Mike Ratcliffe has the Midas touch - though he will assure you that there’s no silver bullet to success in the wine industry.
As a young whippersnapper starting out in wine, Mike was one of the first industry leaders I came to know about, primarily because he was operating in a space where I hung out too - i.e. social networks. He’s always trail-blazed ahead of the pack, whether being an early adopter of digital media, setting new benchmarks for marketing in the industry with Warwick, his family winery, which he brought to soaring new heights (and recently opted to sell), or establishing the Cape Wine Auction, now one of the most impactful charity events in the country. The man continues to wear multiple hats - including as recently-elected Chairman of the Stellenbosch Wine Route and Managing Partner of Vilafonté, arguably South Africa’s most iconic luxury wine brand, which he co-founded around two decades ago with laureled Californian winemaker Zelma Long and winegrower Dr Phil Freese.
Mike says he does sleep well at night. But that none of his successes have happened overnight. I’m determined to unpack the Mike Ratcliffe recipe for success, and Mike is more than happy to indulge me.
Despite what some of us would consider to be extreme price points for South African wine, Mike believes there’s plenty of room at the higher end where Vilafonté sits. “There’s very few people playing in our space... From a Bordeaux blend point of view, there should be lots more. One of the wineries that we play in the same space with is MR de Compostella, and they are doing great things.”
Mike views the South African wine industry as fixated on price points, and not fixated enough on value. He illustrates with his favourite example. “Insert name of product - it works with anything. So... ‘X product’: very expensive for those who can’t afford it; remarkably good value for those who can. There’s value at every price point. Our clients are all on allocation.”
I’m surprised when Mike tells me that “luxury” is not a word used in the Vilafonté lexicon. “What’s very clear is that we never set out to build a luxury brand. Luxury is not a word that ever comes up in our internal conversations, at all. Quality, yes. Absolutely. It’s a joint venture of three partners, all of whom have very specific skills, all of whom at a stage in their career have operated at the very highest level and have deep understanding of their field. We have a desire to prove something to ourselves - but only to ourselves. Zelma has worked at the highest level with Simi, Opus One and as head winemaker at Mondavi… So Vilafonté is hers. She’s proving it to herself. And the same goes for Phil and myself. We’ve done lots of interesting things, but the Vilafonté focus is all about pulling everything together, and not having any politics. What we have proved to ourselves, is that if you present value, the market is huge.”
Despite Mike’s innate ability to keep on top of global trends, he purposely avoids reinventing the wheel every other Thursday. “Consistency is a keyword. I mean, we’re coming on for 20 years. We still do exactly the same thing. No brand extensions, no new vineyards. No new styles. One could argue that our style has probably gotten more cerebral over time, but that’s also because we’ve become more cerebral… We’ve been collecting data for 24 years from when the first vineyard was planted in ‘95. It’s an absolute focus on terroir, which is embodied in the name Vilafonté” - the type of ancient soil in which the Bordeaux cultivars are planted on the slopes of the Simonsberg.
I’ve heard Mike speak extensively before on focus (and the inherent lack thereof) in the South African wine industry.. “If you look at the great wines of the world, you can write down their story in one line. If you look at the great wines of South Africa, you can try to name one… but try to write down their story in one line - it’s pretty impossible. Some people have nailed it, but then they lost the focus.” He does, however, list some success stories. “Hamilton Russell’s done a great job. And they’ve pigeonholed their Sauvignon Blanc into a different company, Southern Right. They’ve crafted their Pinotage and other blends into Ashbourne.” He can think of a few more. “Capensis is a Chardonnay. That’s the closest we come to a definition [of focus] in South Africa. And one of the greatest marketing master strokes of the last decade is Graham Beck getting rid of still wines to focus on bubbly. Genius. So that’s good.”
It follows that Vilafonté’s focus is razor-sharp. With only three wines - all Bordeaux blends, at three different price points - it’s not a difficult offering to understand. While Mike loves to geek out about the complexities and nuances of the Vilafonté terroir, he knows his market. “Consumers don’t generally have the capacity to understand the multiple information streams, especially for something that is such a small part of their lives. They don’t think about wine until someone has a wine list, or they walk into a wine shop. So if you can’t tell your story in one line, it’s too complicated. One of the common denominators of greatness is focus.”
Mike has a lot to say about wine competitions and ratings, citing multiple studies demonstrating the flimsiness of wine scores as a measure of objective quality. “We’ve got no interest in chasing that ratings machine. The brand has a certain reputation, which has only ever been built on quality. And on word of mouth. People think that because it has the position it does, it must have all the ratings. Though it’s important to add - just because we don’t submit our wines, it doesn’t mean we don’t get rated.” Indeed, Vilafonté is consistently rated by critics as one of the country’s best wines. But Mike, Zelma and Phil aren’t looking for external validation.
Again, success hasn’t come overnight. Mike chalks many wine industry failures down to impatience. “You can put a line under that word. You could probably name 50 examples in the industry of people not willing to take their brand along an organic path, but wanting to be in a rush to keep up with the pack. Greatness takes time.”
Indeed, Mike is in no rush. When asked what next for Vilafonté, he lets me into the five year plan - or rather, a five year question. “What if we reduced our range? We are embarking on a five year plan to ask ourselves the question… If after 25 years, if M and C are still relevant… Have our vineyards got to the point now where Vilafonté could be the single wine we’ve always wanted it to be? That's a question. It's not a statement. So, we’re going to start attempting a proprietary blend. For five years we’re going to bottle it and see how it matures… Not for sale. We’ll drink it ourselves. Our original business plan was to produce a wine. That was 25 years ago. When we started blending, the answer was ‘no’. There were two very distinctive styles. But we’ve planted a lot since then and our vineyards are 25 years older. It’s going to be a long journey. And the answer might be no. Maybe 25 years ago we were on the money. Watch this space.”