A Vinter’s Secret Weapon

“Bring me a beaker of wine, so I may wet my mind and say something clever” – Aristophanes

I’ve got wine on my mind.

Not literally, mind you.

As I write this, it’s not even 10:00 a.m., for God’s sake.

No. I’m thinking about wine thanks to two articles I’ve just read, both of which might interest any student of marketing who also has an affinity for the grape. (There are a few of us, I imagine.)

So, which two articles?

First, one from the BBC reporting a “new wine for men” that’s in development by a California vintner.

Yep. Bordeaux for the Budweiser set.

Says a Ray’s Station rep, this is wine for guys who like to fish, hunt, and watch Nascar. Married with kids and settled. But not into white wines or even softer reds like Pinot Noir. These are, as labeled, “Hearty red wines for men.”

If this gives you an idea, there’s a galloping stallion on the label.

Is gender-targeting for wines a new thing? Nope, not at all. Last year, says the BBC article, another vintner came out with a wine especially for women. It’s called, and I’m not making this up, “Mad Housewife.”

Sounds like a couple of fun copywriting gigs, writing for those two vintners, eh?

Still, the real reason I had the idea to write about wine today was a second article that hit a little closer to home…

See, here in the Paris office where I sometimes set up shop, there works wine-making royalty: the daughter of California vintner Manfred Esser. Recently, she brought each of us a bottle of her father’s wine. My wife and I drank ours with dinner that night.

Good stuff.

After sampling the wine, I looked up the wine master on the Web. Per an article I found in the Beverage News, it turns out Esser’s talent is not just in making a good wine, which he does. It’s also in applying new marketing principles that I think we could all afford to study.

Esser, who’s German and a Harvard grad, took over the Cuvaison Winery in Napa Valley. It was 1986, and the vineyard was headed south faster than a goose in February.

Yet, within two years, Esser had turned it around. Not only was Cuvaison suddenly breaking even, they had cornered 25 percent of the export market. And they were selling as many as 70,000 cases of their top-end wine every year.

Twelve years later, Esser sold his partnership in Cuvaison and launched his own label.

Now, Esser Vineyards is one of California’s newest hot contenders. Despite competition with, as Esser himself puts it, “about 80,000 different competitors.”

How does he do it?

Esser calls it “guilt marketing.”

“You treat your customers so well,” says Esser, “that you create a sense of obligation to come back to your product or service. And, even more than that, to actually become ambassadors for your company. They actually feel guilty if they forget about you.”

Sound familiar?

He’s not recommending tricks or jingles or cleverness or high-pressure selling to turn a buck. He’s recommending a quality product. And quality service. At a good price.

It’s relationship building.

In other words, the same marketing secret so many new Web businesses took a few years to “discover” … happens to sell wine, too. And it happens to do so extremely well.

Esser’s done this before.

In his early career, he took a Chicago-based wine-importing firm from nothing to a multimillion-dollar business. Per Beverage News, by the time he left the firm, it had 500 employees, 30 sales offices, and helped sell wines from all over the world.

It starts with the retailers, distributors, and restaurant owners. “During harvest,” Esser told the Milwaukee Journal, “we go in the vineyard and cut a bunch of grapes and tissue-wrap them. Then we send them to important people – FedEx it overnight, with a note – ‘We thought you might be interested in the new vintage.'”

This kind of treatment, Esser noted, is the kind of thing you’d see at places like the Ritz-Carlton, where a customer’s every whim is anticipated and over-met.

Then there’s the label on the bottle. Simple, elegant, expensive-looking. Which matters for a wine that, hopefully, will land on lots of restaurant tables. Esser spent two years finding that look.

And consider that world-honored wine maven Robert Parker has ranked Esser’s wine as top-notch eight years running. Yet, this isn’t $100 hooch. Or even $50, like you might expect to pay for some of California’s other top – and not-so-top – offerings.

In fact, most of Esser’s wines won’t set you back more than about $10 to $12. Per Parker’s review, “This winemaker knows how to make popular, high quality wines that sell for a song.”

Imagine …

Step one: Build a business based on the quality and affordability of what you sell.

Step two: Make THAT your marketing hook.

Is this strategy new or reckless or revolutionary? No, quite the opposite. It’s old school, time-tested, and one of the safest business plans anyone could imagine. And wouldn’t it be nice if more businesses today took it up again?

Cheers to that.

[Ed Note: John Forde is an AWAI board member. To get his sharp insights into the world of copywriting, sign up for his free weekly e-zine Copywriter’s Roundtable.]