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The Rotating Reds: a marketing plan

The Rotating Reds: a marketing plan

Richard Paul Hinkle

The French have a saying. (They have many sayings, of course, but many cannot be printed in so proper a publication as Wines & Vines.) The saying I have in mind is this one: “The first duty of a wine is to be red.”

The Rotating Reds is a unique marketing group, composed of a half dozen small, premium producers of Napa Valley Cabernets Sauvignon. They put this group together to lure the press into their lair of personality-driven wines, wines that, they argue, take on the characteristics of their producers.

To better get across their notion of putting a face to both wines and proprietors, a different producer each year hosts an event to showcase that year’s new release wines, to show other wines at a glorious, yet casual dinner – at which each vintner prepares one course of the six-course meal – and allow press and personalities (people and wines) to mingle, to better get to know one another.

Allow me to introduce the families. They are the Barnetts, the Harrisons, the Finkelsteins (Judd’s Hill), the Livingstons, the Pahlmeyers and the von Strassers.

Of this group, I’ve know Bunnie and Art Finkelstein the longest. They were, as you may recall, founding partners, with Art’s brother, Alan Steen (and Alan’s wife Charlene), of Whitehall Lane Winery nearly two decades ago. In 1988 they sold Whitehall to Japanese developer Hideaki Ando. Art and Bunnie, along with son Judd, headed for the Eastern slopes of St. Helena to focus on just under 2,000 cases a year of Judd’s Hill Cabernet.

There, a single barn-like structure makes do as home (upstairs) and winery (the downstairs 3,000 square feet). Seven acres of south-facing slope are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon; a smaller plot of west-facing hillside is planted to Cabernet franc and Merlot.

“When we had Whitehall Lane,” reminds Art, “it was a small winery that grew to 30,000 cases. With a winery of that magnitude, we knew how great a portion of our budget could go toward marketing: airline tickets, hotel rooms, expensive entertaining for clients, advertising, and on and on. When we first talked about what would become Judd’s Hill, Bunnie set down two rules. ‘One, don’t make any more wine than can be sold over the phone, because I’m not traveling anywhere (unless the trip sounds fun); two, I will not do business with anybody who I don’t like.'”

“My second rule,” says Bunnie with a hearty laugh, “grew out of the vantage point of ‘We only have a small amount of wine…and life is short!'”

“Fortunately,” continues Art, “the combination of an excellent wine market and good reviews since our first release – our 1989 Cabernet, released in 1992 – have allowed us a very low-pressure, meaning frugal, marketing approach.”

“When I talk to a sales director for one of our out-of-state distributors,” adds Bunnie, “I know their family, their hobbies, where they vacationed. They, in turn, regard us as friends, if not family. Art and I are ‘on-site’ here. It’s a very personal set up. I believe that the personal touch and the rapport that develops is key to our marketing. We do a lot of entertaining for our distributors and important retailers in our home. In exchange for not traveling, we are super-hospitable when they visit Napa Valley. We still feel that wineries of our size are still one big happy family. The Rotating Reds is a good example of this camaraderie.”

Rudy and Rita von Strasser started out in 1990, when they bought their Diamond Mountain property. Included were a 20-year-old Cabernet vineyard and a 100-year-old barn-turned-winery (formerly Roddis Cellars). For the von Strassers, this was not a move into the unknown. Rudy had already earned his degree in enology from U.C., Davis, interned at Lafite-Rothschild, worked as enologist at Trefethen, then winemaker at Newton.

From Cider to Wine

“I was actually an ag student – focusing on apple orchards – at the University of New Hampshire when I developed an interest in fermentations,” says Rudy. “I had a business plan all worked out to create an organic hard cider brand. When I came to the Napa Valley in 1981, I was planning to learn winemaking, then translate that knowledge into cider production. But after a year working at Robert Mondavi, I fell in love with California and its wine industry.”

Rudy and Rita have two brands: von Strasser for Diamond Mountain Estate wines, and Freestone for other Napa Valley wines. Explains Rudy, “The ‘von Strasser’ strategy is to make the most intense, yet balanced wine possible from Diamond Mountain, and to compete head-to-head in tastings, wine reviews and in price with the best wines from Napa Valley. About a third of the wine is sold through a mailing list, but we do this not merely to maximize profits. As a matter of fact, for us, selling wine through a mailing list is very expensive. Our purpose with the mailing list is to create and nurture a group of fans who act as ambassadors of our winery. These ambassadors bring our bottles to their favorite restaurants and share them with their best friends. Through this word of mouth, our brand slowly takes on a cult following. Mailing list sales also help in spreading out the amount of wine you have in any one market, so that the demand is never fulfilled at any tier. The Rotating Reds group fits into the von Strasser marketing strategy by introducing us to the wine press through the dinners, as well as by introducing our wines to the important direct consumers through each other’s mailing lists.”

Rudy’s “Freestone” brand offers a different twist. “Because of our artist series’ fly fishing theme, Freestone appeals to people on a very personal level,” suggests Rudy. “They are not buying it because of wine reviews or because it’s the new, hot brand. They buy it because they like the concept. In my market research before premiering this brand, 20% of the people I showed the label to had a friend or relative who fished and to whom they wanted to give a bottle. On a shelf of 50 bottles, our brand really sticks out to these people on a personal level. If you are a fly fisherman, you’ve got to have it. Still, when we developed the label, we made it conservative enough that if one had no interest in fly fishing, the label was not a turn-off.” Von Strasser advertises “Freestone” in various fly fishing and outdoor publications, puts their toll-free phone number on each bottle and cork, and donates wine and proceeds from Freestone sales to aid in the preservation of pristine fishery habitats.

Livingston Wines actually dates to 1976, when Diane and John Livingston bought a young Cabernet vineyard on the Rutherford Bench (on Cabernet Lane, no less), on the southwest side of St. Helena, complete with the stone walls and arched doorway of H.W. Helms’ 1883 ghost winery. John brought a background in geology to the family’s search for intriguing vineyard sources beyond their own, and a pair of superb winemakers – first Randy Dunn, now John Kongsgaard – have moved the label forward Smartly. Livinston currently markets 3,000 cases a year of Cabernet, 300 of Chardonnay, and 300 of Sangiovese.

“Our marketing strategy has three sales groupings,” explains John, just back from a climb to 20,000 feet in Nepal. “We have a direct mail wine club, to which we offer limited, exclusive releases twice a year. Members are invited to our annual harvest thank-you party each year. We also have direct sales in California (wholesale), through which we focus mainly on northern California. Members of our family do the selling in this arena. Finally, we use the three-tier distributor network in the top 25 states, in which all our wines are allocated, no discounts are allowed, and the wines are sold quickly by focusing on on-premise sales.”

John notes that the winery participates in some of the Napa Valley Vintners Association national marketing tours, and that the winery donates to a select group of charitable auctions each year (including the Albany Wine Festival, Birmingham Magic Moments, Make-A-Wish, L.A. Cystic Fibrosis, and the Wichita Wine Festival). “We also have an annual ‘picking party,’ where about a hundred people come spend a weekend picking and crushing grapes. This serves to convert several young buyers to a loyal customer group. We do some private tours in conjunction with the Meadowood Wine School, corporate groups, local bed-and-breakfast referrals, and the Culinary Institute of America. Part of our revised strategic plan is to include two new varietals to our mix: Syrah and Chardonnay. We’ve also planned a single vineyard Meritage blend that will be due out in the year 2000.”

Home builder Hal Barnett and CPA Fiona Barnett founded Barnett Vineyards on a 40-acre plot atop Spring Mountain in 1983, planting 14 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon, and later Cabernet franc and Merlot. “In 1989, we were about to have our first crop,” says Fiona. “As the fruit was getting closer to maturity, we realized that we did not have the heart to see our grapes trucked off. Instead, we hired Kent Rasmussen to make wine for us. In 1991 we built our winery and, in 1992, Charles Hendricks, who had originally been hired as a cellar worker, became our winemaker.”

Production was increased slightly each year, aiming at 5,000 cases per. Two Cabernets, a Merlot, a Pinot noir and a Chardonnay are currently produced. Distribution is in 17 states, Toronto, Vancouver and Switzerland.

“Our marketing strategy,” says Fiona, “is to concentrate on the markets that we are currently in, and satisfy the demand for our wine before opening new markets. We try to visit the markets we are in every two years to promote our wines. We prefer our wines to be sold at a ratio of 60% to restaurants and 40% to retail. We do not advertise, but instead use direct contact with the public via tours and tastings at the winery, and various events that we attend each year. We feel that our direct contact with the consumers has a longer-lasting impression. Our association with the Rotating Reds has been very rewarding for us. Marketing as a group has endorsed Barnett Vineyards to be a premium Cabernet producer. As a group, we have been able to attain the attention of some important people in the press, whereas on our own it is more difficult.”

So Long, Tuscany

The Harrisons were planning on living in Tuscany in 1988 when they discovered a 48-acre jewel well up Sage Canyon. “We were just looking for a quiet place in the county,” quips winemaker Lyndsey Harrison. “Michael [the creator of the winery’s unique Zebra label] wanted lots of trees, and I wanted vines. We fell in love with this property the moment we saw it.” Fruit from the mature 17 acres of Cabernet and Chardonnay had been sold to nearby Chappellet and Caymus. With the help and encouragement of neighbors, the Harrisons turned tentative experimental barrels of wine into a commercial success, which now includes Merlot and Zinfandel. And olive oil. “We use an authentic Italian process – including a three-ton, granite crushing wheel we brought back from Tuscany – that is more gentle on the olives than the modern day hydraulic presses,” says Lyndsey, a native of New Zealand. “The result is more flavor in the oil.” The Harrisons have since added other food products to their rapidly-growing list of items marketed, including mustards, flavored oils, sauces and dressings.

The 1998 Rotating Reds dinner was hosted by Jayson and Paige Pahlmeyer at their many-windowed, futuristic home overlooking the Silverado Country Club. “We aim to produce wines of power and personality,” says Jayson, a former trial attorney. Now the attorney might make you think hyperbole, but this is a guy who has monkeys cavorting around his innovative house, grows huge pumpkins, and built a platform baited with rotting meat to attract vultures.

“As to marketing,” he laughs, “we’re pretty much seat-of-the-pants. We figure if we can make world-class, grand cru quality wines, they’ll sell themselves. The monkeys? They ‘help’ me rack barrels, and especially love working with Helen Turley and me when we assemble the master blend of my Red Wine. Georgia has white lips, and when she drinks the red, her lips turn red…just like the ‘Got Milk?’ commercials. No kidding!”

When Diane Livingston, nudged by marketing guru Robin Lail (whose own label has just made its debut), first contemplated the Rotating Reds a few years ago, Robin had suggested picking another five wineries whose principals she found collegial and whose wines were comparable. “Robin suggested having another half dozen on the list, in case any of our first five picks weren’t interested,” says Diane with a grin. “But every one of our first five choices were very enthusiastic about the idea of combining pleasure, friendship and food with marketing.” And so it goes.

(Hinkle is the author of six wine books. He lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. where he plays infield and pitches for a 30-and-up hardball team. “You know why the Boston newspapers didn’t headline the opening of Fenway Park in 1912?” he queries. “One word: Titanic!”)

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