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The King of marketing ploys

23 comments

Do you know what the greatest marketing scheme in the modern history of wine has been?

a. the French Paradox
b. Beaujolais nouveau
c. the 1976 Paris tasting
d. Sideways
e. the cult Cabernet phenomenon

All the above were brilliant, impacting the perception and sale of wine, but the greatest of them all was (b), Beaujolais nouveau. For those of you who live in a cave and don’t know what that is, it’s the first wine of the new vintage, released worldwide on the third Thursday in November amidst great furor and publicity. I almost wrote “traditionally released” because that’s how most writers refer to it, but there’s nothing “traditional” about the November release. According to some published reports, it wasn’t until 1985 that the “commercial phenomenon” of Beaujolais nouveau was invented. By the early 1990s, it was certainly set into place in California. I remember going to Kermit Lynch’s annual Beaujolais nouveau festival, in the parking lot outside his Berkeley store, where in additional to huge quantities of frothy, purple wine they’d serve grilled sausages and baguettes from Acme Bakery, next door.

Beaujolais, the wine, was nothing special prior to Beaujolais nouveau day. In my many older wine books, dating back to pre-Prohibition times, it’s scarcely mentioned. It wasn’t until the late, great Alexis Lichine’s 1979 book, Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France, that Beaujolais nouveau found its way into a wine book in any great detail, although Lichine preferred to call it Beaujolais primeur. He colorfully describes how, on the night of Nov. 15, “hundreds and hundreds of trucks and trailers [gathered] in the Beaujolais to pick up the wine,” likening the traffic headed into the big cities as “an army convoy.” But he did not write about the worldwide phenomenon of Beaujolais nouveau, because it did not then exist.

Wikipedia suggests that Georges Duboeuf “saw the potential for marketing Beaujolais Nouveau” and says that by the late 1970s its release in France “had become a national event,” spreading to other European countries and the U.S. in the 1980s and to Asia in the 1990s. Whatever its precise origins, Beaujolais nouveau day has  elevated a rather humble wine to an excitement meriting what amounts to a holiday in the world of wine. From Beijing to Lyons and San Francisco, Beaujolais nouveau makes a lot of producers a lot of money.

Can the phenomenon be replicated with other wines? Probably not. But that should never stop clever producers and their marketing agents from trying. You never know, before-hand, what’s going to work with P.R. Nobody could have predicted Pinot Noir’s resurgence prior to Sideways, or the launch of California’s reputation before the Paris tasting. And Sixty Minutes’ episode of the French Paradox was totally unexpected, in its massive impact on consumer attitudes toward [mainly red] wine.

Anyway, this year I’m going to pick up a few bottles of Beaujolais nouveau and bring them to our family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the perfect bridge wine, a little sweet, chilled like a white, fizzy and fruity. And now, I’m off to Monterey, for tomorrow’s Best of the Blue event. I’ll be taking questions on Saturday afternoon; if you want, send in yours at the Monterey Vintners’ Facebook page, and we’ll tweet back my replies!

  1. It did suffer a bit in later years, when the Nouveau turned out to be unspeakably vile – but hey, nothing like a challenge…

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    I pity the fool.

    This “wine” is sold at a fortune here in the 3rd world and people line up for it.

    Homo sapiens, sapiens my ass.

  3. I would offer that it is not (a,b,c,d,or e) but (f). That would be the 100 pt. scoring ruse.

  4. My understanding is that Parisian restaurateurs worked closely with Beaujolais producers in the early ’80’s to introduce a fun wine that would bring people to their restaurants in the dark, fall days of November in Paris. DuBoeuf capitalized on this, but forever cheapened his brand IMHO.

  5. Nah Steve~! the greatest marketing ploy/scam is taking a cheap (but cleanly made!) coop Pinot Grigio from N. Italy and turning it into a $20+ Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio! Wine that costs $1/liter or less, probably, all of sudden becomes a darling of the in-crowd! Go figure!
    Joel

  6. Fun wine book: “I’ll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World’s Most Popular Wine” by Rudolph Chelminski

  7. I believe the credit (or at least a very good part of it) for developing the Beaujolais Nouveau concept into the US phenomenon that it was goes to (the late) Kathleen Talbert, who for many years ran the outside PR firm for Deutsch’s Duboeuf wines. She designed and orchestrated the campaign for many years.

  8. Steve Ferree says:

    And another great marketing scheme in modern history was Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel.

  9. Good point about the marketing surrounding Nouveau (btw, I was in D.C in the mid-eighties and there would be huge banners on the wine stores declaring “NOUVEAU EST ARRIVE!!”; though, in fact, it had been in the store for weeks with the agreement not to release it until the third Thursday..) But I think you missed an even greater marketing ploy: putting a cork (therefore indicating a “quality” wine) in a bottle containing about 12 cents of wine and putting on a label they had bought rights to from Charles Shaw. then circulating rumors that it was cheap because: (a) a divorce, (b) the airlines could no longer use corkscrews on bottles, (c) ? I’m not sure HOW the rumors started, but I admire Franzia’s marketing skills enough to believe it was him.. : )

  10. Beaujolais seems to be having its third good vintage in a row with the early observations on 2011. It will be interesting to see if the Noveaux actually foretell the quality of the remaining appellation levels.

  11. Ron Saikowski says:

    Best marketing ploys were Sutter’s Home’s White Zin along with Mondavi’s Fume Blanc. BTW, both are California oriented. I would rank the 1976 Paris Tasting as a marketing ploy with international consequences, showing the world that great wines can come from other regions. Don’t forget the French and their greatest vintage of the century, five times in a row! I don’t call that marketing. I call it lying!

  12. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Before I read your article, I am praying that you aren’t gonna say Seasmoke Grand Cru. Now I will go back up and read today’s post.

  13. I recall both Mirrasou and Sebastiani producing BN in the mid to late 70’s.

  14. I thought for sure when I saw the headline it would be the “natural” wine movement.

  15. I agree with Joel. The Santa Margherita phenomenon outstrips Nouveau as a marketing ploy. Look at the number of imitators out there. Everyone and their brother is selling pinot grigio. Nouveau has faded in the marketplace from what it was 25 years ago.

  16. The greatest wine marketing ploy in recent history was, if the story is true, Screamin Eagle where the old owner was a real estate agent in Napa who’d drop a % off her commission if the clients would pay $900 for a bottle of wine. Of course the purchasers would never offer the fact that they basically traded. THAT is marketing at its finest folks. Not that the wine is bad… It probably is quite tasty, however not $900 a pop tasty…

  17. I agree with Joel.

  18. Bravo Ron Saikowski!, you tell it like it is. The $.99 cents bottle of Tisdale competes with any froggy BP, any time.

  19. This wine is one that I’ve never really understood to be honest. When I worked the restaurant scene in the 90’s people would flock requesting it. The wine never interested me, but understanding your points does. Great post and much appreciate the education on how this wine came to our mainstream.

  20. What about Yellow Tail?

  21. Ryan Flinn says:

    What’s fascinating to me is how many Beaujolais producers are trying to shed the image that all their stuff is cheap unfinished swill. As most wine critics have noted in the past few years, the Cru bottles are excellent wines, but are largely ignored, or lumped together with the nouveau offerings in the minds of wine drinkers. These Cru bottles are fantastic values, and many of the best are under $30. Kermit Lynch sells some by the glass at his annual nouveau event, if I recall correctly. They also make for great Thanksgiving wines.

  22. those early duboeuf posters were very cool, though.

  23. ahhh the 100 point system. That’s my favorite.

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