Shakespeare’s line in As You Like It that “good wine needs no bush”, referring to the way innkeepers used to hang out a bunch of greenery as an advertisement for their wares, seems to have become surprisingly tightly woven into the philosophy of the wine industry.
Every time I talk about any kind of marketing, packaging or branding initiative, I am almost certain to receive a slew of responses that essentially question why a producer should ever need to do anything more than put all his or her passion and skill into making good wine. Invest in an eye-catching label or bottle, a gift carton or tube, and you run the risk of being accused of, in the evocative words of one American, “putting lipstick on a pig”.
When I have the temerity to talk about patently successful strategies, such as the designer-bottles used by Provence rosé producers to help justify prices they could never previously have commanded, there’s a barrage of reasons against anyone else following a similar course. “Rosé is different,” I’m told. “It’s a fashion thing”; “it was lucky timing”; “it was all thanks to Brangelina”.
In other words, for anyone making or selling red or white wine and without recourse to a Hollywood superstar, it’s simply not worth putting much effort into marketing, because it probably won’t do any good.
So, I’ve decided it’s time to turn the spotlight on a number of producers who’ve been rewarded for ignoring this way of thinking.
Let’s start at the top, way back in the 17th century with Arnaud de Pontac, who wasn’t content with distributing the wine from his Bordeaux estate locally in France and through traditional merchants elsewhere. Instead, he sent his son, François-Auguste to England where he opened a tavern called the Pontac’s Head which, according to the 20th century gastronomic historian André Simon, became London’s most fashionable place to eat, and ‘Pontac’ a almost a synonym for claret. De Pontac’s ‘Ho Bryan’, on offer in another tavern (possibly part-owned by the Frenchman), so impressed Samuel Pepys that he wrote about it in his diary.
In 1942, Fernando van Zeller Guedes realised that the acid light red wine that was the mainstay of Northern Portugal’s vineyards would never seduce the US and UK. So, he invented an off-dry, slightly sparkling wine he called Mateus rosé, stuck it in a German bottle shape reminiscent of a First World War hip flask, with a stylish label – and created a ticket to instant sophistication for countless consumers. Including, so it seems, Saddam Hussein. Three quarters of a century after its launch, Mateus may no longer enjoy annual sales of over three million cases, but it still contributes to its Sogrape’s profits.
Georges Duboeuf’s flower labels revolutionised the Beaujolais market in the 1970s and 1980s, as did Cloudy Bay’s iconic packaging in the New Zealand of the1990s. The brilliant Joseph Helfrich, founder of Grands Chais de France, achieved something of the same effect as van Zeller Guedes, with his JP Chenet bottle, and of course no one ever criticises Champagne and sparkling wine brands for commissioning their own bottles.
Philippe de Rothschild broke all the rules, from bottling his own wine, challenging the 1855 classification, creating collectible arty labels, introducing wine tourism to the Médoc, launching Mouton Cadet as a brand that leveraged the prestige of his chateau, and creating a joint venture – Opus One – in California with Robert Mondavi. Thirty years after his death, he still seems younger in his approach than most of the people working in Bordeaux.
But de Rothschild was not just a great innovator; he was also a supreme communicator, making sure that everyone knew all about what he had been doing.
Mondavi tirelessly criss-crossed the world talking up Napa and California, as well as his own wines, but so did the late Gerard Jaboulet with his firm’s Hermitage la Chapelle and Etienne Hugel with his family’s Alsace wines. Miguel Torres, Marcel Guigal, Pierro Antinori, the Frescobaldis, Angelo Gaja, Alvaro Palacios, Peter Sisseck and so many other recognisable names have all, in one way or another, hung sizeable bushes outside their businesses. That’s how their names have become so familiar.
And the same is hugely true of Sacha Lichine the man who launched Whispering Angel six years before Mr Pitt and Ms Jolie ever got into the pink wine business – and then tirelessly personally worked every market in which his wines are distributed.
I’m sure there will be plenty of naysayers out there who’ll rush to say how Domaine X or Y whose name is known to a small number of its fans makes much better and more attractively-priced wine than some of the people I’ve listed here. And I daresay in some cases they’d be right. Just as there may be some far finer actors than the ones whose pictures appear in the glossy magazines.
But you know what? It’s the fame of stars like Pitt, Jolie and Cruise that helps to bankroll the movies in which those ‘better’ actors get to work. And it’s the glory the Mondavis, Antinoris, Torres’s and Cloudy Bays et al have reflected on their regions, that has contributed to the well-being of – voluntarily or involuntarily – unsung local heroes
Maybe I should leave the last word to William Shakespeare who, when you read the quotation in full, was evidently in no doubt about the potential value of skillful marketing:
If it be true that good wine needs no bush,
'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue;
yet to good wine they do use good bushes,
and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues.