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Message in a Bottle: Cape Classics Knows Transparency is Important in the Wine Trade

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“You have to get into the vineyards and walk the cellars,” says the CEO of Cape Classics. “You have to know the family that makes the wine.”

If you’ve ever struggled to make sense of some of the claims made about a bottle of wine at retail, then Cape Classics CEO and President Robert Bradshaw is probably somebody you wish you could bring along the next time you shop for wine.

Bradshaw, a nearly 20-year veteran of the wine trade, says importer Cape Classics makes it its business to seek out wines that demonstrate high standards in winemaking and sustainability. The latter is especially important to the company and its clients, and it’s one that Bradshaw says too many retailers and sales reps fudge when they call a wine “sustainable” or “organic.” You pick up on things like that when you’re constantly tasting wines and visiting vineyards in South Africa and, more recently, France, while getting an intimate understanding of how wine is produced. 

“Fact has to beat fiction,” Bradshaw says. “I travel the U.S. extensively, and I’m endlessly in restaurants and wine shops. I’m shocked at how often wines are sold — by conversation or signage — as ‘organic’ that I know are not organic. It’s a dangerous game. It’s trendy to call a wine ‘sustainable,’ but is it? By what standard? How is it all verified?”

Once the coronavirus pandemic has passed, Bradshaw and others at Cape Classics will be hopping on planes to see how the 2020 vintage is turning out. 

“The only way to ensure your customers can trust you and that logo on the back of the bottle is to be on the ground, at the farms,” he explains. “You have to get into the vineyards and walk the cellars. You have to know the family that makes the wine. You have to be there from vintage to vintage and see the soil; there is just no other way. There have been some real pioneers in this regard — such as Tania and Vincent Carême, Excelsior Wine Estate, Laurent Combier and Glenelly — and I’m incredibly proud that we have carried forward that tradition.”

Selling South African wine was a challenge in 1992 — the waning days of apartheid — for founders and brothers Andre and Gary Shearer. But things have changed considerably, and wines from that country are now a popular choice among consumers. Simultaneously, Cape Classics has grown into the largest importer of South African wines to the United States. 

Bradshaw says modern South Africa presents a “strategic advantage” for eco-minded businesses such as his. “South Africa has led the industry in both sustainability and the verification of that standard,” he notes. “Each bottle comes with a seal from the IPW [Integrated Production of Wine]. The IPW program was introduced to South Africa in 1998 in order to encourage sustainable, environmentally friendly wine production.”

It doesn’t hurt, either, that more than 90 percent of South Africa’s wine is produced in a biodiversity hotspot. “Consequently, many wine farms have put strict conservation efforts in place to preserve the native flora and fauna,” he adds.

Good Vibes

Transparency is important both to Cape Classics and consumers of its wines, but it’s not a concept that is limited to labels on bottles. The organization last year adopted data management tools from Vermont Information Processing (VIP), a firm that specializes in reporting and analytics technology for the spirits industry.

“VIP has changed our business,” Bradshaw reports. “Big data has changed our industry.”

Like a wine consumer who bones up on her lingo to better understand those sometimes-cryptic terms on a label, VIP gave Cape Classics access to information that Bradshaw says some distributors once treated as proprietary. That had left his company in the dark about who ultimately was drinking the wine.

“It was a complex and sometimes contentious situation,” he recalls. However, “in markets where the distributors shared that data, we grew quickly. Once we knew what the market was buying, we could spot trends and stay in stock. We could deliver what the market wanted, when they wanted it. Without that data, we were flying blind.

“Fast-forward to today and we all share data daily. It’s amazing. Before we would get data two weeks after a month ended and try to play catch up. Now we see who bought our wine at the close of every day.”

That sort of insight is golden in a competitive industry where wine consumption is flattening. “The full sharing of data has made it easy for our distributors and us to row in the same direction,” Bradshaw says. “We have a tremendous network of distributors led by SGW&S, RNDC/Young’s, Winebow and M.S. Walker. With data no longer a mystery, communication has never been better. As they manage their data and expand into new markets, it’s getting easier to write programs that can be successful nationally instead of just locally. Their efficiencies become our efficiencies and vice versa. The vibe today is one of partnership and collaboration.”  

Wine Nerds

Bradshaw considers its wine and the work put into it to be one of Cape Classic’s pillars of success. “The second pillar is our team,” he says. “Cliché as that sounds, we have an enormous advantage with our people.” Bradshaw says the organization is “tireless” in looking for high-quality employees. “It’s not unusual for a candidate to interview four or five times with Cape Classics. We are looking for high-empathy, curious, nimble-minded and deeply professional teammates.”

The company continues to invest in its team long after hiring decisions are made. “Self-actualization … is a huge priority for Cape Classics,” Bradshaw says. “When our team is at its best, we are at our best. One way we do this is to offer [remote] leadership training from the Stagen Leadership Academy in Dallas.” 

The 12-week program helps employees hone their skills in “attention management, conscious communication, empowerment through the managing of drama, active listening and how to ensure that that they are deeply aware of how they ‘show up’ at any given moment,” Bradshaw explains. He estimates that 95 percent of his team has completed the program.  

To Bradshaw, what Cape Classics employees do is much more than sell bottles of wine. “We, as a company are educators; it’s in our culture and DNA,” he describes. “If you tour the office, you will find maps, rocks [demonstrating a growing region’s terroir] and books. We tend to hire perpetual learners and thoughtful storytellers. The goal is to help people maximize their experience via stories and knowledge.”

To share some of that knowledge, Cape Classics last year launched its own podcast, “Behind the Bottle.” Bradshaw says this is a first for an importer. “Behind every farm, winemaker, bottle and grape lies an untold story,” he says. “Collectively, we discover these tales and share them with our customers. 

“We have so many stories to tell and podcasts are a great vehicle to do just that. We find that people in the industry — sommeliers, buyers, distributor reps, collectors — want to hear our winemakers’ story via their own voices. We can’t bring every producer to America, but we can certainly create a vehicle for America to hear what they have to say.”

Sidebar: Leaning into Best Practices

Coronavirus has upended the wine industry, particularly with the temporary closure of restaurants. As it is with most businesses, this unprecedented period of disruption is shaping up as a test of Cape Classic’s best practices.

“Any importer who does not have great relationships with their customers, data, infrastructure and most importantly, product the market wants, will find it very hard to survive,” CEO Robert Bradshaw observes. “This is a time when we are going to lean into what we do best: communication. It’s the heart and lungs of how we go to market.”

Team members have spent this period “checking in, listening, putting forth offers that will not only drive our business, but are tailored to [customers’] needs in real time,” he says. “Our distributors and customers want vendors and items they can trust. With the vast amount of pressure we are under, we all need brands and relationships we know will not let us down. We’ve worked hard to be in a position to have that trust right when the market needs it most.”

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