Wine, it has been said, can be the most confusing of all indulgences. Why we like a certain wine is sometimes not understood. It stands to reason that in a sea of confusion, one might reach out for stability and predictability and call it “brand loyalty”, therefore bringing familiarity to an otherwise confusing and daunting prospect, choosing a wine. I bring this up, because a few days ago, a friend of mine asked me what I though of Ravenswood. Not that he cared, but because he knows I’m a wine guy, and he wanted to show me that he’s attached himself to a brand that I would think would make him a credible wine drinker. The problem lies in the very suggestion that Wine Brand Loyalty is good. I am glad that he thought enough to try to start a conversation about something he knows I’m interested in, but it really got me thinking about Loyalty, and I thought that Ravensood would be good case study. It could have just as easily been Yellow Tail, or Blackstone, or Beringer, but today, it’s Ravenswood.
Now, Ravenswood has a long and illustrious history, but they have since sold out in favor of commerciality. And it is everyone’s prerogative to make money, and sell what they will, and approach it however they deem best. But as an advocate for consumers, I disagree with the direction they’ve turned over the last 5-10 years. If they didn’t have a history, they wouldn’t even be a blip on my radar screen, but because of their history, and their new commercial viability, they will be our example today.
Ravenswood started as a winery focused on the top Zinfandels. This was an especially noble pursuit in the 1980’s. Their wines were so good, that they were deemed to be in the “holy trinity” of Zinfandels. But a few years ago, they were gobbled up by one of the biggest wine companies in the world, Constellation Brands. Constellation, with over $4 Billion/ year in annual sales, has so many wineries under their control that they had to create a boutique portfolio to include their small producers, including, Robert Mondavi, Estancia, Franciscan, Columbia Winery, and several other “small” wineries. I would go so far as to say that from the mid-90’s on, Ravenswood was posturing to be purchased from just such a conglomerate for an obscene profit, all the while selling out. Some may argue that the winemaker is the same guy that founded the winery all those years ago, and Constellation has allowed him to stay true to his vision. Yeah, right. Constellation didn’t get to be the size they are today by allowing winemakers creative control. Wine is a tough business, and Constellation is a huge evil giant, existing only in this business to make money.
From a marketer’s perspective, this was a prefect situation: Once prominent cultish winery with great name and logo (edgy looking animals on the label), decided to take mass market approach, and starts making gobs of Merlot and other lowest-common-denominator wines. The name is the same, the product is totally different. What does this mean to the consumer? That these wines, since they have a following, are widely available. Ravenswood has a reputation, albeit newly tainted, for making good wines. The consumer tries it, doesn’t have a problem with it, can easily remember the label, and brand loyalty is born. The problem is that Ravenswood makes 42 different wines, and every vintage the wine should change. So with so much variety under one “predictable” label, why not branch out? Most of the time, predictability is an illusion created by ubiquitous producers in the marketplace. How else can they rise above the artisan producers creating truly special wines? If you are loyalty to a wine brand, dump it for 6 months. Try not to drink the same wine twice. Ask for advice in your local wine store (not grocery store), and be slightly adventurous. I promise, you will never again fall victim to the conglomerate brainwashing, because you have embraced the adventure that is the world of wine.