The death in early April of Sylvia Goldberg, widow of Benny Goldberg, whose eponymous wine and spirits store (in Kew, Johannesburg) was once the world’s largest liquor supermarket, symbolises far more than “the end of an era.” The era ended pretty much in the mid-1980s when the Goldbergs exited the business. Within a few years Premier Milling (which had acquired a controlling interest in the mid-1970s) sold its shares to Sam Berk, a Cape Town retailer. The spirit, passion and entrepreneurial zeal of the founders was overwhelmed by corporate mindsets (first of Premier Milling and then of Berk’s Drop Inn group). Since this coincided with the decline of Kew/Wynberg as an acceptable location for a destination outlet, the demise was inevitable.
However, in the twenty or so years before this implosion Benny Goldberg’s was more than simply an institution: it came to define how wine was sold in Johannesburg. In this way it played an essential role in the conversion of the inland areas from a beer and spirits culture to one where wine became the beverage of choice for middle class South Africans.
Benny Goldberg transformed a suburban bottle store into a liquor supermarket back in the 1960s. At the time this was a ground-breaking innovation. Most retail – including groceries, foodstuffs and clothing – functioned in a formal over-the-counter environment. The first food supermarkets were beginning to make their presence felt, but only in major urban areas. Liquor, it was believed, could never work in this new self-service environment. The sale of alcohol was highly regulated, with a rigorous racial segregation policy imposed by the licensing board. Conventional wisdom held that a supermarket would swiftly become a haven for shop-lifting.
Benny Goldberg believed otherwise: by the late 1960s he had created an enterprise which served as a paradigm for the entire retail liquor industry. Goldberg hated shopping, so he designed his supermarket to make the customer experience as hassle-free as possible. While he focused his attention on the retail environment, his wife Sylvia assumed responsibility for the financial administration.
In the initial years, Christmas gifting drove a significant percentage of annual turnover. Benny Goldberg’s was a beer and spirits business. Breweries’ trucks would queue at the loading bays from 5h00 in the morning for most of the festive season. At peak times thousands of cases of whisky would pass daily from the bond store to the supermarket and then onto trucks for delivery to corporate clients. Wine sales were largely incidental.
Goldberg discerned the changing fashion almost before his customers became aware of it, and sourced the expertise necessary to make wine the focal heart of the business. I worked there as a student, and then for a few years in the second half of 1970s, directing the wine imports and developing house-brands – before the concept of retailers’ labels had reached our shores.
The earliest wine routes in the Cape date from this time. Every new producer was welcomed and offered a listing. Wine from estates, private producers and co-ops was purchased in container loads. Benny Goldberg had no concept of stock control: “If you don’t have it on the shelf,” he would say, “you can’t sell it.”
When the new hypermarket-type store was opened in April 1979 traffic was backed up for almost a kilometre. For a few days prices were set at 1950s price points – when Goldberg’s counter service store first opened its doors. While many of the shoppers came to buy gin for R1-59 per bottle, they also discovered the largest wine selection ever to be laid out under one roof in South Africa – and possibly in the world: hundreds of great Burgundies and clarets, wines from Alsace and the Rhone, from Hungary, Napa, Spain and Greece, and every single South African producer willing to supply to the retail trade.
Today we take the idea of this for granted: forty years ago it was the lightbulb moment which made possible the fine wine culture we enjoy today.