Even with hundreds of different wines available in a typical shop, some names and labels stand out. We may recognise the bottle, the packaging, the region, the producer, or the grape variety. The packaging and all the information are clues, but what makes it memorable enough to become a brand?
Wine brands exist at every price point - from Petrus and DRC (Domaine de la Romanee-Conti) at one end to Jacob's Creek and Yellow Tail at the other. The names of grape varieties have long been brands - such as riesling from Alsace, nebbiolo (d'Alba) from Piedmont and montepulciano from Abruzzo in Italy. In the past several decades, grape varieties have been marketed as brands, in a move led by the United States and Australia. In the US, chardonnay has become so pervasive that many people will order chardonnay regardless of who the producer is - making the grape variety as influential and important as the producer, region, country of origin or price.
According to marketing experts, a product becomes a brand when we start to have associations related to it. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a 'name, term, design, symbol or any other feature' that identifies the product as distinct from its competitors with consumers who have a perception of the product and associate it with an identity.
There is an endless range of wines, so being a brand has many benefits. For novices, wine brands are useful when sifting through a long wine list in a restaurant. Successful mass marketers invest a lot of time building up brand recognition - which includes having a strategic marketing mix and a hefty advertising and promotions budget. At the top end, promotions are more strategic and based on experiences with the wines focusing on quality and unique aspects of the wine through tastings and dinners.
In the US, placing an emphasis on the grape variety and featuring it prominently on the label helped simplify wine styles and contributed to sales. Robert Mondavi went one step further by creating his own name, fume blanc, which is now widely used in California to mean sauvignon blanc that has been matured in oak. The Australians contributed to innovative packaging with their colourful and attractive labels. For a short while, following the success of Yellow Tail with the kangaroo label, animals were added to wine labels to attract sales.
Success of brands sometimes has a drawback. In India, for example, the success of Jacob's Creek as a reasonably priced, dependable wine has created an 'ABJC' (anything but Jacob's Creek) movement among a circle of connoisseurs.
A brand can become so successful that it shuns another segment of the wine-drinking population that look for more distinctive and special wines.
The drawbacks of success are not only limited to the lower end of the price point. These days, Lafite is considered gauche by many Hong Kong connoisseurs who are turned off by both the high price and its popularity on the mainland.
The most successful brands are sparkling wines - champagne has become synonymous with luxury, celebration, the lifestyles of the rich and famous and exquisite quality. Dom Perignon, despite producing millions of bottles a year, is able to maintain a high-end image and, most importantly, deliver a consistently high-quality product whenever a new vintage is released (which is not every year). Champagne differs from most wines in that the vast majority is non-vintage, where the wine is blended from current vintages as well as many other older vintages so that consistency in house style and quality can be maintained. In comparison, reds and whites face a new and different vintage every year with quality and flavour profiles that change. Bordeaux is the classic example of this roller-coaster pricing depending on the vintage.
Many classic European regions where grape varieties are grown in their respective marginal climates for that style (cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux, pinot noir in Burgundy, riesling in Germany) suffer from vintage variation. One of the key tenets of a brand promise is to deliver consistency in quality and experience. This is at odds with wine, which, by its agricultural nature, is different every year.
However, successful brands have been able to maintain this quality promise. At the everyday end, large volumes of wine produced have very little vintage variation since many source fruit from warm regions, where seasonal variation is not great. At the high end, investments in the vineyard and winery have made it easier for producers to offer high quality year after year. Even in regions such as Burgundy, where wines have a high sensitivity to vintages, very good wines are now made - even in challenging years such as 2004. With a combination of technology and careful vineyard management, severe selection and wise winemaking choices, the top domaines are consistent in crafting quality wine every year.
With the growing number of choices available in the market for good wines at every price point, branding will become increasingly important. Many wines are becoming brands, and despite some of the drawbacks, having consumer recognition, being distinctive and standing out among one's peers offer many advantages in a crowded market.
Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her at asianpalate.com