weeks back I saw him talking to what turned out to be newly-weds trying to find out a little about wine from the least flashy vendor in the room. In no time he was offering one of his blends as the homeopathic alternative to Viagra. “Do you want to make your wife happy?” he asked the groom. (I thought he was going to offer marital advice along the lines of “drink a glass of wine together every evening for the rest of your lives”.) Not Piet. With a lack of subtlety that would have embarrassed the most venal of snake oil salesmen he proceeded to suggest that regular consumption of this particular wine would ensure an all night performance. He then asked the young bride if that was what she wanted (kind of difficult to say “no” to the question, especially when framed so directly) and used her courteous reply in the affirmative to close the sale.

At his stand I tasted from a three-quarter empty bottle only to find the contents cork-tainted and effectively undrinkable. Very discreetly I drew him aside and pointed this out to him. He was completely relaxed. “No problem,” he said. “I’ve already sold 12 cases to people who tasted from that bottle. They’ll be happily surprised when the stock gets to them from the farm.”

By his own admission, he’s an old-fashioned smous, travelling the country and talking his wine into the market. He does so without the pretension of his competitors and he gets an undisguised thrill from the mere fact of the sale. He doesn’t need the money (though, like everyone in the wine industry, he knows he can never be too vigilant about maintaining his competitive edge). He’s not too grand to sully his hands with commerce. In fact, he can’t understand why anyone would think of his approach as anything but logical.

If I’ve made him sound shameless (I imagine it would be quite difficult to embarrass him), he’s not without principle. On the contrary, he has very clear ideas about what drives the success of his business and it would be hard to argue against them, particularly given the results. Chief among these is over-delivery at the price point and he prides himself on resisting the annual price increases that have long been a feature of the industry. He claims that his first price adjustment came a decade after his first release, which must be something of a record. He understands that his “salt of the earth” approach requires this kind of pricing restraint if it’s to have any real credibility. “My kids can put up the prices when I’m dead,” he announces combatively.

So how is it that he’s making money? Partly it’s because he is his own supply chain and therefore gives away very little of his margin. Secondly, it’s because he’s not shy about talking his stock into the market. Thirdly, and this is the key to his modus operandi, it’s because he is selling wine, not holding onto to it. As a result, his cash flow is considerably better than most other start-up producers and he can continue to plant, growing his revenues as new vineyards come into production.

Of course, his prices will edge upwards when he finds that higher turnovers can no longer compensate for the erosion of inflation. He’ll still be more competitive than most other producers, and the punters will keep coming back because they like him at least as much as they like his wines. They’re probably not fooled by his patter anyway. Anyone who can afford to spend R1, 000 on a case of Raka knows that wine is no aphrodisiac. As the Porter says in Macbeth, “It provokes and unprovokes (lechery). It provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.” Even Piet Dreyer can’t change that, much as he’d like to. DM

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