The irony of Distell’s latest bit of bullying

One can get lulled into forgetting what nasty creatures big companies like Distell can reveal themselves as being. Last time I was specifically reminded about Distell, perhaps, was when there was some public discussion about them pushing and sponsoring themselves onto restaurant wine-lists.

Then a day ago, while indulging in the sybaritic pleasures of the Hemel-en-Aarde Pinot Noir Celebration, I was alerted by a tweet, from ex-WOSA boss Su Birch, to a press release on Wine Times. (I’ve no idea why I don’t receive press releases myself from Haskell and Dombeya, but I daresay they have their own reasons or are merely incompetent in this regard.)

dombeya_altus_alto_wines_lawsuitAnyway this item reported on how the unlovely giant apparently couldn’t itself distinguish between “Alto” and “Dombeya Altus”, despite utterly different labels. Or else they think their customers are too stupid to do so.

Dombeya and their lawyers were confident they could win a court case, but came to realise that even if they won they’d still probably lose a lot of money (lawyers being the only ones who unreservedly win court battles). “With teeth gritted,” says Dombeya, “we reluctantly decided to tuck our tail between our legs and agree to Distell’s demands to kill off Altus. However, not merely content with achieving their goal, they then demanded that we pay their legal fees to this point, or meet them in court.” (Here’s a link to the full story; the pic also comes from Wine Times.)

My heart doesn’t exactly bleed for Dombeya’s owner, the rich American Preston Haskell,  but still, one can have hierachies of un-sympathy, and I’m happy right now for Distell to be near the top of my list!

I wish I had the means and the energy to initiate a meaningful boycott of Alto as a response to this.

Alto is owned by Lusan Premium Wines, the joint venture between German financier Hans Schreiber and Distell. The irony of Distell’s defence of the integrity of the Alto label is that, over the past few decades, Lusan, in its thirst for profit above all else, has done irreparable harm to the reputation of the name. Alto was once a proud, small Stellenbosch estate, with Alto Rouge one of the more respected and affectionately regarded names in Cape red wine.

Now, Alto is little more than a brand, with quantity trumping quality. Even in the past decade, the volume of wine produced under the label has risen threefold (according to the Platter guide), while quality has, in my opinion, concomitantly declined.

The degradation of Alto’s name is hardly unique. There’s nothing lustrous, I’d say, about any of the Lusan properties any more – think of the generally tedious commercialism of Neethlingshof and Stellenzicht wines; perhaps Le Bonheur is a little more reminiscent of the winery’s fame under the owner from whom it was – I’ve heard it alleged – wrested in a not very attractive manner by the Bergkelder).  It’s not quite the same damage that SFW (part-forerunner of Distell) did to the once-famous name of Zonnebloem, but it’s the same sort of thing. (Yes, in fact, THAT was probably the last time I was reminded specifically about the unappealing nature of South Africa’s big wine interests – here’s the account of Zonnebloem’s sad story).

So – congratulations, Distell, you and your lawyers: you’ve defeated Dombeya, got your way yet again because you’re so big and strong and rich. But you’ve simultaneously reminded a lot of people, I suspect and hope, about how desperately unattractive you can be.

By the way, Dombeya Altus is now to be called Dombeya Fenix – a shift from Latin to something that I suppose is an American spelling variant for the Greek mythological bird that was periodically regenerated, rising from the ashes (the ashes of Alto’s reputation, perhaps?).

A note to Distell: I admit readily that if your lawyers threaten me with a lawsuit for calling you a bully or whatever, I will probably apologise grovellingly, and tell everyone how really nice and misunderstood you really are; if they give me the chance.

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