Avoid ‘pet rock syndrome’ in getting consumers’ attention

Bill Leigon, president of Jamieson Ranch Vineyards in Napa Valley. He and Bill Spears acquired the brands in September 2015.

JEFF QUACKENBUSH , BUSINESS JOURNAL STAFF REPORTER

After ruling the roost of brand creativity at Hahn Family Wines for 11 years, Bill Leigon climbed onto a fast horse in early 2013 with the retooling of the defunct Kirkland Ranch estate winery southeast of Napa into Jamieson Ranch Vineyards.

Picked by industry analyst Jon Fredrikson early this year as a wine company “star,” Jamieson Ranch made 56,000 cases right out of the gate last year, plans to make 80,000–100,000 cases this year and intends to cross the finish line at a half-million cases in five years. Sales are running double time, compared with the pace last year, and first-quarter sales were 130 percent of those a year before, according to Leigon, 64.

Leading the pack of four brands are Light Horse, $15-a-bottle chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon wines, and Whiplash red blend and Lodi zinfandel labels at $15. Only 75 of the 305 acres on the property are planted with vines, so almost all the grapes are purchased from 40 growers around the state. The other brands are Reata ($20–$30) and Jamieson Ranch Vineyards ($45–$50).

Before coming to the 50-employee, 57,000-square-foot winery and Hahn, Leigon started his career at J. Lohr, building the brand, then he co-created the Ariel nonalcoholic brand and was general manager of Mark West when it was a physical winery.

Leigon is set to be on the “How to Stand Out in a Crowded Market” panel at the Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference on April 24. He spoke with the Journal about those challenges, including shrinking restaurant wine lists and darker store wine aisles.

Is standing out more challenging now than a decade ago?: It’s not more challenging, but it’s not less. For at least 20 years, I’ve felt that if I got my wine in there, someone would have to leave.

That’s certainly the case with the restaurant wine list, where there’s often not much opportunity to add something. If you’re not going in with that mentality, you will have problems. The closest we got to that [having a brand added to a list] was with GSM [Rhône-style red wine blend from grenache, syrah and mourvèdre grapes] at Hahn, because there was nothing else like it.

Otherwise, there is incredibly intense competition. If you’re talking about grocery store shelves, retailers have incredibly limited SKUs [stock keeping units, or distinct items for sale], so to take on more they may have to kick someone out.

How does a wine producer do that?: The first thing is make great wine at a given price point. What I’ve talked about for while is many make great wine, but you have to exceed customer expectations. I’ve always had the idea you can’t rely on [wine rating] scores.

Then comes the story. In past 20 years, if you came up with a wine, it needs to have a reason to exist. Ninety-five percent of wine brands tend to differentiate themselves by features other than benefits. What’s the benefit to the consumer? Then what’s the benefit to the retailer? Why would a consumer pick you over someone else? Sometimes, people think that will happen with programming, if they throw enough dollars at it, they can get noticed. We can’t come close to what Constellation [Brands] and others spend on the brand. So there must be different ways to tell a compelling story.

Have you noticed restaurant wine lists shrinking?: Absolutely, particularly in large chains. We’ve been losing ground to craft beer and cocktails. All have cocktail lists now. I’ve seen some [wine list selections] reduced. It becomes a complicated question on how a brand can stand out to the gatekeeper and then how to stand out to the consumer. Those are two different things in how to achieve that. One things with the three-tier [distribution] system is wineries are separated from the consumer, unless they go direct to consumer. If you’re going through wholesale, there are different criteria for buyers than consumers. Appellation doesn’t matter to the consumer, but it means a heck of a lot to the gatekeeper.

Then it comes down to packaging that makes the consumer pick up a bottle once, and then quality will keep them coming back. I call it the “pet rock syndrome.” If you have a fancy package, it’s like a pet rock. You will only sell one.

There are lots of ways to look at standing out on the shelf and in the consumer’s mind. When [Hahn’s HRM] Rex Goliath came out in 2002, and with Yellowtail, they created the whole “critter label” thing. [Rex Goliath Giant] 47 Pound Rooster could have been gimmicky, but it wasn’t because the quality was there. I purposely designed it to look vaguely French provincial, because it was an import.

With the critter brands, the shelves became cluttered with all kinds of different labels. Now I’ve gone back to the classics, with a lot of white space on the label. Another change came with the advent of track lighting in grocery stores. Now in Safeway, Whole Foods and other stores there is a lot of darkness with spotlights. So if you have a dark label in a dark environment, you are doomed.

Is there a move away from silk-screened labels because of those dark wine aisles?: I think that has already has been happening. I have no statistics, but anecdotally I notice wineries are going back to classic and straightforward labels. Even Ménage à Trois has a classic label.

Authenticity: I see the market as pre-September 2008 and post-September 2008. Pre was like the roaring ’20s and going to party like it’s 1999. Since 2008, the mood has shifted, and the consumer is not in a party mood. Even though the jobs situation is getting better and the economy is getting better, consumers still do not believe it. Since the Great Recession of 2008, it is more like the feeling of the Great Depression. There is a fundamental shift in the values of consumers, and that is reflected in their view of the price–quality relationship.