Why wine needs branding

Should wine be judged solely on its merits? Is that even possible? Robert Joseph says it's not, and explains why wine needs brands and marketing.

Photo of wine capsules by Morgan Paine on Unsplash
Photo by Morgan Paine on Unsplash

Can a small winemaker, with five or 10 hectares create a brand? Is it fair to expect them to develop a mastery of marketing and sales as well as grape-growing, fermentation, blending, maturation and bottling? 

At first glance, this looks like a very fair and sensible pair of questions. The context was a discussion of the challenge that well-funded industrial producers represent to smaller estates. But there was a time when this question would never have arisen.

When I first lived in Burgundy in the 1970s, the idea of marketing their wine would have been unimaginable to most of my neighbours. They tended their vines, picked and crushed the grapes and fermented their juice, and waited for the courtier (the broker) to do a deal that would involve a negociant taking the wine off their hands.

This happy state of affairs stopped for many Burgundians in the early 1980s, after the ‘oil shock’ recession of 1979. Suddenly the courtier stopped calling; the negociants didn’t need to fill their cellars because they were struggling to sell what they already had. Fortunately, for the growers, a few enterprising people like my friend and employer Becky Wasserman were opening businesses selling, and creating new markets for, estate-bottled wines to the US.

When one considers the number of individuals pouring their wines at Burgundy tastings nowadays, it is hard to imagine how much rarer grower-Burgundies were 30 or 40 years ago. In 1983, I took Edmund Penning Rowsell, Jancis Robinson’s predecessor at the Financial Times, to taste at Domaine de la Pousse d’Or in Volnay. It was the first time he’d set foot in a Burgundian cellar that didn’t belong to a merchant.

This was a time of change. In narrow village streets that were habitually blocked by tankers syphoning bulk-purchased wine from cellars, there were now increasing sightings of a new phenomenon: the mobile bottling line. The two printers in Beaune enjoyed a minor boom, as vignerons and their wives pored over catalogues of label templates: What would look best on our Gevrey Chambertin, the picture of a bunch of grapes, or the old wooden press? Or what about a coat of arms?

Admittedly, these were baby steps. The idea of designing a label, or printing the domaine name anywhere other than at the foot of a label that looked like most of the neighbours’ would never have occurred to most growers. Wine selling often simply consisted of letting Wasserman’s customers (and me as their guide and translator) do a bit of barrel tasting, followed by the occasional older bottle. Or, for the more commercially adventurous, sticking an old barrel outside their cellar with a few empty bottles and a hand-written sign saying Dégustation.

For an observer like me, however, it was clear that something had changed. Vignerons who once unquestioningly accepted the cours (the going rate) for the wine they sold in bulk discovered that there were buyers in Boston who’d pay a dollar or two more for a bottle of their St Aubin after a good review from a critic.

Prices rose, allowing some of the more enterprising growers to cross the Atlantic to see for themselves what was happening to their wine chez les americains.

And, of course, some of them became ‘brands’.

Not household names like Coca Cola, Levi’s or Ford, or wine brands like Mondavi, Antinori or Duboeuf that are familiar to every wine professional and most enthusiasts. No, they could be compared to Noble, Quad, Lange & Sôhne, Escentric or Zai – whose names ring loud bells with people who are really interested in cars, hi fi, watches, perfume and skis respectively. Wine people pant at the idea of being able to buy a bottle of Coche-Dury for $1,000; well-heeled, ultra-keen skiers happily shell out $6,000 for a pair of handmade Zais.

All of these are brands – to their target consumers - just as the actor Jacky Chan is a brand for people who like Chinese comedy action movies with great stunts, and Vin Diesel draws in audiences that love watching men driving very fast cars and firing guns.

So, to return to the original question, yes, of course small wine producers can produce brands. Coche-Dury has nine hectares; Marcel Lapierre has seven and I can’t imagine that there are any natural wine enthusiasts who haven’t heard of him. Chiara Boschis has six and a half and her E Pira & Figli label will certainly be known to anyone with a serious interest in Barolo.

Obviously, price per bottle and turnover are not irrelevant: it’s much easier to build a brand for a small Burgundy. Barolo, or Champagne estate than one offering cheaper fare such as Corbières or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, just as it’s easier to make a living from a bijou Champagne and caviar bar than an equivalent space selling Cava and chips.

Small estates in less-than-starry AOPs selling at low prices will almost certainly struggle. But I’d say that evolution is against them anyway. Fortune, after all, favours the bold.

In the larger picture, making good wine, or being a good singer, actor or novelist, isn’t enough and it never has been. Some people have always understood the importance of marketing and selling, whatever form this may take.

One of the most powerful Hollywood companies, United Artists, began when a group of actors decided they wanted to control their own interests. Arnaud de Pontac, owner of Chateau Haut Brion did precisely the same when he sent his son to London in the wake of the Great Fire of 1666, to open the Pontack’s Head tavern where his wine would be enjoyed, and written about, by Samuel Pepys. Charles Dickens was a brilliant self-promoter, but so was Philippe de Rothschild. The superstar British singer Adele’s career began with a video posted on the pioneering social media platform, Myspace, and of course 50 Shades of Grey was originally a self-published e-book.

When a chef opens a restaurant he or she knows that the quality of their dishes is only part of the picture. Location will matter, as will the design and ambience – and, yes, a bit of marketing. And, sadly, even with all of these, some really good restaurants will fail. I’m at a loss to know why the same rules shouldn’t apply to a winemaker


Robert Joseph

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