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03.26.2009

The Rise of the Shotgun Wine Company

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon lately, one that has become observable to me as the number of unsolicited wine samples I get continues to increase. More and more new wineries are taking a shotgun approach to the market, spewing out wines and seeing what they can hit.

Usually my wine samples come in a compact little box, with one or two or four bottles carefully nestled inside, along with a note or a press release or whatever the winery wants to send me about the wine. But with some frequency I am now getting huge case boxes, rattling and squeaking with their styrofoam innards, with twelve bottles in them, each one a different wine representing the first vintage for a brand new winery.

These hulking boxes are usually topped with a cheery press release and media kit proudly proclaiming the birth of the new winery, dedicated to making high quality wines that are great values and true expressions of place, or some other nonsense like that. I find myself asking the question, what the hell are these people thinking?

Seeing a brand spanking new wine label slapped on 12 bottles of 12 different wines from 12 different places says to me: we didn't know what to do so we tried a bit of everything. These wines are invariably at a mid-to-low level of quality. And while the people making them are clearly not trying to be the next artisan winemakers of California, I guess I'd expect them to start small and branch out, rather than canvassing the market in one shot. Wineries that have been around for decades, with expansive vineyard holdings have the history, and the pedigree to support a large portfolio of wines. A brand new winery with such a portfolio just seems a little too big for its own britches.

Maybe I am a little old fashioned to be suspicious of such efforts. Certainly most consumers never see all 12 bottles lined up like they end up on my kitchen table for tasting. But all the most successful brands start by establishing an identity of trust and value with a certain level of focus. Once this identity is established, customers will trust the brand as it expands in new directions. We're talking brand expansion not brand explosion.

Perhaps most discomfiting, these new brands are often (though not always) trying to sell themselves with an air of authenticity. They want to tap into the soulfulness of wine. And it's these suggestions of special quality, sense of place, and deep appreciation for what a particular grape and region have to offer that seem completely undermined by the sheer variety of the company's initial offering. It's psychological to be sure, but I can't help but think that most of these companies, and the customers they're looking to serve, could do with just a little bit of focus.

There's nothing wrong with a grand vision of a robust portfolio of wines, but trying to bring it to market in a single step seems like a recipe for lousy wine and erratic sales. Not to mention really hefty shipping charges when you decide you want someone to taste your inaugural vintage.

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