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Brand Building in the Wine Business, It Ain’t Easy

A brand is a set of expectations. We think of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as brands, but those are just the names. The golden arches and red can with white script are the brands’ symbols. The real brands are the collected expectations those names and symbols represent. Whether you like the products or not, you know exactly what a Big Mac is, how McDonalds french fries differ from those of Wendy’s and can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind tasting.

320px-McDonalds Times SquareMcDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong brands not because we recognize the name but because we know what they stand for. Decades of advertising and your personal experience with their extremely consistent products have almost literally etched their products into your brain. How many wine brands can you say that about?

Building a brand is difficult and expensive. It requires uniformity of products, seemingly endless repetition of messaging and many, many personal experiences with the product by each target consumer. This presents serious challenges for the wine industry.

The first problem is that the quality and character of wine is subject to change from year to year because of weather, harvest dates, increasing vine age, circumstances during fermentation and numerous other factors. Compounding that lack of constancy is the fact that wine changes as it ages in bottle. Consumers may drink it any time from the date of release to many years later. And then there’s the way serving temperature affects a wine. The only wineries that can achieve anything like the product consistency of a McDonalds or a Coca-Cola are those that produce at very high volume and don’t mind using additives—or at least blending multiple vintages as in Champagne— to build wine to a relatively simple and specific flavor profile.

Another issue is that fine wines often have complicated, multi-part names. In one hand we hold a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich. In the other we clutch a 2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles. Which is easier to understand? The Big Mac is, or was, a cute but generic name. Today we know it to be just one thing, a two-patty, three-bun burger with cheese, shredded lettuce and special sauce.

wind gap bottleshot whiteBut the wine’s name is full of variables. You can tell Wind Gap is the winery name and you may be aware they make small-production wines of individual character and high-quality.

Next we see “Chardonnay.” Okay, that’s easy. Most wine lovers know that Chardonnay is a white wine. Experienced sippers will know that Chardonnay is a dry wine... except when it’s a little bit sweet.

What else do we know about Chardonnay?

  • Chardonnay smells and tastes like lemon or green apple or yellow apple or pear or peach of varying degrees of ripeness. And it can have accents of chalk or limestone, lemon curd or cheese rind, baking spice or flowers...
  • Chardonnay is fermented with native or commercial yeast
  • Chardonnay undergoes malolactic fermentation making it round and buttery or partial malolactic fermentation making it a little crisp, a little smooth and not very buttery or no malolactic fermentation keeping it very crisp and medium-bodied.
  • Chardonnay is fermented in oak, stainless steel or, very rarely, concrete.
  • Chardonnay is aged in new oak, probably French, or aged in neutral oak or it’s not aged at all.

So far so good? We also know 2011 was the vintage and have heard it was a cool year. But then the grapes came from Paso Robles which we know to be warm. So that means...? And wait, isn’t Paso Robles best-known for Cabernet Sauvignon? No worries! It’s from the James Berry Vineyard which is kind of famous. Um... for Syrah.

Please allow me a brief aside. Lately it’s been fashionable to bash tasting notes and call them unnecessary. If, after simply reading the name of this wine— that was made from America’s most popular grape by a famous, small winery from a vineyard that has produced 100-point wines in an AVA that’s one of the United States’ best-known—you can honestly say you know what that wine is like, then you’ve either tasted the wine before or your name is Larry Stone. For everyone else, here’s my tasting note which is way better than nothing.

2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles
The grapes came from the vineyard’s last remaining block of Chardonnay (own-rooted, 50-year old vines of Wente clone). The juice was fermented with native yeast in concrete and stainless steel tanks, then aged 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine is medium to medium-plus in body with matching acidity and light-grained texture. The nose is controlled but expressive, the palate even more forthcoming. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple are embellished with notes of baking spice, apple blossom and dusty soil. Highly Recommended.

So, back to branding. The complexity of wine makes it very difficult. That is true whether we’re talking about a single bottle of wine, a winery producing many different wines or even a growing region.

If you’re trying to build recognition for an AVA, you have to educate consumers on it’s character. That character is determined at minimum by its climate, topography, soils and principal varieties, plus the quality and style of its wineries. There is also a danger that the region will be overshadowed by individual producers or the grape varieties.

French wines are labeled by region rather than variety. That’s great at building awareness for the region, perhaps too good. I can’t tell you how many Americans I meet who think Burgundy is a grape variety.

Here in California we tend to label varietally. I’m convinced this straightforward approach helps the average consumer. It doesn’t help regions though. As with the wine above, our eyes go first to the winery and then to the grape. People often stop reading at that point, especially if the producer is recognized and the variety something common like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So how do you go about building the brand for a region? Next week I’ll tell you about one winery’s attempt to do exactly that. It’s a cool, if quixotic, project.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of McDonalds in Times Square by Sallicio. McDonalds and the golden arches are registered trademarks of McDonalds. All rights reserved.


Steve Hamilton
#1 Steve Hamilton 2013-09-07 15:04
Pretty insightful stuff. It is sometimes a mystery how a brand creates the mystique that hooks people. I work for Audi...a brand that nearly vanished in the country in the 70's and is now seriously on the rise. How do you separate yourself from the others? Great question...anxi ous to read next segment of your story
Fred Swan
#2 Fred Swan 2013-09-08 23:27
Thank you, Steve.

Audi's a very interesting story too testament to how fragile even good brands are. Bad press, even if unfounded can do major damage and retractions can never fully reverse it. I'm really glad to see the company doing well here again.
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