CAROLINE’S FINE WINE CELLAR
Wednesday 13 May 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Website: 4/5
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 4/5
It is not the best of times to be a wine drinker and smoker now in South Africa. We are approaching the 50th day of lockdown and living under the most restrictive covid-19 conditions in the world. Alcohol sales, including online buying, are forbidden. Alcohol is deemed not to be an ‘essential’ product, unlike in most other countries. The home stocks are running dry for many and, for some, run out completely. We must therefore dutifully and patiently wait for lockdown Level 3 – seemingly some way off as the virus is far from its peak – for the bottle shops to open for 3 mornings a week. Meanwhile, according to the news today, an estimated 20,000 lives have already been saved. That is good news amid the teetotal gloom.
I began reviewing online wine stores a few months ago – long before lockdown, coronavirus and covid-19 became part of our daily vocabulary – beginning with Premier Cru and then Wine Cellar. It is timely to look at the online retailers again in the hope that sales will soon be permitted. I buy often from Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar and regularly attend Caroline’s specialist wine tastings. It thus makes sense to share my first-hand experiences with you.
Caroline’s, as the retailer is affectionately known, has 2 stores as well as an online business. The stores are in the heart of Cape Town’s CBD and in the Southern Suburb of Tokai. The CBD shop beneath Strand Street is by far the larger and resembles a cave with its terracotta tiled floor, arched wine displays, wooden shelving, and discreet lighting. Living in Wynberg, the Tokai branch is slightly closer and with the ease of available parking outside. It has the same style of décor but a smaller selection of wine albeit with the same broad range. Both stores are open during regular weekday shop opening hours and on Saturday mornings. The staffs are always polite and well dressed in pale and navy-blue uniform that adds to the exclusive wine merchant brand.
‘Purveyor since 1979’, Caroline’s has an established footing in the fine wine and international wine market. Owner Caroline Rillema had a varied wine career at the Lanzerac and Carlton hotels, retail in Johannesburg, and marketing for Buitenverwachting and La Motte before opening her first specialist wine store in the CBD. She is engaging company and ready to share her obvious passion for wine and to recount tales of her frequent (before lockdown) trips to the wine regions of the world. The website ably describes the focus on the finest South African wines and those from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, Champagne, Italy, and Spain, together with the New World.
Wine is the best place to start. Caroline’s offers 1,169 South African and International wines that range in price from R86 to R9,620. South African wines number 711 with imported wines making up the 458 remainder. France predictably makes up the bulk of international wines (254) followed by Italy (69), Portugal (46), Spain (32), Australia (20), New Zealand (13), Argentina (10), Germany (9), Chile (4) and the USA (2). Not all wines are currently in stock which is entirely understandable given the present ban on the transport of alcohol. The website groups South African wines by style – then by cultivar for red and white wines – and foreign wines by country with France and Italy sub-divided by region. There are also selection options for Platter’s 5* and Rare Wines. The simple drop-down menus are easy to use. One can usefully sort by Popularity, Latest or Low-to-High price or High-to-Low price within any selection. Rijk’s 2014 Pinotage (R298) tops the Popularity of South African wines whilst the 2010 Castell’in Villa Chianti Classico Reserva (R695) currently heads the imported range.
Compare Caroline’s with other like specialised online retailers, and the range and number of wines (711/458 South Africa/Imported) is on a par with Wine Cellar (circa 550/440), fewer than Port2Port (972/860) and more than importer Great Domaines (84/426), whilst wine.co.za sells only South African wine. Select an individual wine from the bottle shot and you will find more detailed information about the region, a Tasting Note, food pairing and the producer. This information is basic and adequate for most wine lovers to be able to make their purchase, though I prefer more details about the viticulture, wine-making and tasting analysis, which is included by some of the competing retailers. Caroline’s prices are broadly comparable to those of her online competitors. My impression from 3 years of buying South African and international wines for my own pleasure and for my Cape Wine Academy/WSET studies is that Caroline’s wines tend to be priced around 5% to 10% higher – there is the added expense of 2 shops to run – than elsewhere. That said, I am fortunate to live locally and so able to collect purchases from the Tokai store. There is always the delivery fee to factor in. Shipping fees are not currently listed on the website due to lockdown so I cannot comment on how they compare. Nonetheless, I do find Caroline’s useful when looking for a specific wine or region, particularly so for wines from Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
Turning to other products and services, I have always enjoyed the tasting events. I have attended inter alia those for Alheit, Eben Sadie and French Rosé wines. Caroline often hosts these herself or the winemaker hosts, which makes for an enjoyable and informative evening with the opportunity to buy after. The events are invariably very well-supported, and I advise early booking. There is a Wine Club too, which I have not joined, that offers a case of selected wines every 3 months with free delivery for circa R1,500. Neither have I attended any of the School of Fine Wine courses for enthusiasts (four 2-hour sessions at either store, morning or evening) or service staff (Introductory, Intermediate and Advanced levels). Caroline’s also offers a broad range of wine accessories that includes glasses, decanters, aerators, glass and bottle bags, openers, and stoppers.
My experience of Caroline’s is generally very favourable. I am content to pay slightly extra on occasion to buy the wines I want for my studies and tastings that I host. I can offset the extra cost against the benefit of being able to collect the wine/s from Tokai. I have mentioned the limited but basic information on the website. Other niggles include the fact many of the more limited or specialised wines, notably imported wines, are often listed on the website but sold out. This pre-dates South African lockdown and the severely curtailed movement of wine. Further, whilst listing total stock number, the website does not show the number of bottles in the CBD and Tokai outlets. The tie up between the 2 is not perfect which has meant that I have had a wasted journey to Tokai for a wine that is in Strand Street, even after a prior phone call to check. There appears to be no regular transport of wine between the 2 stores – other than when Caroline happens to be making the journey – and so it always feels like I am asking a huge favour to collect a bottle from Tokai that is in the CBD shop.
To conclude, these are minor gripes compared to the impressive selection and range of wines that Caroline sells. The layout of the stores makes for easy browsing and in comfortable surroundings with staff always to hand. Use the online shop too but it helps to shop around if you want a particular wine but do not forget to factor in shipping fees. Above all, show your support for Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar to re-stock your wine cellar when lockdown ends. Sweet Caroline, we wait for the good times to seem so good again … 😊
Monday 16 March 2020
Dr Peter Rating – Website: 5/5
Dr Peter Rating – Experience: 5/5
Ask yourself what makes a great online wine merchant? What criteria do you go by? Remember too that, like a supermarket or most specialist retail stores, you cannot taste the wines in advance. You have the convenience of being able to order from your home computer or even mobile phone, without the need to travel to your favourite wine estate for prior tasting. This is an extra benefit in these uncharted coronavirus days when many wineries regrettably, but understandably, are closing their doors to visiting tasters. I came up with these Top 6 criteria:
- Wide range of national and international wines
- Comprehensive, informative, easy-to-use and up-to-date website
- Competitive pricing
- Excellent customer care, service and advice
- Rapid cost-effective, secure delivery
- Additional services and offerings
Wine Cellar specialises in fine local and international wines and is based in Observatory, Cape Town. Business partners David Bryce and Richard Burnett established the company in 2000, although their common wine interest harks back to UCT and UK student days in the 1960s. The day-to-day business has been run by Managing Director, Roland Peens since 2005 who oversees a team of 15 persons who cover the essential functions of Sales, Fine Wine Sales, Brokerage & Investments, Office Management, Logistics, Finance, Marketing, Web Design, IT, Cellar and Stock Management.
I confess I buy the bulk of my South African wines from estates that I visit for tasting. It not only means I can review their wines and the tasting experience but that I can sample the wines before buying. Not everybody has that luxury and so online buying offers a valuable alternative. Wine Cellar lists close to 1,000 wines of which 550 or thereabouts are South African with circa 440 from around the world. They include all the main wine styles: red, white, rosé, sparkling, sweet and fortified. The South African collection ranges from AA Badenhorst (clever marketing there, akin to 1-2-1 Taxis and AA Taxis in the Yellow Pages era) to Yardstick which as close to an A-Z of national wine as one can get. The wines come from over 30 regions. These are dominated by Stellenbosch (188 wines) and the Swartland (88 wines). Franschhoek surprisingly is under-represented with just 10 wines whilst at the other end of the spectrum there are wines from regions few might have heard of, for example, Philadelphia that lies between Durbanville and Malmesbury, and Prieska on the banks of the Orange River in the Northern Cape.
As for the international wines, I largely buy in support of my academic wine studies (WSET Level 4 Diploma) as well as for personal enjoyment. Wine Cellar offers wines from all the major producer countries: Australia, Austria, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and the United States. There is even 1 bottle sold from China. Oddly, given the wide range of countries listed, there are no wines from Argentina which is the world’s 5th largest producer. I would have expected to buy Malbec and Mendoza wines and perhaps from Hungary (Tokaji and Egri Bikavér) or even Greece. The latter country because of the popular attention to climate change and the vogue for drought-resistant and indigenous grape varieties. Jordan, incidentally, has recently planted white Assyrtiko.
Nonetheless, this is an impressive and comprehensive selection of wines from South Africa and the rest of the world that well passes my first criterion. This is only bettered, from my estimation using current online listings, by Port2Port (1,573 wines: 866 from South Africa, 707 world wines). Wine Cellar is thus on a par with Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar (1,257 wines; 697/492 South Africa/International wines) and far ahead of importer Great Domaines (510 wines; 84/426 South Africa/International wines) and wine.co.za (South Africa wines only) when it comes to the range of wine offered.
There is little point in offering such a comprehensive listing if one is unable to find the wines that one wants to buy. This is where Wine Cellar excels. The website is one of the easiest to use – and I am not limiting this comment to online wine companies alone. Click on the ‘SHOP’ button and one is led to a choice of ‘STYLE’, ‘REGION’ and selected other choices, including Wine Cellar and Customer favourites (70 and 44 wines, respectively), mixed cases, vintage wines, highly rated wines, and even en primeur/futures. The Shopping Options are conveniently grouped according to Producer, Country, Region, Style, Variety, Vintage, Bottle Size and Price. Each of these sections offer simple drop-down menus to aid buying choice. There is a high-level Search function as well as the ability to order by Product Name, Price, Vintage or Producer. The online shopper can also choose whether to see 24, 48 or 96 wines on a page, mark individual wines for a personal ‘Wish List’, and decide if to view in Grid or List display. Throughout, the website is fast, responsive and error-free.
The information provided for each wine is equally comprehensive and impressive. Not only is the Score and its rating author shown at the top level (before clicking on the wine itself) but the Price, Country/Region and Number in Stock are also shown. Select any individual wine from the excellent photograph and the website leads you a mine of information. This is as detailed as any wine buyer needs except for Tasting Analysis items such as the alcohol level, which is listed for some but not all wines in the Tasting Notes section, as well as sweetness/residual sugar. Included is a brief summary inter alia about the Producer, a Tasting Note, Viticulture and Winemaking, details of bottle size, country, rating, when to drink/keep, price, producer, region and variety. Below, there are sections for Customer Reviews (albeit from a casual look I could not find any) and Shipping Information. A side-note covers delivery, online payment means and security, who to call for buying advice and shipping timing.
In addition, look under the ‘EXPLORE’ tab and you will find excellent information about: Wine Countries, their regions, common red and white grape varieties and wines; individual Grape Varieties; and Food & Wine Pairing.
Wine Cellar will sell you a bottle of wine for R60 or R80,000 and at any price in between. Buying online is great when one knows the product and the product is exact. To latter extent, a bottle of wine is a commodity. A 2015 Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon (say) is the same wine bought online or from a supermarket, other general retailer, or specialist store. A simple Google search will direct you to plenty of sellers in South Africa and worldwide. Look at the www.wine-searcher.com site and you can research prices for local and international wines. The Wine Cellar price of R410 per bottle is very competitive and the lowest on the Wine Searcher website considering whether local sales tax is included, minimum bottle order number and other hidden costs, delivery included. This price is below that offered online by Kanonkop itself (R450). Compare prices for a Hamilton Russell 2018 Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, a 2018 De Grendel Koetshuis Sauvignon Blanc, or a 2017 Glenelly Glass Collection Syrah and Wine Cellar is as competitive as any online supplier. It is more difficult to compare prices for international wines as each importer has their preferred producer. That said, and I buy much French and other international wines in support of my WSET studies, Wine Cellar prices well compare for Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire wines as any other importer.
There is no substitute either for good customer care or advice. I have only ever found the Wine Cellar team, most commonly Aimée Beaumont, to be entirely professional and helpful. There has always been a smile and a welcome when I have collected my wines from Observatory and the wines ordered have been correctly selected, packaged and priced as well as being immediately available.
Prompt, secure and fault-free delivery is mission-critical for any online company and no less for Wine Cellar that is selling a product that is heavy, bulky and liable to breakage or loss. I am fortunate to live locally in Cape Town so able to collect my wines from Wine Cellar in Observatory hence I am unable to comment on the delivery service. Price must always be factored into any online purchase and here I am able better to compare. Wine Cellar delivery is free to anywhere in South Africa for orders totalling over R1,500. This equates to a case of medium-priced wine, a reasonable fee given the vast size of the country. The website gives a scale of charges for up to 12 bottles for purchases below this amount, ranging from R60 in Cape Town to R130 for Joburg/Pretoria/Bloemfontein to R210 for elsewhere. International delivery is available on request. Like bottle price, these rates are competitive when compared with other online suppliers. The Port2Port portal may list more wines, for example, but it is easy to be caught out on delivery costs as they source from different suppliers, with the result that one order may be split between several suppliers. Not only does this mean, and I have been caught out on this, that the delivery fee is multiplied but also that one likely has to receive a single order on different days which is a distinct disadvantage if having to be home to receive.
Wine Cellar does not only sell wine online. It offers a wide array of other services. This ranges from gift-wrapping and selected monthly or mixed case offerings, to gift vouchers to Gabriel glassware. The company also offers a comprehensive investment and advice service to enable wine enthusiasts to build up a portfolio of local and international wines. There is a cellaring service which I have not used (yet!) but which I have heard only good reports of. Stable and correct heat, light and humidity are essential for long-term wine storage, as is the security of any investment wine. The minimum storage time is 6 months. Mixed cases can be stored but they attract a higher fee than un-mixed cases due to the obvious extra cataloguing and administration. Additionally, Wine Cellar is pioneering the fine wine auction sector, pairing up with Strauss & Co who are one of South Africa’s leading auction houses. The market is developing, and it is early days as consumers are not yet in the habit either of laying down wine, buying wine as an investment, or even generally knowledgeable about the emerging fine wine sector and its wine. I have been to one pre-auction Fine Wine tasting and was impressed by both the quality, age and range of local and international wines on offer.
Whilst I have little used the above extra services, I am a frequent attender at the Wine Cellar tastings (regrettably but understandably suspended temporarily due to the coronavirus). These are held every 1-2 months in Observatory (Johannesburg also) in a neat upstairs Tasting Room. I have been to evenings that have offered a tasting of AA Badenhorst, 2016 Bordeaux, 2017 Burgundy Whites, 2017 Burgundy Reds, South Africa MCC v Champagne, and Piedmont wines. The fee varies but is usually between R450 and R750 for 12 wines with the offer to buy at the end of the tasting. The evenings are hosted by Roland Peens who has a natural and enthusiast but geeky flair that easily rubs off, together with an exceptional knowledge of the wines offered, their producers, the viticulture and viniculture and the respective wine regions. I highly recommend attending if you are able, whether novice, student, enthusiast, wine collector or professional.
I return to my 6 selected essential criteria for an excellent online wine supplier: range of wines on offer; user-friendly website; competitive prices; customer care; effective delivery; and additional services. Wine Cellar passes all with aplomb. I have little to suggest by means of improvement other than some minor ideas I have hinted at that would put the wax on top of the wine cork. Included in these are to sell selected wines from Argentina, particularly Malbec and from the Mendoza region that not only are increasing in quality, but which also offer great value for money. The Franschhoek region is similarly under-represented, particularly for sparkling wines and top Sémillon. A modest improvement to the already excellent Wine Cellar website would be the inclusion of a Help/Web Chat facility. Many online companies are offering this and not only in the wine sector (Cotton On, for example, as well as Port2Port). This offers the customer a cheap, quick and easy means to ask order questions without having to make a phone call. It would be useful too if the ‘More Information’ section for all the wines listed Alcohol level (%) and Sweetness/Residual Sugar. The option too to search white wines for Wooded/Unwooded would also be useful. This would take some once-off effort to amend up to 1,000 wine entries but better inform the buyer.
To conclude, Wine Cellar well meets and passes what is required for an online wine supplier. It is an established company with a proven record, product range and expertise. The website, its layout, information and ease of use is one of the best. The business operates at the fine wine end of the market which, whilst not as price sensitive as some, nonetheless offers an excellent range of South African and international wines at highly competitive prices (delivery included). I have had only good experiences in all my dealings with the company and I thoroughly recommend Wine Cellar for any online wine purchaser.