Over the years I have noticed that successful wine brands usually take one of two roads to success. It’s not exactly two roads diverging in a Yellow Wood (if only brand building was as elegant as a Robert Frost poem)... but, depending on which road you choose, it can make all the difference. In fact, sometimes the road chooses you.
I have categorized these brands as Comets and Turtles.
Comets are those brands that come out of nowhere and seemingly take over a category or price point overnight. For various reasons, the label, the taste profile and/or the varietal resonates with the consumer. If those reasons could be distilled down to bullet points and used to build every brand, my job would be much easier. If it were simply a matter of marketing dollars or distribution muscle thrown at a brand that determined success, my job would be easier. Unfortunately, there is no formula, marketing spend or distribution push that in itself can create brand success.
Barefoot Wines have certainly exploded over the last 10 years. Once purchased by Gallo, the brand had the distribution muscle and financial resources to become a “comet” mega brand. However, does anyone remember Turning Leaf? That was a Gallo brand that had all the same Gallo backing, and it dare I say… died on the vine.
Yellow Tail exploded into the wine market in the early 2000’s and seemingly became a million case brand overnight. It was one of the first “critter” labels from Australia that dominated the wine market for many years at the $5-7 price point. It didn’t have the financial resources of Barefoot. People loved the label and the sweet taste profile of the wines.
Sometimes a comet is produced by complete happenstance. Look no further than White Zinfandel. What happens when you take the skins off a zinfandel grape too soon? It ain’t too red. No problem, we just created White Zinfandel! Hello Sutter Home… you just created a whole new category. No matter how hard the “wine guy” tries to malign White Zinfandel, it created a very successful category and answered the needs of the consumer.
Comets are not confined to lower-priced wines. The Prisoner label redefined the red blend category at a $35 dollar price point, as did Meomi Pinot Noir at $20. These wines rocketed up in volume over the past several years. I would not have thought labels with an abstract painting (Prisoner) or a hard to pronounce name (Meomi) would become category leaders, but they did.
Most of the comets above have been sold to larger wine companies during their lifetime. It’s hard to keep a comet moving at the same rate of speed without capital.
Turtles are a different story. These brands have grown slowly. They are mostly family owned and have methodically developed niches in the wine market.
Bogle Winery is the epitome of a Turtle. Starting as vineyard owners and growers in the Delta, the family was reluctant to jump into developing its own brand. That changed in the 90’s when they developed a label and started a slow climb up the charts with their Bogle label. Over the last twenty years, the Bogle family has built a powerhouse brand over multiple varietals - consistently over delivering on quality relative to price point. Additionally, they are on the third or fourth generation of Bogle's running the company. Bravo!
Rombauer over the last forty years has developed a taste profile and identity for their Chardonnay that everyone in the wine business envies. Still family-owned, with a demand that exceeds supply year after year, Rombauer is the gold standard in building a Chardonnay brand in the $35 price segment.
You can’t talk about Turtles without mentioning Wente Vineyards. When you have been around for 130 years, you simply get credit for being around for 130 years. The Wente family has continued to grow their brand over the years, while becoming the icon winery for the Livermore Valley.
Just like the two paths in the poem, there is no right or wrong path to choose. However, one must understand what path they are on. It will make all the difference in your decisions about how you try to build a successful wine brand.