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.