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Wilson Daniels, Bien Nacido brand themselves

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Wilson Daniels, the marketing and sales company based in St. Helena, has been around since 1978, but they’ve finally done something they might have done years ago: they started their own brand, also called Wilson Daniels.

I’ve long been an admirer of Wilson Daniels, the company. They have, arguably, the most prestigious portfolio in the U.S., with wineries from some of the major wine regions of the world. Their claim to fame is, of course, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, of which they are the exclusive American importer, but their California wineries are also impressive: Clos Pegase, Schramsberg, Lancaster, Gainey, Roth and a couple of others.

It never would have occurred to me, even two years ago, to wonder why Wilson Daniels didn’t launch their own brand. We tend to think of producers, on the one hand, and businesses on the corporate side, like Wilson Daniels, as mutually exclusive. I can’t think of another sales and marketing firm that has its own brand. Generally, companies understand what they do well and what they don’t; they veer toward the former and tend to stay away from the latter. Wilson Daniels (and I haven’t spoken to anyone there, so this is just guesswork on my part) evidently decided they can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Their first wines are relatively inexpensive, ranging from $14-$19, ranged across five varietals (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon). All bear a Central Coast appellation. They sent me only the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, neither of which is great shakes. I suspect all five wines say “Vinted and bottled by” on the back label, which means, in essence, that Wilson Daniels picked up the wines at a good price from somebody down in that area of California. Question: Why did Wilson Daniels, whose winery clients charge a lot of money for their wines, put something so ordinary on the market? The first commandment of business is to make a profit, and Wilson Daniels figured they could, by buying cheap and selling a little bit dearer. Could Wilson Daniels have released more expensive, better wines? I’m sure they could have, with all their connections. Maybe they didn’t wish to compete against their own clients. The price range–again, $14-$19–is a popular entry point these days for new brands. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive either, and that range is the comfort zone for consumers in 2012, as America emerges from this awful Recession and start spending again.

Another iconic name also has started a brand: Bien Nacido. Everybody knows them as one of the greatest vineyards in California, if not the New World. The designation “Bien Nacido Vineyard,” on dozens of wines from some of the state’s most prestigious wineries, is as close to an assurance of a very good wine as any vineyard designation can be. But the Miller family, who own Bien Nacido, have decided to launch their own brand, under the same name.

They faced similar but slightly different challenges from Wilson Daniels. For starters, should they call the brand Bien Nacido, or something different? Calling it Bien Nacido could cause some confusion out there in the marketplace, and might be seen as competing against the clients they sell grapes to. But they decided to call it Bien Nacido, and who am I to argue with that? It’s a fine name, and it would have been silly not to take advantage of it, in my opinion.

The Millers, however, did what Wilson Daniels didn’t: they came out with expensive wines. I’ve reviewed only two so far: the Syrah and the Pinot Noir, both from 2007. Both cost $52. The Syrah is awesome; I scored it 96 points. I gave the Pinot 90 points, but the truth is, it could be better today than when I reviewed it, last March. Bien Nacido also took the bold, ambitious step of hiring one of the foremost winemakers in California, Trey Fletcher, whom they lured away from Littorai. I think that testifies to their ambition to play at the highest level of which they’re capable, which is a very high level, indeed. After all, they won’t have any problem obtaining the best Bien Nacido fruit! There’s this consideration, too: having decided to brand the wines under the Bien Nacido name, the Millers certainly could not have released ordinary wine; that would have tarnished the Bien Nacido name they’ve spent so long burnishing.

Might Wilson Daniels someday decide to come out with an expensive Pinot Noir or Cabernet to rival, say, Lancaster, Clos Pegase of Gainey? Who’s to say? Two different companies, two different points of view and business philosophies. I wish them both luck in their new ventures.

  1. Love the Portfolio of Wilson Daniels!!!!

  2. Dear Steve,

    Thank you for your kind words about Wilson Daniels. I’m very proud of the company Win Wilson and I built.

    We always believed in making the world’s finest wines available in the US market. Wilson Daniels continues to do this as you noted.

    From the mid 1990′s to 2000, we produced and sold a Chardonnay under the Wilson Daniels banner at a higher price point that was quite successful. We chose to reintroduce the wine at this time, while being sensitive to the market conditions. We selected highly reputable vineyards in the Central Coast to allow us to offer these wines at a reasonable price yet over deliver at the price point.

    Because of our years in the business and our company having established a formidable reputation, it was our feeling that the consumer would take some comfort with our name on the label rather than compete with the plethora of unknown names that are proliferating in the market today.

    The Wilson Daniels wines are not meant to compete with the wineries in our portfolio. They are meant to stand on their own as accessible wines from a region with tremendous potential.

    Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions.

    Jack Daniels

  3. Really nice to hear from industry legend, Jack Daniels on here. Mr. Daniels, you and Mr. Wilson sure created something special with Wilson Daniels. Let’s all hope the new team can continue to carry your vision forward.

  4. From my perspective the Bien Nacido vineyards are branded as some of the most premium fruit on the central coast, and amongst the top in the State. This may not have been completely branded from the Miller family. I would suggest some of the branding came from a top reputation, and some of their outstanding clients like ABC. ABC produces some outstanding wines with slightly lower but similar pricing as the Miller’s release.

    If I’m not mistaken, the winery was the former J.Wilkes spot, and my guess is that none of this was a plan from the Millers, but I could be wrong. As their vineyards produce premium fruit, I would expect nothing less than wine of high quality. Difficult to imagine producing an Edsel off the Ferrari production line.

    As far as the naming of the winery, Bien Nacido, I agree with you and think it was an excellent branding move to create very high quality wine bearing the vineyards name. Seems like even if they sold the wine for a loss, it would benefit their “good will” accounting, further their outstanding reputation, and an even greater attention to the vineyards and their clients, especially with scores like 96. Nicholas Miller is a great guy, and I absolutely love the wines coming from their vineyards. I wish them continued success!

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