What makes a wine successful?

Fireworks by Anthony Cramp
Fireworks by Anthony Cramp

Between 130 and 140 million babies will be born over the next year. Estimating even the most approximate number of new products and brands that will be launched globally over the course of 2018 is not just harder; it’s impossible. In 2011, however, Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School, helpfully gave a total figure for the US of 30,000, while, Aaron L Brody’s Developing New Food Products for the Changing Marketplace quotes New Product News as saying that the number of new food products in the US in 1998 was between 11,000 and 16,000.

Whatever the figure, one thing is clear: the vast majority will fail to reach the equivalent of adulthood. Christensen has become famous for talking about an overall failure rate for new products of 95%, while Brody leans on separate research by Linton, Matysiak and Wilkes, Inc and the US retail analysts IRI, to offer 72% to 78%.

None of these figures is encouraging - especially when considered alongside the assertion by Lynn Dornblaser, when she was general manager of New Product News, that big companies have far, far fewer failures than small ones. The success rate of the more than 14,000 products launched by smaller businesses in 1996, she noted, was poorer than 12%.

The wine world’s new products generally come in two forms. On the one hand, there are branded wines, such as Gallo’s Apothic and Jay Z’s Armand de Brignac, and the short-lived, wannabe ‘critter’ brands that piled into the US market in the hope of catching the slipstream of hits like Yellowtail and Rex Goliath. On the other, there are the officially designated appellations that are being created almost weekly in almost every region with a vineyard.

In the spring of 2017, for example, Italy launched Delle Venezie, its 335th DOC, and the French authorities announced the arrival of Vézelay, a Chardonnay from the north of Burgundy. A few months later, Chile created Ñuble, and three subregions called Diguillín, Punilla, and Valle del Italta, while California gave birth to the Petaluma Gap AVA.

It is of course possible that all of these names will one day become as familiar to wine drinkers across the planet as Priorat and Sonoma. It is, however, rather more likely that most will only ring any kind of bell with the people who live in or close to them, wine students, and professionals and enthusiasts with a particular interest in their part of the world.

In other words, if they were brands, they would have failed - and for the same reasons as all those other new products.

Back in the late 1990s, when distributors were asked by TJ Hoban to name the primary reasons for these failures, their top four included: lack of a consumer benefit, duplication or lack of innovation, insufficient product marketing and inadequate market research.

So, judged by these criteria how well would most new - or old - appellations score? How many consumers will derive any real ‘benefit’ from the existence of Diguillín? In a blind tasting, how many would be able to identify the differences between Petaluma Gap wines and examples produced in nearby Carneros? How big a marketing budget will Vezelay enjoy? And, for all the effort they undoubtedly devoted to soil and microclimate analysis, how much time and money did the people behind all these new appellations put into how and where they would fit on the increasingly packed shelves?

When the wine producers of the Coteaux de Tricastin appellation saw the disastrous effect on their sales the Tricastin nuclear power station was having, they did what any other brand owner would do: they decided to change their name. The only difference was that they had to apply and wait for permission to do so from the INAO.

The new name they chose was Grignan-les-Adhémar. This must have seemed like a fine idea - to anyone sufficiently couched in French literature to know of the missives the 17th century letter-writer, Madame de Sévigné, sent to her daughter, Françoise, who had become countess of the Tricastin town of Grignan, after marrying François Adhémar de Monteil de Grignan. Less literary-minded wine drinkers, on the other hand, will probably simply reach for the similar-tasting and similarly-priced Côtes du Rhône sitting beside them on the shelf.

Did anyone even momentarily pause to wonder how well Grignan-les-Adhémar would play in Birmingham, Alabama or Beijing?

When products fail, they simply disappear from the market. Appellations, however, have the gift of immortality; nobody ever questions their raison d’etre any more than they question that of a town or village.

But for anyone who cares to look, it is not difficult to monitor their relative success and failure. Over the 30 years since Regnié was promoted to become the tenth Beaujolais Cru, it has failed to build any kind of reputation for itself; the price of its wines and the value of its vineyards are still barely higher than that of Beaujolais Villages.

Of course, top producers can and do charge more for their Regnié, just as their counterparts in the Rhône might for their Grignan-les-Adhémar. But they could almost certainly sell the same wines at the same price under the name of a Beaujolais Villages or Côtes du Rhône special cuvée.

I wish all the best to all the producers across the world who are sticking born-in-2017 appellation labels onto their bottles for the first time this year, or eagerly awaiting the birth of a new appellation in 2018. All I would say is that, as any parent and brand-owner knows, their work has only just begun.
Robert Joseph


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