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Yellow Tail: Myth and Monster

I'm a bit behind on my wine reading, so this story is a little old, published as it was a couple of weeks ago, but I can't let it go without comment. W. Blake Gray does a dig into the history of Yellow Tail wines, which, in case you hadn't noticed, was the most insanely popular, top selling wine In America for the last couple of years. What came as a total shock to me, was the fact that this little brand started off basically as a father and son operation in Australia. I'm as guilty as the next wine lover for using Yellow Tail as an example of industrial wine made by corporate giants, but it appears I'm mistaken. At least about the corporate giants part of the equation -- the winery still maintains operations in the small town in which it was founded, making it the town's largest employer.

The cool thing about this story, is that it demonstrates the complexity of the wine business world in a way that some of the recent wine-related polemics have not. Everyone likes to paint the globalization of wine as a struggle between the big corporate giants or the moneyed elite and the small artisan winemakers of the world. I've said time and time again that it isn't that simple, and the Yellow Tail story proves my point. They're the best selling wine in North America by volume, but that's only because people really like it. How can you call this company that has been outrageously successful because it makes a good product that people want to buy (even without advertising for the first couple of years) a corporate monster? You simply can't.

I may choose not to drink the stuff if I can avoid it, but I have a newfound appreciation for the brand, beyond my grudging amazement at its popularity. Read the full story.

Comments (24)

Mike Rowland wrote:
01.21.06 at 3:25 AM

Alder, I can only stand in awe of your site. This article on Yellowtail is a sterling example. I really hope you are selected.

I would appreciate being added to your list of English speaking sites (URL above)


JS wrote:
01.21.06 at 7:53 AM

Great post.

I have never understood the Yellow Tail craze myself but the people I know who drink it do so almost exclusively. Yellow Tail's following is not only huge it's also very loyal.

Darby wrote:
01.21.06 at 10:24 AM

Casella (aka [yellowtail])is indeed a good example of the positive aspects of globalisation in the wine industry. Casella was late on the scene in exporting Australian wine at the budget end of the price spectrum. They were among the pioneers in the US market, but other companies preceeeded them in Europe and the UK. Cassela is among the leaders in the next phase of the Australian wine scene, varietal diversification. Until recently the vast bulk of Aussie wine exports were from the varieties Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay. That is about to change. Watch out for the yellowtail Pinot Grigio, it is seriously good wine. Nearly a thousand Australian wineries (mostly small) are producing what I call emerging varietal wines.

01.21.06 at 11:17 AM

This tendency the split the big bad corporations against the little guy not only applies to wine, but to many people's way of thinking about the world.

All corporations start small, and they are all made up of people just like you and me.

Good post.

Jerry Hall wrote:
01.21.06 at 10:09 PM

Having worked at a large retailer in Nashville since 2000, I have often been heard referring to the store as "Yellow Tail & More". The Brand is phenomenal, still. Actually, I reviewed the Pinot Grigio (at winewaves) a few months ago and thought it a rather good value. If I am stuck on the road somewhere, I am sometimes happy to get Yellow Tail Shiraz by the glass. By the way, let's not forget part of the story was the brilliant design and name by Harkness Walker Design. This Firm more recently gave birth to "Monkey Bay", owned by big conglomerate Constellation Brands, which became the #1 selling New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in its first year. And, wouldn't you know, the store I work for cannot keep it in stock.

Jerry Hall wrote:
01.21.06 at 10:10 PM

Addendum: In my previous comment, I meant to say "1 selling New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the USA".

caveman wrote:
01.22.06 at 7:49 AM

Great Post Alder. I too was mistaken about it's humble beginnings, but reality is that Yellow Tail remains an industrial wine... sourcing juice from who knows where and using additives and vinification techniques to create a beverage which is consistent year after year. Fine, and lots of people drink it. But why don't you drink the stuff? I bet for many of the same reasons as I.This is not a question of new versus old, nor big versus small, it is about what we look for in a wine. I want a wine that reflects as faithfully as possible a time and a place, and the character of the winemaker. A wine where it's color, acidity, tanin, flavors and alchohol level come from that unique combination of soil, climate and sweat, and not from a box. While Nossiter's bias lacked subtelty and arguably fairness, there
aren't enough North American wine writers supporting what Matt Kramer in WS referred to as 'wines of conviction.' Bravo to Yellow Tail as a wonderful rags to riches story, and for doing it's part in reducing the oversupply of grapes in Aus, but it remains for me an example of what not to look for in a wine.

TheFatMan wrote:
01.23.06 at 8:39 AM

Wow. Just finished reading the review you did of Mondovino and one of your last lines struck me and immediately made me think about the cork/synthetic/screw cap topic of a couple weeks ago:
"But let's not, please, turn the discussion into an argument that vilifies the new and glorifies the old."

That's exactly what the cork debate does. Funny how things link...

Ann Russell wrote:
01.23.06 at 10:06 AM

Got a bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz for a holiday gift- and was pleasantly surprised. I've never purchased the brand because, I too, was convinced it was mass-produced, mediocre wine at best.Guess i was wrong.

Alder wrote:
01.23.06 at 10:33 AM

Well, Ann, the wine IS mass produced, and everyone must judge for themselves whether it is mediocre or good or great. My point was not that it was a small hand-crafted wine, which it is not, but that it couldn't be reviled as some evil force of corporate marketing given that it started in someone's garage and was successful simply because people loved the product.

Dustin Platt wrote:
01.23.06 at 8:38 PM

Being an avid reader, I am quite fond of the saying "Don't judge a book by it's cover..." and a similar saying "Don't forget the teeth behind the Big Bad Wolf's Smile..." I try and apply this lesson in many aspects of my life, from dating, to politics, and yes, to wine drinking... I do confess that I knew nothing about Yellow Tail when I first saw it... but I actually bought it for "The Label..." It stood out in the price range I was looking for... and I liked it. Sure, it was no 2002 Elu, but that was not what I was looking for, nor paying for. I confess, I have bought much more expensive wines based on the label and been... well, bitten by the wolf... but when I get off work and just want a glass of wine to go with my pasta, I can count on the Kangaroo.

01.25.06 at 9:55 AM

I completely agree with caveman, here. I did some digging a while back about Yellow Tail, and just because they started small doesn't change the fact that this is an industrial product. They studied wines that appealed to Americans, did focus-group testing, and hell, didn't even sell Yellow Tail at first in Australia if I understand correctly. It's completely manufactured. "Wine drink" if you will. Even look at this picture on their site:http://casellawines.com/winery.asp.

At least they're not feigning a romantic vision of their product, I guess.

VineSci wrote:
01.28.06 at 4:42 AM

_Every_ wine is an industrial product. Wine production is an industry. Any producer who tells something else is just a snake oil salesman.

BTW, Casella is sourcing its grapes from vineyards surrounding its huge winery amidst which is located the very humble home of the Casella family. (Their Ferrari parked at the front is not so humble, though).

VineSci wrote:
01.28.06 at 4:50 AM
Lindsayaus wrote:
01.28.06 at 6:16 PM

Bravo caveman. Yes, YT is a great story but isn't it a shame a vast number of American wine drinkers think Yellow Tail is the bench mark of Australian wine. It's the independant Aussie producers who lovingly craft their wines who are not getting any recognition in the US market, and who are creating the real 'taste of Australia'.

Steve wrote:
02.09.06 at 9:24 PM

Interesting post about Yellow Tail. I live in Australia, and the whole Yellow Tail thing was quite odd viewed from here. It was only a year or so ago that most people became aware of the fact that a cheap and cheerful wine from Australia had taken over the US wine market. Odd, because the wine wasn't available here, at all, until recently. Now the story is well known - as you say in your post, a small company with big ideas, sets its sights on a goal and massively overachieves. Also interesting is that apparently the Casella boys picked up the name and logo for a couple of hundred dollars from a small design firm in Adelaide.

Max Harkness wrote:
03.07.06 at 10:17 PM

Being an employee of Harkness Walker Design (www.hwdesign.com.au) it is very interesting reading all of your comments on the YT phenomenon. Regarding the last comment, the brand was created by us and then offered to the Casellas for sale (a couple of hundred dollars is far from correct). At the Airport of all places. It was our first Just Add Wine brand sold (www.justaddwine.com.au). The team is lead by Yellow tails creator Barbara Harkness and Kent Walker. In total we have 7 employees and have opened a Sydney office, servicing NSW wineries and branching into other packaging design and Corporate branding.

Before Yellow Tail, other brands created by the studio include Oxford Landing, Cockatoo Ridge, Cape Jaffa, Majella, Leconfield and Tatachilla. More recently we have created Monkey Bay for Nobilo which is New Zealands number 1 selling Sauv Blan c in the USA. Look out for more HWD label creations in the future.

I think YT is quite drinkable wine for its pricepoint, and I just posted this to clarify some points about the creators of [yellow tail]. please check out our new website.

Danny Bloom wrote:
04.24.06 at 7:09 AM

The New York Times recently did a story on the marketing success story of [yellowtail]. I've seen it become real popular here in Taiwan, too. Great marketing did the trick.

Am curious about the fees paid to Barbara Harkness, the original artist/designer of the artwork and name of [yellow tail]. The Times says she was paid a one time fee of US$4,800 for the artwork and name. Question: Did she ever receive royalties or a nice fat bonus later on as a reward for her great and quirky artwork and brand name?

The Times writes: "Back in Australia, Mr. Casella and his marketing director, John Soutter, came up with a new wine and a new package. They had found a graphic artist in Adelaide, Barbara Harkness, who offered them a design of a black and yellow rendering of a yellow-tailed marsupial styled to emulate Australian aboriginal art; the image was seen as friendly and typically Australian. The Casella company paid her US$4,800 for the design and a marketing program based on it."

Another article online notes: "Around this time, Soutter received a phone call from Barbara Harkness, an Adelaide-based wine label designer. She was doing some cold calling promoting her new business, ''Just Add Wine''. The company produced “off the shelf” wine label designs. It did the all the ground-work, choosing brand names and designing labels to go with them. All the winery had to do was, add the wine.

“ I was very keen to look at new label designs after our lack of success in the US,” says Soutter. “But I was leaving for a trip to Europe.” As it turned out, Harkness’ husband, Lorenzo Zanini, was flying out the same day, promoting the first collection of Just Add Wine label designs. The two arranged to meet between flights at the airport in Sydney. “Lorenzo showed me the labels, one of which was [Yellow Tail]. I bought it on the spot,” says Soutter.

And why the lowercase name of yellowtail on the bottles?

The Times report adds: "The increasingly familiar Yellow Tail label is loosely meant to depict the brand's namesake, a yellow-footed rock wallaby, a smaller cousin to the kangaroo. The bottle labels and in-store advertisements always put the brand name in lower case and within brackets: [yellow tail].

As for those brackets, the story is that the Casellas were looking up "kangaroo" in a textbook when they came upon a technical description of a wallaby. In the margin, alongside the Latin derivation of the name, was the Australian version, in brackets: [yellow tail].

They decided to keep the brackets "to set the wine apart" and to retain the lower-case lettering "to underscore the wine's lack of pretension," John Casella said.

The Frank J. Prial report in the Times goes on to opine: "Yellow Tail's success is a hot topic in the wine trade, but so is its future."

On va voir!

The Times story was headline: "The Wallaby That Roared Across the Wine Industry"



LAST QUESTION: Barbara, if you are reading this post, please tell us if you ever received a nice fat bonus for your wonderful artwork and naming savvy. Yes? No? You deserve a Wine Nobel for Marketing!

-- Danny

Danny Bloom wrote:
04.24.06 at 7:31 AM

OOPS! After I posted the above, quoting the New York Times article, I then read the SF Chronicle report by W. Blake Gray, dated January, four months before the NYTimes story this week, and the SF Chron reports a very different story about Barbara Harkness.

Quote: "Indeed, the endangered yellow-footed rock wallaby that graces the Yellow Tail label now finds itself part of a virtual petting zoo on wine-shop shelves. John Casella says the idea for the label -- and the lower-case words "yellow tail" in brackets -- were his, not a marketing consultant's."

But the Times reports that Ms Harkness made cold calls to Casella and that it was HER idea and HER label and HER artwork and her NAME that Casella bought from her for 4800 American dollars.

What's the real story? Was Mr Casella taking credit for something that really was Ms Harkness' doing? Something fishy here.

Can someone please clarify this wine marketing story? Did she or didn't she? Did he or didn't he? Where does truth lie?

Just curious. Have no connection to anyone in these two reports....

Anonymous wrote:
04.24.06 at 8:07 AM

Although John Casella told the SF Chronicle that the idea for the label and the lowercase words were his and not a marketing consultants, (and I believe him, he said it, and the Chronicle reported his comment), the JUST ADD WINE firm that was set up by Ms Harkness notes on its website that:

"Just Add Wine offers complete brand concepts for sale ‘off the shelf’, and is a vehicle specifically designed to assist Australian wine producers with their export brand requirements and market establishment objectives. Specific core business strategies, including export market and price point considerations.

Brand Australia, boutique, lifestyle, unbranded, and target market demographics are combined with flexible concept purchase options, making ‘off the shelf’ brand selection much less of a guessing game and more of an essential element of an overall business plan.

*Allow us to focus on the task of creating a brand identity for you, letting you concentrate on the essentials of wine production.*"

That is the story the New York Times tells, which is a bit different from the one Mr Cassela told the Chronicle reporter.

Maybe it was just a case of forgetfulness or marketing hype. Either way, the brand sure took off and has a place in the hall of fame of marketing mavenry!

Danny Bloom wrote:
04.25.06 at 10:54 PM

I have today heard from John Casella who clears all the above up, noting: "Thank you for your e-mail, Danny. As has always been clearly stated, Barbara Harkness supplied Casella Wines the finished yellow tail label and the initial point of sale. Please keep in mind that there is much more to a brand than the label and it has been a combination the importers gaining prominent store positions and Casella being able to consistently supply such large volumes of wine etc that has led the phenomenal success."

Case closed.

Uncork this one: I did ask some newspaper copy editors why they don't spell [yellow tail] the way it should be spelled, as in the logo, but they told me that newspapers do not follow corporate logo spelling or design, and so [yellow tail] can never appear as [yellow tail] in any news stories anywhere, but must always be spelled as Yellow Tail, two words, intial caps, no brackets. But here on the Internet, we are free to spell things anyway we wish, so i hereby spell [yellow tail] this way and wish everyone a good day!


Dan Bloom wrote:
04.26.06 at 12:29 AM

I ''learned'' a few other things today, re the [yellow tail] success story.

1. The $US4,800 fee paid to Ms Harkness as stated in The NY Times is in fact *incorrect*. [Frank Prial, if you are reading this, please explain! - db]

2. The lower case of the name [yellow tail] was generated by the designer and the brackets always formed part of the concept design. The use of the identity in this way – in advertising and other media is key to maintenance of brand integrity and advertising follow the concept layout.

4. The success experienced by Casella comes from a great deal of investment and hard work on their part on all fronts, and the original design is just one key element out of many.

5. The creation of the [yellow tail] design has been a global door-opener for the original designer's company, leading to many new positive business relationships in many parts of the world including, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, UK and of course, USA and Australia.

Danielle wrote:
09.20.06 at 5:03 PM

Guys, I hate to break it to you, but the "artisanal" aspect of Yellow Tail wines is simply a marketing smokescreen in which a few Reserve wines are paraded around for high scores for a little 'street cred'. If you're honestly invested in knowing the truth about how the garden variety Yellow Tail's made, I'd like to point you to an eye opening 2 hour interview with Casella on graperadio.com http://www.graperadio.com/archives/2005/10/31/yellow-tail-with-john-casella-part-1/

This interview goes into detail on the generic bulk wine reality of the non-Reserve wines, the under $10 hyper-popular bottlings devised by the volume-minded polemic Mr.Deutsch of WJ Deutsch and Sons of White Plains, NY.

Alder wrote:
09.20.06 at 5:23 PM


Who was saying it was anything close to "artisinal" ? The phrase "industrial wine" was used at least three times in the ensuing discussion about this wine to describe it.

It sort of seems like you didn't read the original post or the comments that followed.

But if you did, don't confuse an interest in the family beginnings of what has become a huge corporation with a characterization of their wine as anything other than mass produced.

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