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Marketing and Branding Do Not a Winery Make

For anyone who hasn't been paying much attention or who doesn't really care, the wine industry going through a rough patch, especially here in California. Actually "rough patch" is a bit of an understatement, but more on that later this week.

For now, I'd like to focus on a single, early casualty of the times. As reported in the Press Democrat last week, Roshambo winery will be closing its operations down permanently, and its founder, Naomi Brilliant, will be attaching the winery's name (and attitude) to a little farming operation she has started up on her family's land in the Russian River Valley south of Healdsburg.

Roshambo had already downscaled operations some years ago, selling its sleek modern winery on Westside road to Silver Oak's Twomey brand, and moving its wine production to a custom crush facility, while it opened a tasting room in a shared space in Sonoma and in its hard-to-miss Roshambus.

But now even those vestiges of an operation will be shuttered as Brilliant takes some time away from the wine business, perhaps to contemplate (or perhaps to forget) how things could have seemed to be going so well, and then end so poorly.

Indeed, Roshambo may be a perfect case study of how difficult it is to succeed in the wine business, even when you get many things right.

Roshambo debuted in 2002 with a splash. The winery's rock-scissors-paper logo and brand concept were wonderfully designed, incredibly memorable, and fully exploited for all its irreverence, fun and originality. The winery's production facility just off of Westside road featured sleek, concrete slab and glass construction, falling water, and an art gallery that, last time I was there, featured various bronze sculptures of vulvas and thumping house music. The winery's annual Rock Scissors Paper Championships drew massive crowds, and the brand's presence at wine events was always non-traditional and fun.

In my opinion, Roshambo was simply a fantastic execution of marketing and branding that targeted Millennials, the up-and-coming demographic that promises to be the biggest generation of wine drinkers this country has ever seen. It would be too easy to say that Roshambo was merely a winery ahead of its time. It was perfectly timed to the changing times, and a great counterpoint to the mostly staid marketing that characterizes most California wine.

While I don't know all the factors that led to the winery closing its doors, certainly in part it seems to be a victim of its own early success.The winery facility was lavish, and sized for 50,000 cases of production, which the winery never achieved, though it gamely tried. The winery grew quite rapidly at first, and production ramped to nearly 30,000 cases at one point, I believe. While I don't know what size it was at when the economy fell off the cliff last year, if it were anywhere close to that level the winery would have had a serious problem on its hands, as do many wineries these days with that level of production and most of their wines priced around $20 and higher.

Nor was this a case of wine quality falling short of the marketing. In my opinion the wines were decent, and in recent years, getting even better. With better than decent wines and a great brand, something behind the scenes was most certainly the culprit, whether it be planning, management, or the challenging three-tier system. And, oh yeah, there was that recession, too.

Regardless of the reasons, Roshambo offers a cautionary tale to anyone who believes a winery's success can be assured through marketing. Roshambo's was brilliant, but that was not enough.

Comments (38)

BrainWines wrote:
01.19.10 at 11:06 PM

A very nicely written piece, and quite thought provoking. Many thanks for the education on "the Roshambo effect".

Arthur wrote:
01.19.10 at 11:17 PM

I take no pleasure in seeing this happen.
With so many brands producing astounding wines in de facto obscurity and in quantities that are enough to pay the bills, make a profit and not have excess inventory crowding the garage and living room (only to be converted into ringers or sold off as bulk at pennies on the dollar), perhaps the cautionary tale is one that illustrates the soundness of measured and paced growth and not putting the hype horse before the cart and letting your brand grown organically?
I don't believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come variant of brand development which cynically assumes the public will buy anything if the packaging is shiny enough.
By corollary, should one stake so much a promising (rather than proven) consumer demo?
So..... in short: you can't drink a story or hype.

01.20.10 at 12:12 AM

This is another great post in terms of provoking thought and commentary, Alder you have the right touch of giving your opinion but leaving the door wide open for debate. My simple take on this is that it is never marketing alone that drives success, especially for wineries (maybe for Apple it's another story), but anyway, having worked on many campaigns over the years, particularly the launch of Gallo of Sonoma in 1999 on a national scale, it was completely a trifecta of, good distribution, tight communication between the sales force and marketing (what good is promoting if consumers can't buy it?) as well as company alignment on many levels that leveraged the launch with advertising, a generous PR budget to optimize media and lots of blood, sweat and tears. It resulted in a 4% market share in the first year. I've been a part of or witnessed cases where either the sales focus and placement wasn't there but the marketing was, or vice versa, it has to be a pas de deux. Good financial management of the costs of making wine and promoting it help one weather the bad times, and make you look smart in the good times. I have many more stories to tell, but I'll leave it at that. Bonne nuit!

John wrote:
01.20.10 at 7:20 AM

Naomi says she liked making wine more than selling it. That's a statement that flies in the face of a brand-driven effort exemplified by Roshambo. The few people who are successful at the wine "selling itself" seem to me to be relentlessly focused on the wine itself, not on millenial gimmickry like rock-paper-scissors contests. It seems like a minority viewpoint here, but maybe the real lesson is that they utterly missed the elements of dedication to the product that give an upper-end wine business true soul and "legs".

John Skupny wrote:
01.20.10 at 9:16 AM

"Debuted in 2002", post 9/11, at a time when distribution in the US was contracting at a rapid rate and existing distributors where having difficulties doing the cases for 'Made' brands... You can ask almost anyone who makes and sells wine; it is easier to make it than sell it!

Bill Smart wrote:
01.20.10 at 9:47 AM

A great post and one that has been bantered about on the email/social media airwaves for the past few days. Kimberly makes a ton of excellent points regarding how to successfully launch a new brand/campaign in the marketplace. Communication, Communication, Communication. One aspect that cannot be overlooked and is adversely affecting many wineries right now is cash flow. I don't care how many fancy marketing ideas or brilliant sales people there are - owning and operating a winery is a cash poor endeavor. The wineries that are successful right now either managed their cash flow effectivley during good economic times or have a money tree in their back yard (i.e, another business that supports the cash poor winery). I've often heard that owing a winery is akin to owing a sailboat (sorry for the reference! :)) but the happiest two days for the owner is the day they buy the boat and they day they sell it.

Susan wrote:
01.20.10 at 10:18 AM

Interesting article. However, one of the major contributing factors to their demise was not mentioned. Their attitude was arrogant and unfriendly. They seemed to want to be avant garde with their art just to shock. I myself experienced, and many people I spoke to experienced, a shock when visiting all right. But aside from the shocking art, what was really shocking was how arrogant and 'too cool to be nice' attitude. They will not be missed by many people. Oh and they forgot one other major thing - the wine was lousy.

Christopher O'Gorman wrote:
01.20.10 at 10:51 AM

Lots of great comments on the sad news of Roshambo shutting down. Disagree with the wine was lousy comment. The delicious Imago Chard won Sweepstakes White at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, and their Syrahs were also wonderful.

01.20.10 at 10:55 AM

Thanks for the cogent POV re another wine business closure. I don't see the Rashambo case to be an example of a canary in the coal mine. A wineco's economic sustainability in today's economic and cultural environment, in reality, requires a complex set of marketing and financial skills that go beyond the visuals of buildings, labels, and personalities. And it's more than communications, pricing and promotions. Basics include, as part of a long skills list, the development of a diverse strategic channel model: Three-Tier distribution, DTC (bricks & mortar visits, winery iStore, wine-club, and ecommerce), and DTT; and, the implementation of a focused market model to answer the questions of who, what, when and where your wine can and should be sold. As a wine biz bootstrapper that means going out to targeted markets and shaking a lot of the right hands, the hands of consumers, buyers and decision makers with the express intent of revenue creation. For a variety of financial and personal reasons, many lifestyle wineries still exist , and yes a few of these will close, with Rashambo being the most recent example. It seems as though Ms Brilliant is now marching to the beat of a different drummer.

Arthur wrote:
01.20.10 at 11:03 AM

Not to diminish your expertise but absence of: "solid, quality product" from your list sort of basics illustrates Alder's (and my) points: you can't drink a story.

Fred wrote:
01.20.10 at 11:33 AM

While I was a big fan of Roshambo's out-of-the-box concept, I would caution readers that Marketing is not just having a clever idea. Marketing is a discipline. Which is what Corky spelled out above.

Leah wrote:
01.20.10 at 11:54 AM

Great post and comments. I also thought the concept was fantastic and the wine was good, but I noticed- unfortunately - their Cabo Cantina style tasting room at Cornerstone Gardens made my baby boomer friends uncomfortable to the point of not wanting to stick around to taste. Perhaps the Millennial generation hasn't quite reached the point of being able to single handedly support a brand strategy?

Rabbit Louis wrote:
01.20.10 at 12:21 PM

The link to the Press Democrat story reveals perhaps the saddest commentary of all here: “I really don't care about the wine world.” Whether this stinging closing remark was motivated by a bad taste left in Naomi's mouth, or whether it signals a fundamental lack of passion for the world of wine that ultimately may have been Roshambo's undoing, is anyone's guess. But for those of us who have been - and remain - passionately involved in the ongoing struggle that is the wine business, her apparent disdain for the industry she proposed to deconstruct, as it were, is disheartening to say the least.

Arthur wrote:
01.20.10 at 12:30 PM

A winemaker once told me that EVERYBODY in the wine biz becomes jaded at one point or another. I guess if there was no true passion for the stuff in the bottle to begin with, then disillusionment is a natural consequence of failure - particularly if the enterprise was more heavy on hyping the product rather than the pursuit of the best quality product achievable.

01.20.10 at 1:58 PM

Unfortunately wine is not just about passion,romance, money and good marketing. Sometimes all the right pieces are there but timing and luck also play a role. Sad story.

01.20.10 at 4:53 PM

Great discussion. Roshambo didn't make it to our Asian markets, but it sounds as though there were multiple factors contributing to their demise: rocks, paper and scissors.

Do we have a new roshambo game? Winemaking, marketing and finances? Who wins? And how many rounds?

01.20.10 at 5:29 PM

Interesting piece. I was just thinking about Roshambo this morning as I was composing a posting about the wine marketing to millennials topic. They created quite a brand and I'm sorry to see them go.

Martin Silva wrote:
01.20.10 at 9:44 PM

Roshambo clearly stuck out like a sore thumb on Westside road in the Russian River Valley. Early on, I stopped by for a taste and thought, "You've got to be kidding me." The wine was pedestrian, the marketing juvenile, and the attitude way too hip for the locals. So, it was no surprise when the tasting room shut its doors. I imagine Naomi will farm for a while, get bored, and move on to other pet projects.

Bear Dalton wrote:
01.21.10 at 8:20 AM

Roshambo had almost everything except a good product. The design and the story was there but the quality for price never was. Another problem was the young couple behind the brand. When they came in to pitch their wine to Spec's, they had been up all night partying and were wearing dirty clothes. She appeared to be badly hung over and he appeared to be still drunk or stoned. Their own handlers were appalled. Being a boots and jeans kind of guy, I don't expect winemakers or winery owners to show up in coat and tie but I do expect decent hygiene and enough alertness to attend to business.
The surprise here is not that Roshambo is out of business but that the brand lasted this long.

As to the whole "marketing to millenials" thing, they are smart enough to figure out when something is all sizzle and no steak. Start with a good product and then worry about packaging it.

Denise wrote:
01.21.10 at 8:29 AM

Roshambo was a product of a family with lots of money to burn...grapes to sell and the next generation graduating from college - a wide eyed vision...then family bickering (disfunctioning), stock losses and lack of managment or sustainable direction began the spiral down. Naomi is an artist (and a very good one) - she provoked thought (whether you liked or disliked), she didn't take herself too serious or the wines (probably...in hindsight not good)- therefore her wines will not be remembered however her labels, marketing materials, writing (blogs before the were everyday) and attention getting marketing will be mimicked for years. Not bad for someone who may not even be 30 and has so much more life and talent to grow. PS - I think her vineyard/farm may be in Dry Creek Valley (property borders DCV/RRV)

Arthur wrote:
01.21.10 at 9:13 AM

I seem hearing a lot of praise for Naomi as some sort of trailblazer where marketing a brand is concerned.
Her pitch may have been different but Randall Grahm was not doing anything all that different (in principle, at least) to promote his brand many years before Roshambo came to be. The major difference seems to be that Grahm is as focused on his wines as he is on telling people about them.

tannic wrote:
01.21.10 at 9:42 AM

Their core concept, as covered by many, was marketing first. If your product isn't good, your winery will not make it...unless you're Fred Franzia and Naomi is pretty much the polar opposite.

01.21.10 at 9:49 AM

Arthur, of course wine quality is a basic part of the larger issue of the winery survivability conversation, but this issue was addressed by Alder, "Nor was this a case of wine quality falling short of the marketing. In my opinion the wines were decent, and in recent years, getting even better," and not considered causative. And though I completely agree with Alders qualitative analysis of Rashambo's wines, I questioned, that in our production centric business culture in the wine business, and in an industry where marketing choices are often driven by lifestyle, how could I contribute to moving the conversation forward? My experience is in dealing with winery financial, marketing, sales and production issues that have a direct contribution on a winery's present and future; so, while the question of quality is always addressed, the subjective/objective analysis of wine quality is not often the first issue on my list. My first question is: is the principal driving the winery capable; i.e., does the winery principal have the attitudinal approach, knowledge base and work ethic to succeed? What is the financial condition of the winery/brand/principal? Are the resource allocations, human and capital, adequate to move a brand forward? Once these questions are asked and answered, then I taste the wine and research what others have to say, with Alder on my list as a qualitative opinion that matters. My input was not meant to be a comprehensive case study, but rather a focus on the analysis of an individual winegrowers decision to vacate what previously had appeared to be a passion. So, let's move the conversation away from my 'expertise' and back to Alder's insightful analysis, and to what it was it that drove Ms Brilliant's decision making process.

Arthur wrote:
01.21.10 at 10:16 AM

Hi John

To answer your final question: based on all the comments here it seems that the problem was one of expectations. From reading people's comments (and I realize, some of them may need to be taken with some grain of salt), it sounds as though she was not in tune with production and quality priorities as she was with her art and trying to promote the brand. It seems she went into the venture assuming that people will buy the story and the packaging. Since that often fails when the formula for the product is not just right, I am not surprised that she is disillusioned - particularly if she never understood the idea of "product before hype" as a sounder foundation to long-term success.

Lee wrote:
01.21.10 at 10:34 AM

re: Roshambo clearly stuck out like a sore thumb on Westside road in the Russian River Valley. Early on, I stopped by for a taste and thought, "You've got to be kidding me." The wine was pedestrian, the marketing juvenile, and the attitude way too hip for the locals.

Boy you nailed that perfectly... I live nearby and found no reason to go there, once there no reason to stay..

Even with the change in ownership I still don't go there, the space is cold, and the inaugural $50 Twomey Pinot did not impress me.

Alder wrote:
01.21.10 at 10:52 AM


Criticism of the winery, the wines, and the marketing are all fine, but some comments are coming close to personal aspersions at Ms. Brilliant. Please don't get personal.

Denise wrote:
01.21.10 at 11:49 AM

Same thing happened when the BiteClub (SR Press Democrat) printed the announcement...locally there seems to be a bit of resentment. Too bad - still think she's a unique and forward thinking person (even if I didn't necessarily agree with her biz plan, politics or life style) The overall essence of her marketing plan was to think outside the box & challenge the good old boy winery marketing network and thinking...when you do that; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't - it's not personal, it's biz and part of growing.

Josh wrote:
01.21.10 at 1:59 PM

It's funny: every day I check the wine news, and more and more, we vintners are told that we need to jump into marketing, promotion, social networking--yesterday the big buzz was literally just "go mobile!"--and yet, the time it takes to do that--to expand your marketing and promotion efforts--is completely antithetical to making good wine, which is a tremendously detailed process even if you're as hands off as possible as I am in both winemaking gigs; requires multiple, finicky bench trials to make sure before we do something that it will give only the effect we want; and takes tremendous time and patience (it's taken 7+ years at this point for me, folks).

I don't view sustainability for my wine production efforts as any different than my attempts to create sustainability in any other area of my life: quality has to come first. If it doesn't, there's nothing to sustain. Some might say that's being "authentic" (another of those buzzwords that drive me up the wall) and some might say that's pitching to the "skeptical, jaded" millennials. To me--and I'm thinking in terms of coming generations of my family here--long term growth cannot be supported by relying on anything other than a core of good winemaking. If there's anything I am able to pass on to my kids and their kids--and that's good enough for me since I don't plan on every seeing one dime of true profit--it's that notion that you have to make something good in order for people to keep coming back.

Everything else is a cherry on top. Sales absolutely matter--but there ain't gonna be no sales (or, at least, no RE-sale to that same customer) if there ain't good wine.

01.21.10 at 2:52 PM

A friend of mine was the winemaker for a couple of years (I'd guess 2004-2005) and he knew what he was doing. Some of those wines were quite good. I started selling them fruit in 2005. Jeff Ivy had the talent, the marketing was obviously there but the price point that they needed to reach ($25-$30/bottle) didn't seem to match up with that young, hip tattooed crowd that they were after. I also heard about many folks being turned off by bad tasting room experiences.

01.21.10 at 7:24 PM

Wine quality is rarely the only determinant of a winery's success or failure. If it were, I could point to many wineries with far worse track records than Roshambo, and would thus have to wonder why they also are not long gone.

And, I do have a batch of tasting notes on Roshambo wines, and they are, as those of you who know my publication, all from blind tastings. Not one of the dozen or so Roshambo wines tasted ever reached much above the middle of my evaluation scale, and more than half ranked below the middle.

Take that for whatever you like, but wine quality probably did not kill off Roshambo by itself. On the other hand, quality never rose high enough to carry the winery on its own.

That, of course, is where most wineries lie--somewhere in the middle. If your winery is in the middle and it fails when most of your quality and price peers are not, you have other problems, and that is clearly the case here.

BaroloDude wrote:
01.21.10 at 8:31 PM

This makes me think about Alder's recent post regarding the need for winemakers to make a lasting, personal connection with their customers. Maybe Roshambo didn't do that. Other wineries, that cultivated the relationships with their customers, built loyalty, etc., are more able to weather the economic recession and still sell their wines. I don't know Roshambo, but if it was more about flash, and targetting a demographic, then maybe they didn't have the time or spend the effort to build the customer or distribution loyalty they needed to build in order to survive a downturn. You cannot be a "fad" in the wine business... eventually your customer base will dry up. 2cents. what do i know...

Doug Wilder wrote:
01.21.10 at 9:47 PM

As BaroloDude stated, "you cannot be a "fad" in the wine business". There is another winery on Westside Road, Williams & Selyem that has sustained its loyal fans by making exceptional wines despite going through major changes. I remember we always salivated over the release letter back in the early 1990's. I honestly thought when they sold it would never be as good as it was but thousands still come to the release events and the winery has developed some new properties. That was another time perhaps... I recall my lasting impression of Roshambo is seeing their gleaming motor coach sitting in front of the door at a Fort Mason tasting event. - I want to remember the wine, not what they carry it in. I'm scratching my head trying to retrieve any memory of the wine and am coming up blank. I do wish Naomi nothing but success in her new venture. As we have seen over the last year, several well funded, innovative businesses run by very smart people that looked like they had a lock on a particular niche of the wine industry experienced difficulty. There will likely be more stories like Roshambo...

Matt S wrote:
01.22.10 at 7:55 AM

Although I admire her for the marketing ideas she had, I laughed when she was quoted as say “I'm not going to fight for it," one page after a picture of her bus, which portrays a painting of her in boxing gloves.

I don't think Roshambo has to be a "sign of the times" story. I think it shows that balance is a greater thing than glitz. You can aim your marketing at the Millenials without alienating older generations. Show your style subtly, with your labels and the music and style of your tasting room, or with architecture of your facility. You better have one hell of a product if you're marketing toward one demographic at the expense of another.

Lulu wrote:
01.23.10 at 12:24 PM

I used to sell Roshambo on the East Coast. It's not that the wine wasn't tasty or that the branding wasn't forward thinking. It's just that in a sea (rather, an ocean) of branded juice out from CA, it just got lost. It reminds me of a winemaker that was selling his Cal-Ital varietals in beautiful packaging...but very expensively. He was putting the pressure on us, even back then, to sell, sell, sell, and why is it that we weren't selling enough? I asked him if he ever bothered to do a marketing study on the success of Sangiovese from CA at $25 wholesale. His answer, "No." I rest my case. It's not enough to have the passion or the finances to create a brand or have a great facility. You have to know who is out there to buy your wine. I'm sorry to see Roshambo go, but there will be many more stories like this to come this year.

ssandhu wrote:
01.24.10 at 3:50 PM

It is so sad to read this. However so very educational for upcoming wineries. The wine industry has taken a big hit, the grape growers even more so. I hope this year is better for all of us. From reading this article, we must all proceed towards success with caution.

Anthony wrote:
01.25.10 at 2:29 AM

600,000 bottles is a lot of wine to sell at any time. I think starting with a plan like this is just too over ambitious to sustain whether you are a great marketer or not.

Blake Gray wrote:
01.25.10 at 2:53 PM

Roshambo may have proved that as a product, wine has to have a minimal level of seriousness for $20 a bottle.

The junken tournaments were fun, the sculptures were funny, but the brand's image was cheap. They were like a light-beer ad come to life, which is fine if you're charging light-beer prices. If they were making $10 wines with purchased grapes, they might have made it.

Stephen Weinberg wrote:
01.26.10 at 5:21 AM

I was personally involved with the distribution of Roshambo in Florida from 2002 until 2006 when I was Vice President of World Wine in Florida. In 2002 (a very different wine market than today) I was eager to tap into the Gen M wine market, in addition to Roshambo I brought in X Winery, Four Vines as well as other brands that felt Wine should be fun. Roshambo was always well received at my numerous Wine Events especially when their very hyper National Sales Manager, Adam Savin was in attendance. Naomi and her boyfriend Scott came to a Roshambo Event I set up in Key West and despite what some of your readers stated they could not have been nicer. Naomi is an artist and Scott is a writer and I’m sure their “off center” appearance may have been un settling to some people but in a place like Key West they fit in perfectly.

In many ways Naomi reminded me of Sua Newton when she started her winery in the 1980’s. Sua is not only a great wine maker but she is also a wine educator and could really get her message out to what was not a very educated crowd in the 1980’s. There were not many top women in the male dominated wine market of the 1980’s but Sua’s incredible knowledge and sense of style made her stand out and get noticed!! You never forgot Sua once you met her and I feel the same way about Naomi.

We’ll see what the future holds for Naomi Brilliant but I’m certain you have not heard the last of her!!!

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