A Tale of Three Brands

I was asked to give a talk at a university wine event recently and my colleague Amy Ryken selected the wines: three New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, all from Marlborough: Monkey Bay (2006), Nobilo (2006) and Kim Crawford. The Kim Crawford was the first 2007 vintage I have tasted and it made me realize why people like this wine. I like it for its distinctively pungent tropical fruit flavors, which displayed themselves very well in the young, fresh wine. But winemakers must like it because of its distinctively favorable economics. Some wines spend years in the barrel before they can be sold, but not this one. You harvest the grapes in March or April in New Zealand and the wine’s already on sale in the U.S. in September. That’s Chateau Cash Flow!

The three wines were different and each had its champions, but all three were unmistakably Marlborough products. They had something else in common: all three were sold by Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company. This fact made me appreciate how very important branded wine products and distribution clout are in the wine business today. How did theses wines come to belong to Constellation Brands and to arrive at our local stores. Here are three stories.

Nobio wines was founded more than 60 years ago by Nikola Nobilo, a Croatian migrant to New Zealand (most of the famous names in New Zealand wine are of Central or Eastern European origin and came to that island country attatched to migrants fleeing poverty and war). Nobilo prospered and was acquired a few years ago by BRL Hardy, the big Australian drinks conglomerate. When BRL Hardy merged with Constellation Brands, Nobilo came along in the deal. So Nobilo benefits today from its access to Constellation’s powerful distribution system and its expertise in marketing branded goods.

Kim Crawford’s story is a little different. Kim Crawford is a famous New Zealand winemaker who made his reputation at Cooper’s Creek and Saint Clair Estate and opened the first Marlborough “virtual winery.” He purchased grapes from contract growers, leased production space from other wineries, and made great wine. Kim Crawford was so well known for making great wine that he became an iconic brand, sort of like Martha Stewart (and that’s a good thing). “Kim Crawford” on the label as winemaker or winery owner is a sign of quality.

But even brands need distribution, especially for the export market, so Kim Crawford cut a deal with Hogue Cellars of Washington state that brought their wines into the U.S. and Canada. The distribution relationship continued when Hogue was purchased by Vincor, the Canadian wine giant, which was itself eventually bought by Constellation Brands in 2006. Kim Crawford still makes the wines, as near as I can tell, but Constellation owns the “intellectual property,” which must mean the brand rights.

The third wine was Monkey Bay. Monkey Bay is the best selling brand of New Zealand wine in the United States. As near as I can tell there is no “Mr. Monkey Bay” in the same way there is a Mr. Nobilo and a Mr. Kim Crawford. And I am not completely convinced that there really is a Monkey Bay, although one is indicated on the company website.

You see, Monkey Bay is a created brand, like most of the “critter wines” are. The name is created and the wine designed to appeal to a particular market niche or lifestyle segment. “Monkey” suggests that the wine is fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Bay” suggests an island locale, which is appropriate, and perhaps will remind some of Cloudy Bay, the famous (and much more expensive) high end Marlborough wine, which is owned by the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Constellation Brands invented Monkey Bay because they thought they could market the brand and the wine — and they seem to have been immensely successful. The grapes apparently come from Nobilo vineyards.

Why not call it Nobilo wine? Apparently the Money Bay moniker appeals to a different market segment. And by segmenting the market, Constellation Brands can attract buyers with different buying preferences at different price points.

Should we be concerned about so many Constellation Brands wines on the shelf? Well, these wines showed that market consolidation does not necessarily produce homogeneous wines. But that’s only the beginning of an answer. More to follow in future posts.

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