Turning over a bottle to find the importer can be a great way to explore new varietals and producers, or make a quick call on what to bring home when you’re riddled with indecision at the bottle shop. In this interview series, we’ll be chatting with importers across the country who have different philosophies, markets, and preferences when it comes to the kinds of wines they welcome into their portfolios. We hope that getting to know them leads you to a few new favorites!
A lot about how Americans drink wine has changed since 1992, when siblings Andre and Gary Shearer co-founded Cape Classics. Born shortly after trade resumed between the U.S. and South Africa following the end of apartheid, Cape Classics is responsible for connecting drinkers with 25 percent of all South African wines available in the U.S., making it the largest player in the South African wine import business. In 2013, the importer expanded its portfolio to include wines from France, and now works with over 30 producers across both regions.
We spoke with president and CEO Robert Bradshaw about how Cape Classics is connecting with wine buyers, sommeliers, and enthusiasts two decades into its tenure, as well as what to expect the next time you see its logo on the back of a bottle.
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This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is your importing philosophy?
At the broadest level, we are storytellers. We are bridging the distance between the American consumer and some of the most authentic, caring, and honest producers in both South Africa and France.
What kinds of wines and winemakers excite you, and why?
We evaluate hundreds, if not thousands, of wines each year. The No. 1 thing that excites us is energy in the glass. Wine is a living product, it either immediately catches your attention or it does not. Components of that energy are freshness, purity of fruit, and acidity — all of these things come together and create something memorable. The best wines do so while also giving you a history lesson, as centuries of learning have been applied to the production of that wine. Wines that are true to place are an incredibly important part of this excitement. The winemakers we look for not only understand this, it’s the very code that drives them.
How does a winery end up in the Cape Classics portfolio?
We are looking for wine that is still made the old-fashioned way. I don’t think that customers understand that the majority of wine on American shelves are produced by agribusinesses. Wine labels tend to always appear boutique, handmade, natural, and niche — but that’s rarely the case anymore. You need to look for those wines and know the producers. We look for producers that have a long-term plan for the regeneration of their soils. It is also important to us that producers are fully supportive of the long-term success of their workforce and community. We also search for wineries who embrace each vintage and its variants, without trying to manipulate their wine to be a formula year after year. Of course, deliciousness and value are also critical — if we can’t deliver both in spades, why bother?
We are in France three to four times per year, and have a team on the ground in South Africa year-round. Discovery rarely happens by accident — you must be looking for these wines. Oftentimes, the families producing these gems are not out there marketing themselves, as their time is entirely dedicated to the farm and winery. The land and final product is what has their attention, so you need to go find them. When we make a discovery we invest a lot of time getting to know the family, because we like to know that we are aligned on a deep level. That is what creates long-lasting value and success. From there, a wine must excite our tasting panel. I came up through the Trader Joe’s buying system where every item must pass a tasting panel of experts before it can go to the stores, and we feel the exact same way. From there (exhausting, I know!) we need to achieve that same level of buy-in from our distribution network, as in the end they are making as big of a commitment to the wine as we are. It’s a long road, but incredibly rewarding for the customer when we get it right.
Who is your target drinker, and how has that target evolved?
We are currently celebrating our 30th year of importing fine wine into America. Over that time, the target drinker has changed dramatically, as the American wine market becomes younger, more thoughtful, and adventurous. Back in the day, our target wine drinker was almost certainly already educated in wine (with a specific enthusiasm for Old World French and German wines), male, and in their 40s to 50s. Today is excitingly different! Age groups, gender, interest level, ethnicity — it’s just so much more inclusive. Today, we are engaging with the much broader legal drinking age market. The consumer may be drinking an RTD seltzer today and thrilled to try a South African Cabernet tomorrow.
What’s the biggest surprise for you as an importer?
Our biggest surprise remains that the vast majority of the American wine buying market does not know that an importer is involved on all non-domestic wines, or what an importer does. This is why we’ve just launched a nationwide #KnowYourImporter social media campaign. It’s our job to tell that story, and help the customer look for that information on the back label. When a customer knows who the importer is and what they stand for, it makes buying wine exponentially easier. It’s an enormous amount of helpful information, all revealed in one or two lines on a wine bottle’s back label.
For someone who is trying to understand the role an importer plays in the wine business, how would you explain what you do?
We do the heavy lifting of finding the best wines for you, the consumer. Think about the endless research everyone does when they want to buy something online: They search for the best price, and they read review after review. They check, re-check, and then cross-check data, often to just make a simple purchase. Think about all of the hard work so many people are doing now to ensure they are sourcing ethically produced and healthy meat. We are doing that for everyone looking for great wine. A reality of the wine category is that it arrives to the consumer with significant risk of failure. Beer and spirits don’t face that same hurdle. I’m not sure what the real-time delta between a bad, average, or great Gin & Tonic is, but I’m sure it’s a less daunting differential than a bad-to-great glass of wine. Our job is to mitigate all of that risk by bringing honest, representative, and well-made wines to the U.S. market at a great price. When you see our name on the bottle’s back label, we want you to know you are in great hands.
5 wines to try from the Cape Classics portfolio
Domaine Vincent Carême Chenin Blanc
These are all dry or sparkling Chenins that tick every box for discovery, authenticity, incredible energy, and regenerative farming. Anyone looking for a new white wine should give a bottle of Chenin Blanc from Vincent Carême a try.
This is a fourth- and fifth-generation family-owned farm that not only specializes in Cabernet, but produces one of the best value Cabernets in the American wine market. They use almost entirely all of their own-grown fruit and show a tremendous commitment to the land and their community. It’s a Cabernet that still tastes like Cabernet used to before it became so rich and manipulated.
Kanonkop Paul Sauer
Produced in Stellenbosch, South Africa, this is a collectible red at a value price. It still retails under $70 in the U.S., which is a terrific value for a special bottle. When someone wants to know the long-term potential of South African wine, I open this for them.
Château Haut-Blanville Rosé
Meet south-of-France summer magic in a bottle. Farmed beautifully, women-owned, and delicious, this rosé steals our hearts every summer. The best part: honest pricing. You can almost always find this top rosé from the Languedoc region of France for under $20.
Boschendal Brut Cap Classique and Brut Rosé Cap Classique
These are new to our portfolio and we can barely keep them in stock. The Cape makes stunning sparkling wines, and these are terrific examples. Some of the components in these everyday sparklers have been aged over eight years, and the entire cuvée is aged 12 to 18 months at a minimum. A steal at under $17.