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The Big Idea for Wine

Posted on  | December 3, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Old world wines reflect place. New World wines come from grapes. Get set for the Next World— where wines are based on concepts.

Make no doubt: what’s in the bottle counts. But so does what’s on it, especially now that the proverbial wine “lake” has grown into a global ocean. And more than ever, the imagery wine suppliers are choosing to project—and which in turn merchants are compelled to embrace—involves words and art that favor a “concept” instead of, or on top of, a wine’s ampelographic information.

The era of wine being labeled predictably is over. The standard formula of “Somebody’s Something from Somewhere” still works, on a boilerplate level. But traditional wine lingo has always been problematic for Americans, most of whom just want something tasty to drink. If the Old World represents wines based on place, and the New World represents wines based on grapes, it is entirely reasonable to frame a third sort of world—one where wines project a concept.

The steady growth of more expressive wine branding is a natural byproduct of both the crowded wine marketplace and modern  consumer culture. Wines labeled Chateau This and Over-There Vineyards are feeling rather…20th century. The material world around us today is fueled by brands that “speak” to people, wearing their attributes as vividly as possible. Detergents are designed to look and sound clean. Electronic gadgets exude utility and efficiency. Athletic products evoke speed, strength and optimum performance. Why should wine be any different?

We can debate whether marketers are getting more creative or merely being practical, but the fact is that concept wines are more sensible than radical; they speak the language of mainstream consumer brands.

Concept wines are everywhere, but they are tricky to define—and analyze. Some marketers call them lifestyle wines. Some prefer thematic wines. Maybe personality wines work? There may be no one-term-fits-all moniker—and that’s one reason why this trend is unfolding outside the usual sales-tracking channels. Another reason is sheer breadth; the trend is cutting across countries, grapes, wine types and prices. But by any name, these wines are linked by their purposefully engaging consumers on a thoroughly modern level—with a quick idea and/or image that grabs attention.

Terry Wheatley—whose Canopy Management developed a series of California brands under the aegis of “Wine Sisterhood,” including the labels Middle Sister, Purple Cowboy, Monogamy and promisQous, among others—prefers to talk of a “story in the bottle.” Wheatley notes that the goal with the Sisterhood wines is to have shoppers “see, smile and purchase” in a three-second time frame. One of the keys to the Wine Sisterhood marketing is what Canopy does to reward and retain customers after the initial three-second sale: the multiple labels are supported by an active website and social media. The online conversation goes well beyond the individual wines, incorporating video, contests, articles, advice, etc.

Roots of a Trend

While the proliferation of concept wines is relatively recent, hindsight reveals some of the trend’s roots. Consider California Chablis and California Burgundy; these names were coined to project an image (European) beyond the grapes and places they sprang from. Ditto the simple use of the words Château and Domaine adopted by American wineries last century. Speaking of chateaus, Château Mouton-Rothschild, while arguably not in need of a concept, nonetheless added the dimension of fine art to its wine starting back in the 1945 vintage (and inspired plenty of imitators). Beaujolais Nouveau—the first wine of the vintage, unnaturally rushed from France to America in time for Thanksgiving—represents perhaps the most successful concept wine of the 20th century.

Affordable “reserves” (Glen Ellen, Kendall-Jackson, et al) that cropped up in the 1980s and ’90s qualified as concept wines, labeled as such to stand out from the plain-jane varietal crowd. Meritage began as a concept, too: the conscious effort to get Americans to recognize Bordeaux-style wines not from Bordeaux. Around the turn of the century, led by Yellow Tail, a veritable herd of colorful, kinda kooky brands came to be united as “critter wines.” Fun-poking wines, à la Cheap White/Red Wine, which have proliferated as America’s wine culture has blossomed, fit the concept bill, too. One might even frame 3L bag-in-box wines as representing a concept; while diverse, they share a conscious effort to project their value, convenience and eco-friendliness.

Concept wines were/are all over the map, so to speak. The common thread—inviting consumers to think about wine on a level that transcends (or bypasses) just how a wine is made and tastes—is perfectly in tune with modern American consumer society. It should come as no surprise that some of the biggest players in the industry are tapping concepts to create new brands. Megan Kilbride, director of marketing innovation at Diageo, whose recent launches include Butterfly Kiss, Stark Raving and Rose‘N’Blum, explains, “There is a growing segment of wine consumers who tend to think of wine as a beverage not as a hobby. For some of these consumers, especially millennials who have started consuming wine earlier in their adult lives than their parents’ generation, the brand and label personality are a large driver of how they select new wines.”

Usual & Unusual Suspects

Looking at the marketplace today, concepts have crept into practically every wine category, and patterns are developing. For instance, red blends with red in the name are now unofficially rampant. Red Velvet. Red Guitar. Tractor Shed Red. Adobe Red. Pillar Box Red. First Crush Red. Frontier Red. Headless Red. RedVolution. The list goes on and on; and the names reinforce that these wines are proudly off the beaten varietal path. Two new blends to keep an eye on: Montes “Twins,” a $13 50/50 blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, combines a catchy, easy-to-recall, makes-perfect-sense name with nifty Ralph Steadman art. Cryptic, from the Purple Wine Company, is pushing the envelope at the premium end of the red blend segment; its puzzling package and serious flavor profile make the SRP of $18 seem like a bargain. Zinfandel—having developed a palpable sense of fanaticism among fans as well as offering marketers the zesty letter “Z”—is still varietal, but Zinsters have helped imbue the wine with a sense of adventure, from Poizin and Sin Zin to XYZin and Zen of Zin.

Following in the clownish footsteps of Goats Do Roam and Fat Bastard, wacky/witty wines are still going strong. Mommy’s Time Out and MommyJuice benefited from a well-publicized spat a while back; this only helped their similar adult-fun concepts reach more people. Abduction Wines hit Earth over the summer with a bang. Oreana, based in Santa Barbara, teases shoppers with Project Happiness wines featuring a yellow smiley face, plus a red blend labeled with a big orange question-mark.

Sometimes the wit manages to incorporate meaning, as in the colorful packaging for GROONER Grüner Veltliner. Chilean brands Oops and Root:1 inform about Chile’s lost grape Carmenère and phylloxera-free vineyards. And thanks to numerous fruit-centric wines, the word “naked” has come to be synonymous with unoaked in the wine arena.

Then again, sometimes wine names just wanna have fun: Ménage à Trois, Mad Housewife, Rude Boy/Girl, Old Fart, Il Bastardo, Wrongo Dongo, Big Mouth New Yorkers, Pinot Evil, Oh…Schist! Riesling, Big Ass Cab, The Ball Buster, Bitch, Sexy Wine Bomb…. There are plenty of provocative labels in our midst.
One concept that has made relatively recent impact is what might be called “umbrella” labels. Kobrand’s The Seeker, Tri-Vin’s Tussock Jumper and Vintage Point’s Layer Cake are singular brands that collect wines from iconic regions around the globe.

On the flip side, local wineries are apt to go conceptual to give their wines a competitive, fun edge. In New York, two women in the Hudson Valley got together to create Happy Bitch rosé bubbly. Inspire Moore in the Finger Lakes makes wines called Joy, Love, Peace, Wisdom,Truth and more. Also in the Finger Lakes, Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards turned the hybrid Catawba grape into a genuine cult wine—Red Cat, a sweet red—replete with cartoon cat mascot in a hot tub on the label.

Celebrity labels are a natural sub-genre of concept wines. Marilyn Monroe never got to see her image on a Merlot bottle, but the ranks of musicians, actors and reality TV stars have been busy in the wine biz of late—so busy that Beverage Media will be devoting an entire article to them next month.

Some concept wines take inspiration from walks of life not normally connected to viticulture. High-techy examples include TXT Cellars; Acronym GR8 Red Wine; and Sacre Bleu, which features full-color QR codes front and center on its labels. Football teams, such as the Jets, Redskins and Chargers, have official team wines. Ed Hardy wines were inspired by the artistry of “the godfather of modern tattoo.” In Napa Valley, Judd’s Hill taps into magic for two blends—a red Magic and white Prestidigitation (that’s a big word for magic tricks)—not to be confused with Sleight of Hand Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington.

We now have charity-driven wines: One Hope; Montesquieu; Wine to Water; Humanitas; Save Me, San Francisco (in conjunction with the rock band Train). Speaking of music, House Jam and House Band wines are designed specifically for crossover appeal. And the micro-targeted Moscato PM, from Banfi, was created expressly for urban nightclubs.

Given America’s eco-consciousness, surprisingly few wines directly invoke the concept of “green”-ness (Parducci Sustainable Red, CalNaturale, Vegan Vine are a few exceptions). Most organic and Biodynamic producers already have established brands, and are tweaking their product lines. Interestingly, “natural wines”—which have stirred much controversy in the blogosphere—are
quite unaggressive in terms of promoting their “nothing added, nothing taken away” concept.

Art Meets Marketing

While wine labels have certainly gotten fancier over the past decade, there has not been an explosion of fine-art labels, perhaps because commissioning or licensing art can be expensive. One noteworthy exception is the Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon; 2008 (SRP $60) represents the 34th annual release and outclasses many higher-priced Cabs. Eric Kent is another Sonoma producer that has managed to pair fine art with high-end wine. Esporão releases original-art labels for their red and white Reserva blends each year; these are among the best Portuguese wines in the U.S.—and real values  at under $25 SRP.

There has been a wave of thematic wines aiming at female wine consumers in recent years—Treasury Wine Estates’ Be.; Deutsch Family’s Flirt; DFV’s HandCraft; Beam’s Skinnygirl; Diageo’s Butterfly Kiss and Rose‘N’Blum, to name a few. Some brands take a consciously understated approach, such as the Middle Sister wines, Little Black Dress and Cantina di Soave’s tongue-in-chic Volére, which tucks a 1.5L bag into a cardboard exterior that resembles a purse. While women would seem to be an excellent target audience, research suggests that millennials in particular are prone to reject marketing that is too obvious. There is no magic formula. It will also be interesting to watch how some of these seemingly just-for-girls wines fare over the coming year. Ditto Diageo’s Stark Raving label—targeting millennial men.

Another seemingly ripe wine concept would be food. But perhaps it’s too obvious, given that wine in general is supposed to be aligned with food. Once Wines—created in collaboration with NYC sommeliers and named The Table, The Fork, The Spoon, etc.—is no longer around. Ditto Constellation’s Knife & Fork label; Martha Stewart Vintage; and Wine That Loves, an ultra-simplified line designed to pair with roasted chicken, pizza and so forth. On the other hand, Freixenet’s Tapeña label, which plays to Americans’ embrace of tapas, is still very much at the table, having recently gone screwtop and added a sweet red to the line of under-$10 Spanish wines. And Entwine, the collaboration between Wente and Food Network launched late in 2011, was an instant hit (even without heavy Food Network promotion). Tyler Florence has teamed up with the Michael Mondavi family to create a line of bold California bottlings that retail nationally for $20 and up.

Selling Concepts
Concept wines have changed the landscape of wine in America, and it bodes well for the future of the industry. Just as the ascent of grape-labeled New World bottlings made wine more accessible for a generation of blossoming wine drinkers, the Next World of concept-based wines is giving the green light to people who like to connect with products with a little extra emphasis on names, graphics and ideas. (If you have any doubt about the power of catchy labels, take a look at the red-hot craft beer category; funky names and graphics are the norm among craft brewers.)

Perhaps even more important, concept wines are providing a fresh edge of marketability. After two decades of passively allowing wine ratings to infiltrate the retail tier of the industry, sellers and shoppers alike now have a new way to think about the inherently fun, interesting product that wine is.

Americans are more primed than ever to respond to cues that appeal on a level beyond the basic juice. There is not a wine store in America that does not already have concept wines in stock, hailing from every wine region and cutting across styles and price points. The question retailers should now be asking themselves is how best to present them. Trying to group them all together would make for a big mess, but tapping their playfulness can enhance the shopping experience.

Don’t be afraid to embrace concept wines. A wine doesn’t know what bottle it’s in, and chances are excellent that the wine itself is—just like traditionally presented wines—well made. Think of the concepts as points of distinction—which in turn become selling points. When considering several comparable products, stocking the one that has a story is a way to potentially attract new shoppers while not alienating traditional ones. Take Gigondas, for example: Ogier’s “Oratorio” bottling, besides being an excellent example of this Rhône red, pays homage to a local opera festival. And if your Zinfandel section does not have at least one or two offbeat bottles, you are missing the chance to grab the attention of browsers.

The key here, of course, is knowing as much—if not more—about the concept wines as you do about the more straightforward wines on the shelves; when a customer asks, you can explain the wine’s story and describe the wine’s style.

Play up the funny ones with handmade shelf talkers or other signage. Dress up a window display with some eye-candy bottles. Put a few near the register for impulse buying. Recommend concept wines as gifts that can reward on multiple levels. Looking to expand your selection of local or lesser-known wines? Stock ones with catchy labels. In short, let concept wines go to work for you, grabbing attention and making your customers feel that wine can be as much fun to shop for as it is to drink.


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