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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.

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