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What makes a great brand launch?

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I’ve seen a lot of wineries come (and go). Some of them pop into existence with little fanfare, and operate more or less “steady as she goes,” hoping to turn a profit. But some wineries are overnight successes. Like a young Hollywood star who goes from waiting tables to the red carpet, they’re discovered.

What does it take?

You can always buy land in Napa, hire David Abreu to develop the vineyards and Helen Turley to make the wine (with Michel Rolland as a consultant). But most people can’t do that (or don’t want to). More instructive are successful brands that got there the old-fashioned way: They earned it. Here are some of the more memorable launches that come to mind, and the take-home lesson on how they got there.

- Siduri. Adam and Dianna Lee got drunk one night and, on impulse, dropped off a bottle of their first Pinot for Parker, who they heard was staying at Meadowood. The next morning, panicked, they tried to retrieve it. Too late; the concierge had delivered it to him. Parker loved it; Siduri’s reputation was secured. Take-home lesson: Get excited and take risks. (But you don’t have to be drunk.)
- Brewer-Clifton. Young Greg B. and Steve C. had a dream to make wine in the Santa Rita Hills. They made a lot of friends, worked hard not just for themselves but to promote the region, and incidentally were always around to help the wine media. Take-home lesson: Be polite, helpful and friendly. Nice works.
- Laetitia. The vineyard originally was started by Maison Deutz, who hoped to succeed in California bubbly. That didn’t happen. In 2001, the current owners purchased it, maintaining the winemaking services of the Dad and son team of Dave and Eric Hickey. Today, Laetitia’s Pinot Noirs are among the best in the state. Takehome lesson: Recognize talent and then preserve and protect it.
- Failla. Ehren Jordan had a good day job with Turley, but longed to do his own thing. He went way out on the far Sonoma Coast into no-man’s land and, with his own sweat, made a brilliant vineyard. Then he settled down and made wines of great purity. Takehome lesson: Do what has to be done, no matter how hard.
- Pisoni. Much has been said about the vineyard, but the man who planted it has been as important to the winery’s success as the grapes. Gary Pisoni’s personality is like Robert Mondavi’s on steroids. Take-home lesson: A colorful personality spills over into the wine, and can’t be faked.
- Saxum. How did Justin Smith’s Rhone reds get to be the most expensive in Paso Robles? They’re delicious. The critics love them. The vineyard is immaculate. And Justin Smith doesn’t dilute himself by making a whole bunch of stuff he doesn’t care about. Take-home lesson: Do one thing better than anybody else.
- Breggo. The story is so improbable. Douglas Ian Stewart runs a sorbet company in Brazil and an ice cream factory in San Francisco. Decides to move back to the land, in Anderson Valley. Next thing you know, he’s producing stellar Pinot Noir, with the help of consulting winemaker Ryan Hodgkins, who happens to be Hanzell’s assistant winemaker and viticulturalist. Take-home lesson: Find the best talent you can to help you fill in your divots.
- Tangent. No, the Niven family wasn’t exactly broke when they started this specialty brand that produces only dry, crisp, off-beat whites in screwtops. They owned Baileyana and a good chunk of prime vineyard land in Edna Valley. But they did come up with an idea before anyone else, and in so doing, are driving the wave. Take-home lesson: Be innovative, not me too.

Oh, and one more thing: None of the wineries above relied on gimmicks.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    Steve, another one is Paloma. Barbara and Jim Richards scratch out 15 acres of Merlot 2000 feet up Spring Mountain. No big name consultants, maybe they exchange some help with neighbors. Do their own farming, prune the vineyard themselves, make their own wine. No clever angles. No gimmicks. Merlot gets recognized by Wine Spectator as Wine of the Year. Despite thousands wanting to get on the mailing list, tenfold more people wanting their wine than able to get the wine, they honor old customers AND DON’T RAISE THE PRICE OF THE WINE.

  2. Morton, I might have mentioned Paloma, except I haven’t kept up with them for a couple years. It’s hard following every winery in California! But the 3 wines I have reviewed of theirs, I scored at 90, 92 and 94 (the 2004 Merlot). So I guess I like them too.

  3. YOu may not be as big a fan of marketing as I am, but how about the brands that have been launched by the Three Thieves gang… First the cool retro jugs of very decent (and not overpriced) juice. Later on, Tetra Paks (Bandit), a mainstream organic wine (True Earth), and my personal favorite, The Show — totally hip label and a fruit bomb of a wine that tastes like more than its $15 tag.

    I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that it’s a lot harder to launch a hefty quantity of modestly priced wine than a small amount of ultra-premium stuff.

  4. Great list, Steve.

    The Siduri story is so great – you can’t make stuff like that up if you tried!

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