Vergelen Estate, a wine estate situated on the slopes of the Hottentot Holland mountains in Somerset West, Cape Town is no ordinary estate.“Vergelegen” is a Dutch word meaning situated far away. Established in 1700, it was a 3 day ox-wagon trip from Cape Town. By Shireen Badat
Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or 320 years later, and some 7800 miles away in Westport Connecticut, Vergelen Estate was about to turn into a pandemic legacy project. It was 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had the world in lockdown and countries were responding with measures to contain the virus. Twenty South African expats, a diverse group, some living in the US for 30 years, others less than ten, shifted communication from Whatsapp to meeting for drinks via Zoom to maintain human contact.
The group heard that South Africa had shut down the liquor industry by banning the sale of alcohol – a prohibition to contain social gatherings, slow the spread of the virus and, more importantly, free up hospital beds in anticipation of a surge of COVID-19 infections.
One of the expats, businessman Eugene Havemann, recalls those early conversations. “We heard about what was happening at the breweries, dumping their beer and the vineyards not having space to store their grape juice.” The group, keenly feeling their distance from their homeland and wanting to do something for SA during difficult times, decided to buy a container of wine and store it for their personal consumption. in the module Content settings.
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Since they are all successful businessmen, the Zoom conversations evolved from a container of wine into a more sustainable solution – a legacy project evolving during the pandemic with a knock-on effect of creating jobs in South Africa. Havemann talks about how that uniquely South African phenomenon of “two degrees of separation” – someone who knows someone who knows someone … – helped this initiative. “We started investigating who knew who, and before we knew it, we reached the newly appointed MD of Vergelegen Estate, Wayne Coetzer, who was good friends with someone in our group. And we told him of our plan.”
Previously, the US strategy for Vergelegen focused on selling the lower end of the offerings and using the price point option – a strategy which Wayne wasn’t happy with. The Westport expat group proposed a different strategy, a much more B2C business model that goes directly to the consumer with a focus on the top end of the market. The brand would be reprofiled in the US focusing on the higher end varietals and showcasing the magical Vergelegen winemaker, André van Rensburg, who has won major international awards having worked with renowned French Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland. Vergelegen, a definite tongue twister in the US, was officially launched in September 2021 as the V Club.
Using our unique South African brand of hospitality, the V Club started introducing their initial six offerings to the US market through wine tastings and wine pairing experiences, blending South African food and entertainment into these events. Through these events the team discovered that not only do Americans genuinely enjoy South African hospitality, so many have a South African story.
They have either visited or know somebody who has or conducted business with South Africans and love telling their SA story. More relationships have been built by uncovering all these stories and meeting people who have an authentic passion for South Africa.
Country Clubs were also found to be a niche market for the V Club – they’re a captive audience who want something a bit different, a bit more upmarket and members are fairly well travelled and enjoy socializing.
They are all able to comfortably buy a bottle of wine for $125. The V-Club aims to shape the market by offering an extraordinary experience, building authentic relationships through education and a connectedness to the brand, leading to the customer becoming an advocate for the brand.
The original Zoom group has been reduced to 16, with four members moving from Westport to other states. The idea is for them to grow the brand in these states. Playing the long game, with a five-year plan firmly in place and already on their fourth container of wine, Vergelegen sales have increased ten-fold in the US in less than a year.
In October, a new label V1700 – named after the year the Vergelegen Estate was established – will be launched at the Greenwich Wine and Food Fair. V1700 is a unique wine offering cultivated over the last seven seasons using the best individual grapes picked rom bunches. The entire 2015 vintage will be coming to the US and will only be available from the V Club. Only 140 cases will be produced and will retail at $200 a bottle. This is part of the strategy to unlock the full value of the brand and create an opportunity for the vineyard to earn extra dollars for all the effort they put into their wines, by finding the right market that can appreciate and afford this unique high-end wine.
The second phase of the business is V Travel – travel packages to Cape Town with a visit to the Vergelegen Estate and a game reserve. The team believes that once clients visit beautiful Cape Town and the magnificent wine estate, they will be customers for life.
Phase Two will also include a second-tier label offering that will be known as Rocky Lands by Vergelegen, named after Rocklands, one of the vineyards. This label will be marketed to restaurants with a “by-the glass” option. Top golfer Trevor Immelman recently heard about the V Club and invited them to the President’s Cup in December as his personal guests. They will sponsor wines and fly the flag and promote wine at the tournament. “We believe that if we can get the leaders of SA industry and sport behind us and get a success story going, we can create a market where demand exceeds supply and, in that way, unlock the wealth of what is being done in South Africa,” Havemann said. “We want to build Brand SA as we build Vergelegen.”