Contra Contra or How I Lost my Marketing Mojo

This post(mortem) is a bit of meditation on the 2009 Contra, a wine I have utterly adored (we’ve just recently sold out) but has been, in spite of very favorable press, very favorable price, and a strenuous, if not Herculean marketing effort—we really pulled out all the stops on this one—a bit of a commercial disappointment. We’re looking to bottle the ’12 vintage sometime this summer—the wine will be great, b/t/w, a worthy stylistic successor to the ’09—but I’m wondering, through the benefit of hindsight, what precisely went wrong, and what we can do to fix the problem if it’s not the world itself which is in need of repair—a possibility not entirely out of the question—hence this meditation. But, this musing arises from a decision that came just days ago to change the Contra label for the upcoming (summerish) bottling.
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The decision to make the change came rather quickly, rather like a driving maneuver one must hurriedly execute as a result of some hare-brained driver unexpectedly pulling out in front of you in traffic. This was far from an idealized outcome. In a properly staffed, properly capitalized, properly profitable wine company, decisions to alter the look of one’s label, indeed decisions to significantly change any aspect of one’s presentation to the world, are taken deliberately, thoughtfully. One attends meeting after bloody meeting, debating the pros and cons of any substantive change in the basic design features and one’s presentation of wine-self to the world, and then with lots of discussion and anguish, gnashing of teeth, rending of garment, etc., one comes to a decision.

In our instance the proximal cause of the label change—contra-etiquettage, as it were—came about due to the unexpected problem we encountered in trying to obtain glass for the imminent Albariño bottling—the manufacturer was temporarily out of stock of the particular champagne green claret bottle we use for the Albariño as well as for a number of other wines we produce.1 We were told that if we placed a larger order for the same Stelvin-accommodating 750 ml. glass the company might fast-track the bottles in their production schedule, lest we wait months and months for the arrival of the order.2 Of course, when you order bottles from a manufacturer you also need to specify the printed artwork for the box itself in which the glass will ultimately repose. You don’t want to incur the additional expense of having to put bottles in a “content” (unprinted) box, only to then just throw the plain boxes away after you’ve transferred their contents to a nice artistic printed case, one that will inspire customers to stop abruptly in the aisles of retail wine shops and put a bottle or two or six of your wine in their basket, now then, would you?3 Are you still with me? Such is the skein of disparate elements—the wine business itself is just a tangled web of these sorts of seemingly random nexus—that compelled the decision to change the label.
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Some background: Just a few short years ago I bethought to introduce a less expensive wine into the portfolio, one that would potentially allow us to do some reasonably good volume and add a modicum of black ink to the balance sheet, a color we hadn’t seen on the aforesaid for some time. Thus was the conception of “Contra.” I had accidentally discovered the brilliance of old vine Carignane in the old head-trained, sandy vineyards of Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County many years back when we began working with old-vine Mourvèdre for our Old Telegram and Cigare Volant wines. Indeed many if not most of the vineyards in Antioch and Oakley were interplanted—crazy-quilts of Carignane and Mourvèdre, often with Zinfandel and occasionally Alicanté in the mix.4 The vines were very old, even then—pushing eighty or ninety years of age at the time—not irrigated (who would spend money on irrigation?), non-grafted and pruned in the lovely goblet form.5
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Quite significantly, the grapes were not too expensive (that’s changed a bit, alas) and to be perfectly candid, of all of the grapes I’ve met in California, these I believe to deliver the most favorable ratio of intensity/complexity per dollar. Old-vine Carignane was (now it can be told) the secret ingredient of Big House Red, the strong tenor capable of carrying the sometime wayward chorus.

So, with some superior Carignane vineyards identified and some advances in winemaking6 —we have learned a few things over the years—and what I hoped was an interesting story: the old vine “field blend” was more or less congruent with the overall focus of the winery, vis-à-vis an emphasis on southern French cépages but more importantly, on wines of life-force.7 Moreover, the wine would be priced at a competitive price-point, and was seemingly the perfect entry-level wine for those preparing to enter the Dooniverse. All seemed in readiness for the launch of “Contra.” As we often say around here, what could possibly go wrong?

Now, we haven’t had a lot of new labels in the Bonny Doon Vineyard line-up since the downsizing of the company. In fact, the overall direction has been the gradual diminution both in number of products and actual case production of our one-time compendious portfolio. At the same time, we’ve also observed a rather radical shift in the nature of the wine business itself, especially in regards to wholesale distribution. Because there have been so many new brands entering and crowding the market, and that, compounded by the consolidation and net shrinkage of the number of distributors, has created immense pressure—both psychic and fiscal—on distributors to resist with every fiber of their being the impulse to take on new products from suppliers (that’s us), even ones with whom they enjoy a warm and fuzzy relationship. I have heard tell that among larger, Brobdingnagian distributors, there is something like an internal bounty system for purchasing agents who are able to successfully trim the number of products within the company’s portfolio.
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There were a couple of false steps in our launch. For one, I forgot to mention on the label the essential value/sales proposition of the wine itself—that it was an “old vine” field-blend.8,9 I also neglected to mention the grape varieties contained within the blend. (Old-vine Carignane, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, along with some younger vine Grenache and Syrah), though it certainly would have been very clunky or at least graphically challenging to indicate all of them on the front of the label. But, certainly, we might have mentioned them on the back. Some of this was a mental lapse, especially in light of our proclaimed commitment to transparency, though we never indicated the grapes that went into the colossally, almost criminally successful Big House blend. In retrospect, I think it was mostly a function of the fact that I had already written so much copy (very clever, I imagined) for the back-label, there was just no room at all for anything more.
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The label itself: It’s not really a secret that we had been experiencing a financial crunch at the time we were designing the label (and still, for that matter), but for good or for bad, in the interest of saving a buck, we had gotten in the habit of designing the labels in-house. Philippe Coderey, our viticulturist at the time, had taken a photograph of one of the vineyards in Antioch, and couldn’t get over the fact that a) someone had had the poor form to dump their trash in a vineyard, and b) even more worrisome, one of our growers had not the wit nor wherewithal to pick up the trash from aforesaid vineyard. Philippe was just appalled. For me, the picture perfectly captured the terroir of Antioch, CA, home of meth labs and rusted muscle cars up on blocks, which I sometimes refer to as “Appalachia by the Bay.” We Photoshopped the picture a bit, mostly removing some (additional!) unseemly trash from the photo, and tweaking the color value of the cover-crop a bit to get the most felicitous contrast with the color of the type. As you likely know, I am pretty much a total sucker for visual puns, and I just couldn’t resist the joke to be found in the militaristic typeface, “Exocet” with its sniperscope “O.”
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It’s often very difficult if not impossible to be objective about one’s own work, and truly grok its possible artistic deficits. I think the label is a pretty clever juxtaposition—the cool shades of the bucolic vineyard and the anomalous sofa (ever since Freud, sofas are funny, at least in my book) with the subtly militaristic Exocet font and its intimation of a hot, shooting-war/ passing reference to Contra Rebels. While we have in fact gotten a number of positive comments about the label, it’s certainly possible that there are some folks out there who are significantly less keen.10 When we did not experience the home run with the bases loaded success with the wine that I had anticipated, we looked hard for answers and the culprit that was most often mentioned was the label itself. A number of people were luke-warm to it, but were somewhat hard pressed to describe precisely why. “Too obscure…” “Why a couch…?” No one mentioned the Exocet font, but if there’s a tragic flaw in the label, it is perhaps that women (whom I’m convinced, absent scientific study, mind you, are the primary customers of our wines) who are put off by the aggressive, if not militaristic font. Read blog post “Chick Vit”
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But, if in fact, it wasn’t the label, might it have been something else? The obvious culprit would have to be the wine itself, especially as it presented upon release. Carignane, when bottled early, surtout en Stelvin, has a certain tendency to express a sort of stoniness—maybe this is the reductive tendency of the variety itself, or a manifestation of the phenomenon of “minerality,” especially in virtue of the age of the vines (perhaps these phenomena are one and the same?). In any event, the taste was presumably not for everyone, especially those tasters who favor ripe fruit as the primary signifier of hedonic excellence. 8_tattooIt seemed as if many were slightly put off by the aspect of austerity, though this quality of “stoniness” is what I live for, a signifier of “life-force” or qi in wine. Perhaps I am in the minority in this regard, but I think that it is this stylistic differentiation that is really the wine’s greatest strength, not its weakness. Oddly enough, my thoroughly contrarian friend, Clark Smith, when he tasted the ’09 upon release, felt that it was “too fruity, too pleasurable,” hence not quite European enough.
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As I mentioned, we really tried everything possible in the marketing the wines. Because I thought that the iconography of the wine’s presentation was itself a little edgy, I imagined the wine might track to the biochemical radar of the younger imbiber, the Millennials, soi-disant.11 So, we made Contra tattoos in various sizes, which I observed, in fact, to go over rather well at tastings.12

But we didn’t stop there. Oh no. We made Contra berets—again, reinforcing the quasi-militaristic association, and of course we had to make Contra tee-shirts to complement the ensemble. These were done by the brilliant designer, Steven Solomon, who has done all of the graphics for Terroir Wine Bar in New York.13

Back to the subject of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments: After scores, I mean scores of iterations, in collaboration with Mr. Solomon, we also produced an incredibly handsome, limited edition silk-screen poster of Contra. It’s absolutely beautiful, as you can see, and I think we still have some in stock.
And in the interest of creating a more viral presence – the apotheotic outcome envisioned by the gurus of social media—we made and posted a Contra video, which I think was reasonably clever, though I confess that here I was more or less channeling Woody Allen in Bananas.14) 10_postersteven

The reviews. There were very good reviews to outstanding raves about the wine pretty much all around, including one from Robert Parker, who has historically not been overly lavish in warm and fuzzy sentiment vis-à-vis Bonny Doon wines. His review was so positive that I took its appearance as an incontrovertible validation of the likely accuracy of the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. We liberally circulated to our distributors and agents these splendid reviews, and again, how these glowing accolades did not seem to really move the needle much at all, also deepened the mystery.

Undoubtedly, the issue is multi-factoral, and one might require the services of the late Jack Klugman, in a turn as the fictional Dr. Quincy, to really properly diagnose the relevant malignancies. While the dysfunctional label hypothesis is really yet to be fully tested, perhaps we might yet be able to exclude it (alas, too late for the purposes of the new boxes!) if we observe a strong uptick in sales with the new vintage (2010).15 We’ve gotten some nice reviews for the new wine, though perhaps not quite as many as for the ’09. The earlier vintage was perhaps a wine critic’s (or winemaker’s) wine, but the ’10 may be more of a typical wine drinker’s wine, a (God help me) crowd pleaser. It’s a bit early to tell how it will do, but if it does fare well, this might be an argument for the decline of the power of the wine review. Alternatively, it may be that people who buy $15 bottles just don’t have much time for wine reviews. Maybe they buy the first time for the label (or in spite of the label), and the second time by how much they’ve enjoyed the wine.
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Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of Contra. They’re not precisely my preferred style of an extremely restrained, taut red wine. In both vintages we ended up picking the grapes a little bit riper than I might have wished—harvesting in a timely fashion can be a tricky proposition in Antioch, CA, with the intermittent availability of labor crews and other logistical snafus that seem to be endemic to the area. Luckily, in ‘10 we had the wit to take appropriate evasive action on the potential alcohol level by blending in some cool climate, lower alcohol Syrah, which added some much needed coolth to the cuvée.16 Maybe I’m becoming far too neurotic about the whole thing, and worry that the ’10 and ’11 will be wildly successful. Then what?
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I’ve taken the ’09 out a lot personally on sales calls to all sorts of venues and I’ve observed consumers reactions up close. If they really know and love wine and also happen to work in a store or restaurant that appreciates and can sell real wine, they will virtually always purchase the wine. At least when I’m around. The whole exercise reminds me a bit of what is called in quantum physics the phenomenon of Schrödinger’s Cat. There is almost a sort of quantum effect (which is in fact not supposed to happen on a macro level), i.e. when I attend/observe the wine, the wine presents one way, which leads to a certain discreet outcome (a sale), but when I don’t attend/observe the wine, the wine presumably presents a different way (how would I know?), resulting in a rather different and decidedly less agreeable outcome.
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The proposed new label, based on the poster that Steven Solomon did for us, is quite beautiful, certainly far more interesting from a design standpoint than the present “sofa” label. But I can’t help but think that the decision to go with the new label represents a sort of personal failure, a capitulation to the reality principle, a principle I’ve never much cared for, rather just on principle. The sofa label—one of the few Bonny Doon labels featuring a photographic image—despite looking nothing like any of our other labels, strikes me as if it could only come from Bonny Doon.17 There’s a certain sensibility present (albeit warped). The new label, in some sense could really have come from any of the supremely clever marketers—ones far more clever than we—who’ve emerged in recent years, honing their marketing chops through the Darwinian brutality of the insanely competitive environment in which we work. The new Contra label, for example, could easily have been made by the ultra-modernist/hipster Charles Smith of K Vintners, a very clever marketeer, indeed.18
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Perhaps I have become too dualistic in my thinking—imagining that one has to choose between a slick label and a somewhat ordinary wine or a more idiosyncratic label with a more original wine. Or, maybe I’m just imagining that an overly slick label—so slick that it might verge on the generic—would slightly undermine the case for the unique and distinctive wine? Perhaps I’m overthinking this. For a $15 bottle of wine, maybe you just suck it up and put on the flashiest label you can conceive of, swallow your pride in that you are not the cleverest marketing person on the block, and move on (whatever that means). The other possible lesson of this inquiry may be that in fact there are few lessons any more, simply occurrences that behave according to rules that are too complicated for us to predict; perhaps we live in a universe of Black Swans, pace Nassim Talebian.19
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There has definitely been a real paradigm shift in the wine business, which now more consistently resembles the real world. The wine business was, not so long ago, more like a large pond; it is now a vast ocean and one has to deal with the associated peril.20 Put another way, you can no longer really make waves, but there are still plenty of waves to deal with; you now have to learn how to surf them. It is a new skill for me, but one that appears to be Contra-indicated.

  1. The 2011 Albariño is sold out, has been for some time, and getting the ’12 into bottle and into the arteries of commerce sooner than later is a fairly critical proposition. []
  2. In the Dooniverse screwcap bottles are rather normative, but it must be remembered that they are still a minority in the larger world. []
  3. Like it or not, Contra is very much an “off-sale” product in the lingo of the wine trade—one that is largely sold in retail wine shops rather than in restaurants. Because the agora is now so large, crowded and noisy, flashy artwork on the cardboard case itself will draw attention to the wine should you or your wholesaler be fortunate enough to succeed in getting the account the floor-stack (ideally “end-stack”) your wine. []
  4. The original customers for the grapes from these vineyards were home winemakers, primarily of Italian and Portuguese origin, who insisted on a “mixed” load of grapes, as they felt it would produce a wine of better balance. []
  5. Phylloxera will not propagate in sandy soils, chiefly because the soil does not crack, as it would were there were a significant percentage of clay in the mix. Ungrafted vines (in the absence of phylloxera) often live much longer than grafted vines, as they have not suffered the grafting wound, a sometimes cause of microbial infection and foreshortener of vine life. []
  6. Not all old-vine Carignane vines are created equal. Counter-intuitively, equally old vine Carignane from sites in Mendocino County, a cooler region than say, Antioch, generally fails to provide the same quality as grapes from Antioch vineyards. I’ve imagined that perhaps it was a question of clonal variability, but I now believe that it is likely a function of the fact that most of the Antioch vineyards are ungrafted whereas most of the vines in the Ukiah area are not. Alternately, maybe it’s the higher rainfall and heavier, richer soils of Ukiah that produce higher yielding vines. Whatever the case, the Carignane from the Antioch area is decidedly superior. []
  7. It would be far too much to imagine that our stable of growers in Contra Costa would ever farm these great old vineyards biodynamically, We’ve tried at times to bring them along, but we have to get them to the 20th century before they’re ready for the 21st. It is of course quite challenging to express the idea of “wines of life-force” in words that would make sense to most wine drinkers, but one taste of the wine should get the point across. []
  8. These really were seriously old—100+ years, and this is truly important information. Wines made from old vines most often have a real depth of character that cannot be achieved any other way. While no one really understands the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality,” old-vine wines often have this attribute in spades—a certain density of the mid-palate that makes them compelling. I’m not sure if a “field blend” itself is the world’s most interesting selling point, but it is also quite descriptive and further differentiates this wine from the squillions of others on the shelf. []
  9. We hastily remedied this faux pas with an after-market application of a strip label. []
  10. We polled a number of our wholesale distributors, not all of them fully qualified as art critics, and approximately 40% of them were less than enthused about the label. []
  11. The pursuit of this demographic is one of the several holy grails in the wine business at the present time. But, alas, there is a great ontological abyss the separates the fact of customers applying Contra tattoos to the actual purchase of bottles. []
  12. By going over well, I mean that people applied them liberally to various body parts. I first observed the phenomenon of the popularity of decal tattoos at wine tastings years ago when I was pouring alongside Ravenswood Winery, who have without a doubt the most iconic logo in the business. I was told that they thought to pass out decal tattoos of their label when they observed the substantial number of customers who had the Ravenswood logo actually tattooed permanently on their body. One might only dream of this kind of customer loyalty. []
  13. Steven’s hipster credentials are in order. []
  14. Everyone in the wine business imagines that these videos are incredibly helpful in raising awareness about the brand, especially among the younger social media-savvy young ‘uns. I did it, of course, primarily because it was fun, though it did carry the risk of potentially re-igniting the opprobrium of James Laube, senior editor of the Wine Spectator. (Mercifully, I don’t think he saw it. []
  15. Or we can just chuck all of the fancy, shiny new case boxes we had printed and continue with the old ones. []
  16. In Chinese medicine mint is “cooling.” A minty character in wine (from the Syrah) seems to have a similar effect on the perception of the heat of the alcohol. []
  17. In the old days, a Bonny Doon label was perhaps more discernible, even if there were absolutely no clues whatsoever as to its provenance, as it was virtually the only one out there that embodied visual humor or was perhaps a little edgy. The fact that virtually all labels now look like Bonny Doon labels causes me no end of anxiety and confusion. The subtle shift in our labeling in recent years—to more discreet images and less over-the-top presentation is meant to signify a similar shift in our winemaking style, in the direction of more subtlety and depth, but perhaps this subliminal message is just too subtle for anyone’s good. []
  18. Irony fully intended. You will note that I bristle under the ascription of my (former) talent as a marketer or in Parker’s parlance, marketeer. []
  19. Or alternately, that the lessons are so utterly occult as to be impenetrable. []
  20. It was not so long ago that we were able to slightly modify, or at least influence wine consumer behavior, at least as far as acceptance of screwcaps. []

29 Responses to “Contra Contra or How I Lost my Marketing Mojo”

  1. Larry Chandler says:

    As Queen Gertrude said to Polonius. “More matter with less art.” This probably applies to wine writing as well as to Hamlet.

  2. Patrick Frank says:

    Nice post. But what I really wanted to say was that I looked at your suggested wine reading list on some other site I forget where it appeared, and I purchased 2 items from it for my advancement & learning. Thanks for the free advice!

  3. Maggie McVoy says:

    We have found that Contra is definately a “hand sell”…for “middle earth”, it seems too abstract a markekting concept for the naive winebuyer…I would like to see Bonny Doon market BONNY DOON!! The time has come for the grand unveiling of the guts behind the whole thing. Love, love LOVE all the wines. BTW you have my resume on file!!

    • My dear Maggie McVoy: Easier said than doon. I wish I could understand what it meant to “market Bonny Doon.” Does it mean to have the name proclaimed in big bold letters on all of our bottles? I yearn for the day when our message can be much simpler – unique estate wines expressive of place. I’ll try to dig up your resumé.

  4. tom merle says:

    The lesson is really very simple which you yourself present very succinctly. There are wines that please the crowd and those that please the gatekeepers that believe they know better than any crowd. But gradually the crowd is crashing through the gates, largely because of their collective wisdom (see James Surowieki’s New Yorker essay turned into a book). And so we now have Trip Advisor and Yelp and the Amazon reviews and Engadget, and CellarTracker though it’s far more elitist.

    Best you stay out of the winemaking decisions for Contra. This seems to have happened with the more recent vintages: better new wine in new bottles than the same old wine in new bottles.

    I can tell you our representative group of wine drinkers, which is a kind of crowd, put the ’09 at the bottom of a tasting of “Splendid Blendeds” for the reasons you mentioned (packaging was irrelevant; it’s what’s in the package that really counts). Readers can see the results here (Contra didn’t make it onto the radar): http://blog.bayareawinesociety.org/2012/04/21/april-wine-mingle-exploring-splendid-blendeds.aspx

    • Tom, thanks so much for your note. Alas, for good or for bad, I am very much in the middle of winemaking decisions, and that’s really where I want to and need to be. As far as the ’09 not being a crowd pleaser, that is very very mysterious, as I mentioned in the post. I suppose it really has to do with the crowd, the context of the wines being consumed and perhaps the expectations and palate of the crowd. As I’ve stated in multiple places, as tasters, human beings are incredibly subject to so many forces extraneous to the wines themselves. And we haven’t even mentioned the biodynamic calendar! Having tasted the ’09 on more occasions than I can recount, I’m utterly convinced that it is very very good wine, and made in a style that is utterly coherent w/ my own aesthetic. But again, the elements – stoniness, austerity, “minerality” – have to be considered positives rather than negatives for someone to really get the wine.

  5. Randy Fuller says:

    It’s what’s IN the bottle that counts, of course, but marketeers say it’s what’s ON the bottle that puts it in the shopping basket. You have done a masterful job on both sides of the issue.

    The Contra label offered something to ruminate on, much like the content of the bottle. However, the image is so perplexing I think many get hung up trying to figure out “What’s with the sofa.”

    Branding images that stray too far from the purpose – to reinforce the brand – serve an opposite effect, even though their entertainment value might be high.

    Think of how many TV ads you see that are funny, visually striking or in some other way memorable. How many times have you not been able to recall the sponsor afterward?

    Branding that entertains is great, just don’t be so entertaining that you forget the branding.

    BTW, It strikes me that I always learn more from your footnotes than I learn from the actual article. I read them first.

    • Randy, Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I suppose that I really could use some advice from a marketing maven to help unify the brand imagery/iconography. Perhaps I was spoiled in the past in my ability to get away w/ so much latitude in the free ranginess of the labeling. I’m so glad that you enjoy the footnotes; it’s what I enjoy writing the most. Never a day I don’t think about David Foster Wallace.

  6. Graciela says:

    Hola Ralph,

    Happy New Year from Mexico City.

    My comment is to keep it simple. Loved the poster with the red frame. Keeps the logo CONTRA strength and updates the vineyard pic with a more compelling look to younger segments, more on a vintage trend as it was something done in the past.
    Just my thoughts…

    Wish I can taste it very soon.

    Saludos,
    Graciela
    Aura Club de Maridaje

    • Graciela, Thanks so much for your comments. I think that now I am somewhat over myself and the high drama. The black label does have a certain coolness and will appeal to a younger segment. (We once imported a wine called “Heart of Darkness” from Madiran, which was a big hit w/ the Goth population). I think that it is time for me to understand that there is a need for non-attachment, at least to the ephemeral things like wine labels, and sometimes, you have to at least consider some of the harsh commercial realities.

  7. tom merle says:

    This comment says it all: “Having tasted the ‘09 on more occasions than I can recount, I’m utterly convinced that it is very very good wine, and made in a style that is utterly coherent w/ my own aesthetic. But again, the elements – stoniness, austerity, “minerality” – have to be considered positives rather than negatives for someone to really get the wine.”

    Borrowing a term from WEB DeBois in an entirely different context, the “talented 10th” may “get it”, but 90% of the wine drinking crowd doesn’t, and they never will no matter how many different labels are tried. The ’10 and ’11 have as you note gone against your own tastes, but should show better results with the longer hang time, etc.

    So you can hold on to your purity or put out a little to improve the bottom line which is what you or the team going contra to your wishes wants to do. We can call this the Rombauer model or the Big House Red model.

    The zaniness and cleverness of the marketing initiatives have carried BD far as have some of the wines which have that rare ability to please the entire spectrum.

    • Tom, Thanks so much for your comment, but I’m sill not sure that I completely agree with you. The ’10 is in fact quite delicious. However, I still believe that even w/ the less expensive wines in our portfolio, my first duty (apart from making sure that the company is still in business) is to do my best to make wines that are philosophically and stylistically compatible with my own aesthetic sense. Perhaps the more accessible style of the ’10 and ’11 will win out in the short term ( maybe not necessarily such a bad thing); I’m not sure if I’m not potentially creating damaging cognitive dissonance to the overall perception of the brand in the longer term.

  8. There was a golden time when the wonderful stories behind the wines helped sell, but as you aptly pointed out, the large pond has swelled to an ocean, and so the chance encounter between a buyer and a bottle is so momentary, so fleeting, that the packaging has now usurped the lore as the main driver of purchases. If the (in my opinion very Doon-ish and cool) couch photo label deterred buyers, then it didn’t do its real job and a packaging change was a wise move. Contra is, after all, your revenue generator, not the passion project that your other amazing cuvées are. Mr Grahm, the wine business, its all about the Benjis you know. I feel your artistic plight – you know what kind of wine you want to make and market under your name, and you’ve been awesome about maintaining the integrity of your brand and style over the years – but suck it up and get that black ink on yer balance sheet my man!

    • Rashida, you are so right. The moment of interaction between consumer and package may have once been measured in seconds; it’s probably now down to milliseconds, or maybe even nano- or picoseconds. You correctly point out that this wine was made with a particular aim – to generate some cash flow, and therefore, if it can’t do that, it really loses its raison d’être. The black label has really been growing on me since I’ve written the post. Thanks again for your encouraging words.

  9. Louis Calli says:

    I’ve been a retail wine director for years, and the red blend category is a tough one. Particularly above the 11.99 price point. There is a ton of competition. After seeing the heavyweight champs Menage and Apothic launch with such ferocity everyone unsurprisingly jumped on the bandwagon. Red blends need to be “free money” to retailers. Basically, I don’t want to think about them. If they don’t sell themselves they get pulled from the order books. My wine managers have plenty of things they need to hand sell. Contra was a good wine with a bad name/label. It wasn’t eye catching at all, it was on the more expensive side of its competitive set (Red rock, gnarly head, bogle, apothic and menage all on the shelf for 11.99 or less). We’ve surveyed several offerings in the category (we’re a chain of 25 package stores) and price was a big big factor. So far two have been discontinued in our set with another probably on the way out.

    The “purple cow” mentality definitely applies here. In a field full of white a black speckled bovines, you need to assert your uniqueness.

    And also be cheap :)

    • Thanks so much for your comment. At our size, we can’t quite work on the “be cheap” part of the equation. Cost of (very fine) grapes and our overhead being the salient issues there. But, what we can do is work on making the wine distinctive, even at the higher price point, and I believe that, withal, Contra does that. But, I am now (sadly) in total agreement that within this category, wine’s label must needs shout from the shelf.

    • Gabriel says:

      Louis is right. In the retail marketplace, there are “margin-busters,” the wines like apothic, menage, and countless other WineGroup, Gallo, Treasury spin-offs with catchy looking labels selling no better plonk than what you would find in a lovely, old-vine Hearty Burgundy in 5L BIB (which is worth mentioning since it tastes better, generally, than most of that bottled $10 jettison.
      Personally, I love that Solomon print, and I think it would make a great label! At the $12-$15 price, the label has to shout, as you say, Randall, but the wine also has to appeal to those that want a qualitative step up from that other stuff they would normally buy at $10. Unfortunately, at retail, that means placements at hand-selling stores, or just make up points! Go find a guy named William Anderson, tell him what to write and give yourself 93+ – WA. BAM! DONE! Sad but true.
      Getting those great, small stores on board means finding distributors that are willing to invest in the brand, I believe.

  10. Louis Calli says:

    Absolutely! You’ve always done a great job making eye catching labels. Still, the value add may be just what you mentioned, the “very fine” grapes that are used. Give yourself credit for that. The selling point could be that Contra is the red blend real wine pros take home to their tables. Maybe that’s the ticket. This isn’t a “red blend”. Those have become somewhat commditized. Kind of like “napa cab”. This is a winemakers cuvee, or whatever. I’d tell my staff it’s a perfect upsell opportunity. The “at the register” tick where you say “You know, if you like apothic, for a couple extra bucks I’ve got something really cool you should check out.” All it takes is a few of those to start moving cases.

    • Thanks so much to you and to Gabriel for your thoughtful comments. Totally agreed that the true value proposition of this wine is the quality of the wine itself. But begs the question of how one uses language to express something that is properly in some sense very much beyond language. The term “old vines” is presumably densely significatory (in our case, these really are very old (100+ yr) dry-farmed vines. But as in the case of “old vines” and “dry-farmed tomatoes,” it may be that words themselves have begun to lose their currency. We (somewhat correctly) have been taught to mistrust everything and everyone. I think that the real proposition of the wine is the essential integrity of the brand, and my own personal integrity as well, it goes without saying. I have been trying my best to establish my credibility, but of course do worry (w/ reason) that I remain still somewhat tainted by the Big House association.

  11. Grinsfelder says:

    Oi, Grahm! I’ve been a fan of your DEWN project for a while now. I appreciate it when you swing for the fences (nebbiolo, my fave marsanne, abominable ice wine) and am willing to accept the inevitable strikeout that comes with the territory (ie the Syrah in the djinn bottle with the luchadore theme about 15 yrs ago).

    As for loss of mojo, some of that might be aging-related. Hire some smart young people and siphon off their mojo and mainline it as your own. It’s the traditional solution.

    Keep swinging for the fences!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. Roger that. If the financial mojo comes together, I will be swinging for beyond the fences w/ our seedling project. Agreed that some of the earlier DEWN wines were just utterly kooky at the time, but in some rare instances, a little (or a lot of) patience bore fruit. A few years ago, a friend in Belgium told me that our sweet Syrah (the result of a thought experiment: What would a Riesling Auslese taste like if it were a red grape?) had unexpectedly come together in a miraculous fashion. Go figure!

  12. Carl Helrich says:

    Call me a cynic, but I still think it’s the rare wine that is commercially (and, financially) successful and at the same time soulful. Superficiality sells, and depth doesn’t keep’em coming back. Does the $16 a bottle market really give a shit? At that price, it’s all about volume and COGS. I’d save the soul for the special wines, and let the $16 wines help keep your lights on.

    • Damn, I hope you’re not right. As Gabriel (supra) pointed out correctly. The key to success in this wine more or less lies with our ability to engage independent retailers, those capable of the hand-sell (a rare and perhaps slightly moribund breed). Wholesalers are seemingly too busy these days to really impart a lot of education to accounts, and the general wisdom is that if the wine does not sell itself off the shelf, neither retailers nor wholesalers have much interest. So, we’re going w/ the shinier label (at least for now), and hoping that the gravitas of other wines (eg. Cigare Réserve) will have some sort of halo effect on the entire line.

    • Carl Helrich says:

      Thanks for your response, Randall. And believe me, I hope I’m not right either!

      I do like your “halo” comment. Reminds me of the restaurant strategy of pricing an entree at $38 a plate knowing that they’ll rarely sell one. But that $26 plate flies out of the kitchen then!

  13. Michael Smith says:

    Randall, I truly admire your artistic sensibility. I think that first and foremost you are justifiably compelled to please yourself with the wines you produce. I once met an artist that was emerging from obscurity to achieve some critical and commercial success. He confessed that once the masses started to clamor for his art, it no longer had redeeming quality in his eyes. Perhaps an exaggerative view from a temperamental artist, but it has some relevance here. I personally believe that true artistic quality and commercial success (i.e., popularity) can coexist, but only when the masses become enlightened.

    • Michael, thanks so much for your very compassionate comment. Alas, the masses are not going to get educated any time soon. Mercifully, if we play our cards right (marketing segmentation, I’m told is the term – though I really wouldn’t know about these sorts of things ), we perhaps need not market to the masses, and find the customers who share our unique sensibility. The problem w/ this “unique sensibility” is that it is one of intellectual curiosity and vinous promiscuity. The Contra was good? I really need to try some St. Chinian. We will never, I’m afraid, ever find customers who have the sort of brand loyalty to something like a Rombauer Chardonnay. Perhaps, Thank God!.

  14. Adam Shobert says:

    Fantastic article, Randall. Your thoughts on the business in general, apart from the unique issue of Contra, are pretty spot on. But I think we can affect change and can get our buyers (and their buyers) to find the life force in these wines. The arrows are pointing in that direction, and the river’s flowing . . . It may just be coursing a bit slowly in some places right now. Thanks so much for the great post. Definitely going to pass it along. (And you’ve got my résumé office too!) Dooning the good work in Cincinnati!

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