By David Kiley
For decades, wine consumption in the U.S. was hobbled by a lack of understanding of wine combined with lame or confusing marketing and labeling by wine producers, both domestic and international. But as increasingly clever marketers find success with simple, compelling labels -- think Yellow Tail and Marilyn Merlot -- they're discovering another way appeal to the $10-wine buyer: Make fun of the $30-and-up buyers. Think about how Rush Limbaugh talks about liberals, and you get the idea.
Brown-Forman (which markets wines such as Jekel, Fetzer, and Bolla) recently jumped into this vat hand-in-hand with Virgin Atlantic Chief Richard Branson in launching Virgin Vines. Starting with two California wines, a Chardonnay and Shiraz, the partnership seeks to promote wine consumption by dissing those who take wine too seriously. The label's pitch goes like this: "Dare to enjoy this wine without dashes of pretentiousness or hints of snootiness. Virgin Vines believes wine should be all about having fun and loving the taste...not waxing poetically about meaningless wine-speak and food pairings."
The ad slogan is "Unscrew it, let's do it." And the virginvines.com Web site is full of pronouncements like "If you're looking for recipes or food pairings, hate to break it you, but you are in the wrong place." The site talks about how wine aficionados talk of "body" in a wine in terms of the overall texture or weight of the wine in the mouth. In Virgin-speak, "body" simply refers to "What everyone shows off when they are younger, and hides when they are older." Ho, ho.
The pitch is clever, so we can expect to see Virgin Vines displays to start showing up in liquor stores and grocery wine sections. Given the brash, overconfident marketing, it's too bad the wines aren't better. The Chardonnay, like so many California Chardonnays, has all the body and texture of Saran Wrap. It's not so much wine as Chardonnay-flavored water -- thin, utterly forgettable, and seemingly made without any true care.
The Shiraz could just as easily be called "The Red Stuff." In fact, given the marketing campaign, I'm surprised it isn't. The Shiraz was definitely more drinkable than the Chardonnay, but if offered nothing that can't be found in the ubiquitous Australian Shirazes or the California bulk wines from the same vats from which Virgin was undoubtedly tapped (see BW Online, 3/21/05, "A Big Taste for Aussie Wine"). The wines have a suggested retail price of $9.99 per bottle, or $8.99 for a four pack with smaller, plastic bottles.
Brown-Forman isn't just dabbling in Virgin territory. It hopes to sell some 300,000 cases in 2006 and aims to make Virgin one of its leading brands out of California in just a few years. Several million dollars is behind the launch. One ad to run in alternative publications, such as music magazines and alternative city dailies, resembles a singles ad: "Full-bodied Shiraz desires hookup. No commitments, baggage, or corkscrew..."
All this marketing muscle for mediocre wine worries me. Increasing consumption of wine that's well-marketed but not very well-crafted could pressure wine regions to concentrate more on vineyard yield instead of quality. It took discerning French winemaker Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, who heads Chilean winery Casa Lapostolle and is part of the family that owns Grand Marnier, for example, to convince Chilean vineyards to plant more vineyards on the mountain slopes to get better quality -- albeit fewer -- grapes.
"They said, 'How can we can compete with other countries selling the inexpensive wine that way?' she recalls. "And I said, 'You shouldn't. Leave that market to others.'"
Virgin, Yellow Tail, and Turning Leaf are better marketed and merchandised than mass wines of my youth -- Paul Masson and Inglenook, for example -- and attract a lot of young wine drinkers for the cachet and acceptability they've achieved via the compelling labeling and marketing. What strikes me as odd and unfortunate is that part of the cachet seems to be that wine drinkers are better off knowing less about the product. Matching a wine with the right food, for example, isn't child's play (see BW, 5/2/05, "Wine Savvy in 108 Steps").
It benefits the wine drinker and the eater to know something about what wine complements which food. Figuring it out takes only a little earnest curiosity, not a wine course at the local community college. And the right choice is a great enhancer to a meal.
I'm the first to say that wine shouldn't be overcomplicated. But it shouldn't be oversimplified either. Wine is associated with discovery, not to mention romance, nuance, excitement, and discernment. It's cool to learn about Greek and Italian reds that are well matched with some kinds of fish, and the reasons why Chilean or New Zealand Pinot Noirs are different from those coming from France and California (see BW Online, 9/30/05, "Greek Wine: From Yuck To Yum").
That's why wine scholar, former vintner, and current wine merchant Thomas Pellechia says Virgin's campaign is troubling, but not surprising. "In the tasting room I used to run and in my travels, one of the things I've been appalled to learn is that members of the general American public seemed to take pride in not knowing too much about the world around them -- as if knowledge was something that made you bad, or worse, dull," he recalls.
And that's just what Virgin's campaign plays up to. Yes, Virgin has some clever ads and slogans, and I'm sure more are on the way. But pardon me if I don't lift my glass and offer a toast.
Kiley is BusinessWeek's Marketing editor
Edited by Patricia O'Connell