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Barefoot is nation’s biggest brand. Memories.

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I’m not at all surprised to see that Barefoot is the country’s biggest wine brand in retail sales, according to a new study published in Wines & Vines.

I’ve been a Barefoot fan for years. With line pricing of $7, Barefoot offers consumers good value. I’ve given a bunch of “Best Buy” special designations to several releases this year (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Moscato, Cabernet Sauvignon), and because the wines are produced in such large quantities (1.17 million cases for the Cabernet), they’re easy to find just about anyplace.

Are all the Barefoot wines good? No. Are they necessarily what I would drink at home? No. Fortunately, I’m in a position to drink better. But millions of Americans depend on these wines, and I’ve always defended wine companies like Gallo (which owns Barefoot) for making the simple act of drinking wine an affordable pleasure.

The Chicago market research firm that conducted the study shows Barefoot sales up an astounding 27.4% from a year ago (to $254,685.500). That’s not only because the wines are sound, it’s due to Gallo’s extraordinary sales and distribution system, which is hard to compete with. Gallo’s always been a leader in distribution–they taught everyone else how to do it. When I was getting into wine, the oldtimers would tell me stories from the 1940s about how ruthless Gallo’s salesmen were. They’d shake their heads in disbelief at some of the things those roguish old sales guys did, but there was also a note of admiration for their chutzpah.

I could never be a salesman. I have friends who work for wine companies on the sales side, and I don’t envy them. It’s a hard life. You’re out there on the road all the time–if it’s Tuesday, this must be Cleveland–living out of suitcases, staying up ‘til all hours, probably eating and drinking too much. Psychologically, you’re on the wrong side of the equation: trying to sell wine to people who have the upper hand in this down market. They pit you against your competitors–Sutter Home, Franzia, Woodbridge, Yellow Tail, K-J–forcing you to deal with them on their terms. Meanwhile, your employer has expectations you’ll deplete “x” number of case goods, or else. So you reach for another Xanax and hit the road for Milwaukee.

I’m glad to see Bogle on the list at #18. I’ve always liked their wines. Lots of Best Buys there, too. They tend to be a little more expensive than Barefoot, but I give them higher scores. You get what you pay for.

You really have to admire these big companies, whether they’re family owned (Gallo, Sutter Home, Kendall-Jackson) or corporate owned (Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi, Fetzer, Clos du Bois). Their brands have insinuated themselves in the consumers’ mind and now ring as familiar is Band-Aids and Xerox machines. Those brands whose sales are up in this economy especially deserve kudos. It’s hard to discern why down brands are struggling, especially Fetzer, which is off 13.9% from last year. They’ve been well branded for nearly 30 years, so something must be up. Their last few wines have been pretty good; I gave then a bunch of Best Buys, and they’re affordable, at $9-$10 a bottle. I wonder if they problem isn’t on the sales, distribution and marketing side. Maybe Moscato can give Fetzer a shot in the arm, but maybe not; everybody else is making it too.

Thinking of Fetzer brings back memories. When it was owned by the ubiquitous Fetzer clan, I was invited up for a food and wine thing, at their big visitor’s center in Hopland (Mendocino County). Julia Child was there as a guest chef. I found myself sitting with her, just the two of us, on a little wooden deck beside a pond. It was a very hot day and we both had retreated there to find a cooling breeze. As we chatted, she lifted her white skirt up above the knees, slightly spread her legs and fanned herself, in an endearingly unself-conscious way. I remember also Julia Child serving lunch to a group of us on a sand dune overlooking Monterey Bay. The weather was cold and windy, and she struggled to carry plates of food as she negotiated the treacherous sand. Dressed in white sneakers, with her great height, she seemed like a sea nymph, washed ashore from the briny deep.

  1. John Roberts says:

    I think it’s great that wines like Barefoot and Yellow Tail exist. I can’t imagine why some would protest that these wines thrive. Would they rather see Far Niente up production and become a best-seller? I’m not sure what critics have in mind as an alternative since as you say, it’s these wines that make wine-drinking an available luxury for most consumers. I’m not old enough to know the Inglenooks and Burgundys on the shelves, and it’s something I really wish I knew. Great memories of Julia Child. Ultimately that is one of wine’s gifts, isn’t it? Whether we’re drinking a Tokalon or a Charles Shaw, its the people and places that came along with those wines, the things we talked about and did. Ultimately the best wines I’ve had I don’t remember the prices of. Still, I think some bad wines actually dilute experiences. Fetzer was a different wine then, no?

  2. Johh, yes Fetzer was a vastly different wine when the Fetzers owned it.

  3. I’m OK with Barefoot and considering the “price fighter” positioning, some of the wines are really not bad. I don’t buy Fetzer, as in our Ohio market there are many competitors in the $9.99 – $11.99 bracket at retail where they are. Maybe I’ll try some. I was just researching the big 4 wine companies recently and remember Gallo commercials on TV as a kid. Their brand became associated with cheap swill in the ’60′s & ’70′s, but they were there. They probably rightly don’t crow about their Thunderbird and Night Train brands, but they own dozens of “good” brands you will see everywhere at retail.

  4. When we founded Barefoot, the industry was incensed with the idea of having fun with wine and putting a foot of all things, on the label. My friend, Davis Bynum who originally came up with the idea in the 1960′s actually stopped producing it in the 1970′s. When we brought back the Barefoot in 1986, with a new label and a new marketing concept, folks told us that so many people had a problem with the foot that we also should consider changing the logo all together. That’s when we knew we were on the right track. We told them that we were just going after the folks that liked the foot. At the time, they were more than we had anyway. After years of “Worthy Cause Marketing” we developed a loyal following and gave the rest of the market permission to like the foot and have fun with wine! We took it to just under 600,000 cases per year before we sold it in 2005. There were many challenges along the way that could have easily prevented it from being here today. We strongly believed in the concept of a fun, “people’s” wine brand, spreading by word of mouth (today its called networking). Its hard to believe that this mega brand started in a laundry room, in a farm house, in Sonoma County, by a couple of entrepreneurs with no money and no knowledge of the industry. We are absolutely thrilled that the brand, with its “baked in” goodness is married to a company that can continue the quality, price and fun while superbly executing this American icon world wide.

  5. I love this post for a number of reasons….

    1. It’s really pleasing to hear big names like in the industry like yourself give credit where credit is due and appreciate the wines Gallo makes for generating new members of the wine drinking community. Barefoot wine rocks for what it is: the wine that gets people into wine. Full disclosure, I work for Gallo myself, and its just nice to hear someone say something nice about us. Thanks, Steve.
    2. An appreciation for the psychological pressures of sales. I was a wine salesman in southern California in grocery stores where I was little more than an extra stock boy, and it was still stressful.
    3. Michael Houlihan relating the original story of Barefoot in these comments. It’s great to see the interconnectedness of the wine world and to realize that there are always people behind these success stories.
    4. Goofy Julia Child stories are hilarious.

  6. One can’t discuss this topic without mentioning Bronco. Not only did Fred Franzia, his brother and cousin cause a sensation with Two Buck Chuck–which won best Chard out of 350 submittals at the 2007 Cal. State Fair)–but he was untiring in getting restaurants to carry a 10 Buck wine (Salmon Creek) “I don’t make wine to put in a closet.” Fred once commented, “We sell wine to drink.” Bronco’s more than 50 brands offer much for their price points and did as much as any of those other guys to put vino on the American table.

  7. Another great article Steve. I agree with you that the Barefoot line offers some really good wines for the price. Their longtime Winemaker Jen Wall does a great job with the line, including some of the sparkling wines. As for Fetzer, I remember some knockout reds at great prices many years ago when it was owned by the Fetzer family. I remember drinking their Lake County Zinfandel when I lived in LA in 1979. Nice wine that sold for something like only $2.35 per bottle.

  8. Jason Brumley says:

    Yes, people may criticize these inexpensive wines; but, these are the wines that keep the lights on for winemakers and owners to create fun and/or high end wines. People often forget that wine making may be a passion; but, unless you want to be a garage wine maker forever, it’s a business as well.

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