Rebranding Buried Cane, part 2
We set out with Buried Cane to make prototypical Washington State wines. That was the national distribution niche opportunity we were chasing. However, it has become very clear, from our presentations to wholesale distributors, retailers, restaurants, and consumers that while being a Washington wine is an interesting point of differentiation, it is not adequate to make a sale.
It is a rare wine consumer indeed who sets to wine shopping saying to himself (or herself), “I think I want a Washington wine today.”
No, they begin by deciding whether or not they want to buy wine at all, then think white or red or pink or sparkling, sweet or dry. From there they step up to a choice among varietals and wine brands (familiar or new), then settle on a price range as they peruse labels (on a store shelf) or wine names (on a restaurant list). About then “where’s the wine from?” might enter the decision making process. Pretty far down the list.
There are “homer” markets where local wines have a step up on the non-local competition. Thus, Washington wine is usually easier to sell in Washington than it is in Texas, for example.
Wine retailers and restaurateurs know this. Washington wines aren’t rare or special enough for their Washingtonness alone to get them on the shelf or list. They have to fit in with what the retail or restaurant account is doing (price, style, and range of offerings), and they have to have something extra, a “cool” factor (unless they are one of the handful of major national brands that are “must carries” in many accounts).
The “cool” factor, and the back-story appeal to wine geeks, is what can hook the retail or restaurant buyer, and get them to help sell our wine. That cool wine geekiness is also what appeals to the wine media: A story hook for an article, column, or review.
We had “pretty good wine from Washington State.”
That’s not enough wine geek coolth to get much of a sniff or swirl out of a wine buyer.
To begin our rebranding, we did a couple of obvious things for our winery. We began obviously identifying the Middleton family as the owners and operators of the winery, and played up the family heritage (a fourth generation family business in Washington State, founded in 1898). We began talking about Brian Rudin as the winemaker, and quoting him in information, press releases, sales materials, and the like. Having real people associated with a winery is essential for it to have any “personality” (duh). The family heritage and winemaker connection lift the winery’s story about just pretty good wine from Washington State.
We began doing lots more consumer wine tasting events in Washington State (something we need to keep focus on). Along with our regional restaurant partnership label (Anthony’s), participation in high-profile and high-attendance wine tasting events helps make the Buried Cane name familiar.
What about the wines themselves? I’ll focus on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon because they are the primary Buried Cane varietals, for now and for the future.
We started out with the idea that the Chardonnay should have no or very low sensory character from oak fermentation or aging. Washington fruit (whether grapes or apples) has a general perception of (and reputation for) crispness. We wanted to emphasize that. What we’re doing now is running more vigorously down that path. Early harvest from vineyard sites that can give us mature varietal flavors at lower harvest sugars – that results in crisp wines (because they retain more natural acidity if we can harvest them earlier) with lower alcohol (less sugar yields less alcohol post fermentation). No oak barrels – no oak in fermentation or aging – so as not to mask the crisp, fresh fruit flavor. No malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid into lactic acid and carbon dioxide) – “ML” as it is called gives Chardonnay a softer buttery character. We don’t want that, we want zesty zingy crispness!
This Chardonnay style may not be unique to Buried Cane, but it is different from most Chardonnay (although we’re beginning to see a few more no-oak bottlings). This style gives us something to think about, and talk about, and differentiation in our positioning. We can go into restaurants and identify real opportunities on wine lists. There is often a way to fit in a new no-oak, racy crisp Chardonnay by the glass, especially if it’s reasonably priced. We’re getting a little cool factor going with the Chard.
Cabernet Sauvignon is our current challenge. It’s a pretty good wine, and getting pretty gooder, as we refine our vineyard site selections and harvest protocols, vintage by vintage. It tastes like Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon (a little leaner and more elegant) rather than California Cabernet Sauvignon (usually riper and softer tasting). But pretty good (or pretty gooder) Washington Cabernet Sauvignon still doesn’t hit the cool factor. What do we do, or what should we be doing, in our Cabernet growing and winemaking that makes us something interesting and special? What would make some wine buyers (we don’t need all of them, just some of them) pay attention and say, “I need that Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon in my shop or cafe!”
The answer may be in the vineyards, or it may be in our winemaking plans, or in our blending creativity, or in our maturation process, or in our finishing and bottling (all Buried Cane wines are currently finished with screwcaps, by the way). We need to identify what it is that makes Buried Cane Cabernet Sauvignon special, focus on and heighten that specialness, and communicate that specialness to the correct subset of wine buyers (those who might care about what it is that makes us special). Then we’ll have a cool wine, and something to build upon other than “pretty good wine from Washington State.”
Next week I’ll start in on packaging design, the most important way we tell our story, in “Rebranding Buried Cane, part 3.”Share on Facebook