The Wine Group has grown to become the second-largest U.S. wine company, producing the equivalent of 53 million standard 9-liter cases annually.
Based at Concannon Vineyard in San Francisco’s East Bay, the company produces more than two dozen brands that span the post-Prohibition history of U.S. winemaking. It operates 13 wineries in California, New York and Australia. Brands include the world’s biggest, Franzia, as well as Cupcake, Chloe, Benziger, Imagery, Love Noir, Glen Ellen, Corbett Canyon, Big House, Flipflop, Almaden, Oakleaf and Mogen David.
The Wine Group started in 1981 in a leveraged buyout by managers of a business unit by that name within Coca-Cola Bottling of New York. It has grown by acquisition, such as Glen Ellen from the Benziger family in 2002, as well as by import alliances and brand creation. The company acquired the Benziger and Imagery brands from the family in 2015.
North Bay Business Journal spoke with Brian Vos, president since 2009 and CEO since 2012. He’s set to be the keynote speaker at the Journal’s Wine Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on April 26 (nbbj.news/wine18). His wine business career spans nearly three decades, starting with the largest U.S. producer, E&J Gallo, in 1989. He joined The Wine Group as vice president of supply chain in 2002.
In the following interview, Vos talks about his company’s drive to innovate brands in the “premium-plus” price segment — below $20 a bottle — and how attracting millennials with lower-priced premium brands will help keep them reaching for quality wines as their careers give them more disposable income.
What are top drivers for the U.S. wine business right now?
BRIAN VOS: Right now, there is a bit of slowdown in growth. We were growing great for a lot of years. We’re still growing, but it is a little tamer than it was. The premium end is driving a lot of (it).
Rosés are, obviously, a big deal. The question is, are they here to stay? Are they year-round (sellers)?
There’s packaging innovation with single-serve cans and premium 3-liters like Black Box. They are both providing tons of growth for the category right now.
How is that changing the way you do business, affecting the way you do brand marketing and brand creation?
VOS: We’ve been a company that has always believed in balanced offerings for our consumers, so we continue to try to grow premium. At the same, we believe the value consumer is always going to be there and we want to offer those consumers a robust offering as well. You won’t see us abandoning the value end and the popular (premium) segment as well, but you will see us leaning in on the (ultra)premium end, because that is where the growth is at.
Are you looking to acquire or create brands toward the faster-growing ultrapremium, even up to the luxury side of the market, as well as continue your other brands at other price points?
VOS: Our innovation has focused on south of $20. Everyone has different terminology for that (segment). I call it “premium-plus.”
How diversified should companies be in beverage alcohol?
VOS: We gave spirits a try five to seven years ago. We weren’t ultimately successful. We’re pretty pragmatic, and we found it was something we weren’t really good at. We took a step back and focused on what we’re good at.
Wine Industry Conference
Read more interviews this week with Wine Industry Conference 2018 speakers (nbbj.news/wine18qna):
Keynote: Brian Vos, CEO of The Wine Group
Panel: Drive to Premiumization
Jeff O’Neill, founder of O'neill Vintners & Distillers, Larkspur
Judd Wallenbrock, president and CEO of C. Mondavi & Family (Charles Krug Winery), Napa
Kevin Phillips, vice president of operations for Michael David Winery, Lodi
Bob Torkelson, president and CEO of Trinchero Family Estates, St. Helena
Panel: Wine Growth Cycle: Are we at the peak?
Dan Leese, president, CEO and co-founder of V2 Wine Group in Sonoma
Gary Schlossberg, Wells Capital Management
Jon Moramarco, Managing Partner, BW 166
Tony Correia, The Correia Group, North Coast vineyard appraiser
JoAnn Wall, Above & Beyond Real Estate Services, Central Coast vineyard appraiser
Carl Stillman, Stillman & Associates, Oregon vineyard appraiser
Details on the conference: nbbj.news/wine18