The Genius of Charles Smith and the Land versus Brand Wine Wars

What do you know about Charles Smith? He’s a marketing genius! Where does he get his ideas? Do you know what he is going to do next?1029780x

We were in a restaurant in Yountville, the heart of the Napa Valley, talking with one of the valley’s best winemakers. There was a lot to discuss, but our friend was pretty focused. He was fascinated by Charles Smith.

And that’s not really a surprise. Charles Smith has a reputation as a premier brand builder, a marketing genius. That’s not the whole Charles Smith story, but it is how some people think of what he is and does, especially after the 2016 sale of his Charles Smith Wine (CSW) brand lineup to Constellation Brands for a cool $120 million.

Smith came to Walla Walla to make terroir-driven wines. His first vintage was 330 cases of the 1999 K Syrah made from grapes grown in The Rocks vineyard area supplied by Cayuse winemaker Christophe Baron. The wine was so good, according to an excellent Wine Spectator profile, that it convinced local bankers to help finance the operation. Bankable wine? Quite an accomplishment.

House Wine to Kung Fu Girl

K Syrah is a clever, memorable wine brand (think “Que Sera Sera”), but the commercial branding story really starts in 2003-2004, when a killing frost hit Walla Walla and winemakers like Smith had to scramble to get grapes or bulk wine from other parts of Washington to give them something to sell to pay the bills.

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Smith seized the moment to launch the Magnificent Wine Company and its House Wine lineup. The popularly-priced negociant wines with the fun labels sold out. Everyone needs a house wine — House Red, House White, and so on. Sales quickly scaled.

Precept Brands invested in House Wine in 2006 and purchased the brand outright in 2011. The current lineup includes House Red, House White, Steak House, Fish House, and other House wines packaged in bottles, boxes, and cans.

Charles Smith Wines came next — continuing the House Wine philosophy of giving people what they want in a simple but stylish way, but a step or two up the wine market ladder. Boom Boom Syrah, Velvet Devil Merlot, Eve Chardonnay, Chateau Smith Cabernet Sauvignon and who can forget Kung Fu Girl Riesling — each wine had its own personality and offered buyers lots of quality per dollar.

These CSW wines have two things in common. First, they have distinctive graphic design elements provided by the talented Rikke Korff, who has handled all the design work for Charles Smith since the beginning. The labels are instantly recognizable and always make me smile. Nothing like the staid chateau drawings or cute critter images that many wines feature.

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The second common feature is that the wines are good and good value. Kung Fu Girl Riesling, the best-selling wine in the line and a frequent recipient of “Top 100” wine awards, sources grapes from the exceptional Evergreen Vineyard. It’s the real deal.

The Modernist Wine Project

There are a lot of ways to think about the CSW wine program, but the winery website likes to call it part of a “modernist” project. The idea seems to be to look at consumers as they really are and then give them a product that satisfies their needs. This means wines that are ready to drink upon release, that are balanced and taste good with food or without it, and that are affordable and carried to market on a relatively simple message relayed through exciting graphical design.

The genius of Charles Smith was to put all of this together — the wines, the message, the design, the marketing — and to get the project rolling in 2006,  just before the Great Recession hit the United States. The CSW wines offered recession-shocked buyers an opportunity to trade over to a more casual idea of wine, not just to trade down to something a bit cheaper. Mix all this with a lot of hard work in the vineyard, cellar and on marketing and it is no wonder the wines were so successful.

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It is well known that I admire this sort of genius. The subtitle of my 2011 book Wine Wars referenced the “Miracle of Two Buck Chuck.” It was indeed a miracle that Fred Franzia and his team at Bronco Wine and the smart folks at Trader Joe’s markets could give millions of Americans the confidence they previously lacked to try and enjoy wine. Charles Smith built upon this foundation with great success and in a particular “modernist” way, first with House Wine and then the CSW brands.

The modernist project continues. Smith will consult with Constellation Brands on the CSW portfolio to help it scale up successfully. And then there is Vino, which was not part of the Constellation Brands deal, a tasty lineup of Washington-grown Italian-varietal wines that are instantly recognizable as a Charles Smith product by their label design and offer an unexpectedly sincere homage to the Italian origins of their grapes.

The Pinot Grigio, for example, has minerality you won’t find in a lot of other wines of this type and the Moscato will remind you a bit of a nice Moscato d’Asti. These wines probably don’t have to be this good to sell at their price points. But they are.

The Battle of Land Versus Brand

It would be easy to typecast Charles Smith as a brand guy in the battle of Land versus Brand. The fact of the Constellation Brands purchase offers some evidence. After all, Constellation is famous these days for paying big bucks for brands that have no vineyards or wineries attached to them.  The Meomi brand was purchased for $315 million and The Prisoner for $285 million, for example.k_syrah_beautiful

Viewed in this perspective, Charles Smith’s experience with House Wine and then the CSW brands seems to typecast him as a very successful brand-spinner — a genius at the game as my Napa Valley winemaker friend pointed out. And what you would expect from Smith is more of the same.

But there is more to Charles Smith than brand-building. The K Vintners wine that started it all back in Walla Walla has evolved into a rather interesting collectiomn of single-vineyard wines (Land not just cool Brand), exploring the possibilities of Syrah and Viognier with side-trips to Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Malbec. An all-Chardonnay line called Sixto offers single-vineyard wines plus a multi-vineyard blend.

Washington’s Randall Grahm?

And so the question must be asked, is Charles Smith Land or Brand? The answer seems to be both, which makes him a complicated person (and maybe more of a genius than my Napa friend realized). Is Charles Smith Washington wine’s answer to California’s Randall Grahm? I dunno. What do you think?

To find out what Charles Smith is up to these days and maybe learn about what comes next we paid a visit a few weeks ago to his Jet City Winery near Boeing Field in Seattle to learn about a particular vision of Land and Brand. Come back next week to see what we discovered.

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4 responses

  1. Great overview of the winemaker and the brand. I have a great deal of admiration for what he has done and, as you point out, the quality that he delivers at the retail price points on the shelf. In the end it doesn’t really matter if he is Land or Brand. He has built a successful business in a very competitive environment, navigated business cycles, and become a real force within the industry in a relatively short period of time. What more could one ask for from a wine maker/business owner?

  2. I met Charles Smith a couple of times, and didn’t particularly like the man. A also tried a number of his wines, and was not overly impressed. They were just not my style, although even the lowest rung were far better than 2-Buck Chuck. On the other hand, what Smith has accomplished is amazing. As to Randall Grahm, I met him many years ago, and found him very pleasant. I even liked some of his wines.

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