Wine with bats

Liliac in Romania is drawing on its Transylvanian heritage to help sell its wine. But Dracula is nowhere to be seen. Caroline Gilby MW reports.

Liliac winery, Romania
Liliac winery, Romania

Count Dracula, bloodsucking vampire bats and the spirit of Vlad Dracul may not seem an obvious way to promote wine, but the legends of Transylvania are helping Liliac Winery move beyond Romania’s poor international image.

Out with Dracula

Liliac is owned by Austrian Alfred Beck, whose main business (Amb Holding) is building development, though his personal passion is nature and farming. One of his former employees received a restituted parcel of land in Transylvania and asked for help with the vines there. The company did a small vinification in the cellar of the employee’s house in 2010 and was impressed with the region’s huge potential; Beck says the soil, climate and human resources fitted his vision. Soon after he bought the initial 14ha from the employee and added another 24ha around it in Batoș, plus a further 14ha in Lechința 40km away. A brand-new winery was built in 2011 in just 62 days on an abandoned site in Batoș.

Developing a brand was less straightforward. To begin with, the winery was thinking of slogans like ‘bloody good wine’ but found the association with Dracula too aggressive for Beck’s taste. It was then-general manager Ioana Micu who came up with the Liliac concept. In Romanian, it means ‘bat’, connecting it to the region’s legends but – crucially – it is easy to spell, has no difficult accents and as Beck explains, “It’s perfect for export as even the Chinese can pronounce it.” Many nights and litres of wine later, a local artist had drafted a design, and with useful foresight ‘Wine of Transylvania’ was registered as a trademark. The bat is not just a brand image, Beck notes: the winery sees bats as partners in protecting the vines from insect pests and has installed bat-boxes to encourage local populations.

Linking the brand to Transylvania was deliberate because it has a more positive reputation than Romania. As Beck highlighted at a recent tasting in Vancouver, some people don’t believe that Transylvania actually exists, yet while it may be the stuff of legend it is a real place: an often unspoiled landscape which is also Romania’s coolest wine zone. It’s a plateau right in the centre of the country with the Carpathian Mountains curling around it. In contrast, Romania’s poor reputation is hard to overcome in markets such as Austria and Germany. Before he joined Liliac, current general manager Miron Radić wrote his university thesis on marketing Romanian wines in both Germanic countries. “My brief conclusion was to forget it and focus on the home market,” he says.

Radić originally joined Liliac as a marketing junior at a time when Romanian wine drinkers had a strong preference for cheap semi-sweet wines, so a new marketing approach was important. Targeting Millennial drinkers was one priority. A second was developing a social media presence using bloggers and influencers because traditional media are not strong in Romania. The winery now has 55,000 Facebook fans, a group that can be targeted directly in marketing campaigns. A third priority was developing a distinctive product design.

A new approach

The Young Liliac brand story illustrates the winery’s approach. “We wanted to be different and use screw caps which everyone said would never sell in Romania, but Mr Beck’s view was why not try it,” says Radić. Another different strategy was using a competition for local artists to design labels for the range. The competition went online in 2013, using an agency specialising in social media. “Our core competence is making wine and we always want to work with experts in our weaker areas,” says Radić.

There were 50 entries in the first year, mostly amateurs attracted by the prize of $373 and the chance to see their label on wine bottles. The following year, the company tried guerrilla marketing, targeting the Romanian Artists Association. The latest competition attracted 400 entries and the winner is offered support for further studies and an internship at the winery. 

Radić explains that a fresh set of eyes and understanding of new trends is helpful. Young Liliac breaks the rules of typical Romanian marketing by launching campaigns much earlier than normal. “We aim to be first on the market, around the national holiday on first December.” The launch is always in an offbeat urban location, which last year was an abandoned wine bottling hall, and the idea is to target 18- to 30-year-old drinkers with fresh, fruity, easy-drinking wines. “It is about creating drinkers for our main brand tomorrow and to educate young drinkers that wines can taste good and be aromatic but dry, a distinct step away from low-quality semisweet stuff,” Radić explains. Young Liliac now accounts for 20% of the winery’s volume and 12-13% of its income.

Another point of difference for Liliac is having its own sales force in Romania. Radić comments that wine by the glass is not a strong category in Romania because of zero alcohol tolerance for driving, so people tend to go out by taxi and drink by the bottle. But he believes that restaurants are starting to take more care over their wine offer. “We’re helping them to see that they can sell more wine if there are options by the glass and they can build up to 40% of revenue from wine.” He adds: “Our salespeople are sommeliers and we pay for WSET courses. We see that more knowledgeable people get better reactions.” A careful sales pitch is vital in overcoming issues with grape choice. “The sad thing is Romanians like drinking Romanian wine but don’t choose local grapes because of their bad image in the past. We believe in these and want to sell them so we do promotions and special training to encourage listings.”

Overall the Liliac concept is about high quality with particular emphasis on fresh, elegant styles but Radić’s view is that the winery has to differentiate itself and disrupt the market to gain attention. Its recent launch of Titan is an example. “We wanted to make something not comparable to other countries and Fetească Neagră has no competition. When we started, no one was making really top-quality varietal versions of this grape. We see it, like Malbec in Argentina, as the identity grape for Romanian wineries.” Liliac believes in the future of red wines in its cool region as climate change takes effect, he adds. The wine has to be excellent but with packaging to match, so it’s offered in a handcrafted box with a platinum-embossed bottle. “We wanted to shock the market so we doubled the price of the current most expensive wine and rounded up to 500 lei ($118). Romanians still believe the highest price means the best wine and we sold out in two months.”

Willing to experiment

Liliac was the first winery in Romania to do orange wine, which helped it gain listings in the Netherlands, and pioneered the category of high-quality sweet wines such as its passito-style Nectar of Transylvania. It also has a joint venture with Kracher in Austria which is proving successful. Radić says, “This is a partnership meeting two needs – we can do high-quality ice wines every year but have no market, while Kracher has a market demand but can’t make the wine every year. We are also finding Kracher can help with exporting other Liliac wines as they have an established distribution network.” In spite of Radić’s initial view, exports are growing, currently at 10%, mostly to Benelux, Poland, Austria and Switzerland, with North America and Asia as future targets. Liliac is not stopping here though. Beck says: “Next year, we should reach operational profitability and we will be investing again in the wine cellar. Our new French winemaker will bring a creamier, softer touch to the wines.” Radić believes wine tourism is also a necessity as the winery currently turns down lots of requests to visit. Beck sums up, “Liliac is in my heart and in everything I start, I want to reach perfection. 

Caroline Gilby MW

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