Wed 30 Jul 2014
In June I spent three days in North Yuba, a sub-appellation of the Sierra Foothills, about an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, for a brief immersion into the situation of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery and the other wineries and properties in the area. The first task of my visit was devoted to a day-long tasting of RVW library wines, a fairly astonishing collections of thousands of bottles going back to the early 1980s. Not surprisingly, the winery would like to sell these wines, which themselves are a pretty astonishing reflection of quality, integrity and single-minded devotion to an ideal. The winery staff was quite open in its expectation for my visit and looked to me for recommendations about how to market these wines and for the direction RVW should take to make their products more appealing to consumers. This sort of consulting work is not typically the position I find myself in when visiting a vineyard and wine region, but I felt that I had to take these expectations seriously. Here, by the way, are links to my two-part posting on the tasting: Cabernet-based reds and White table and dessert wines.
(Image of Sierra Foothills counties from 1916, courtesy of quarriesandbeyond.org.)
How is the winery going to divest itself of this tremendous store of library wines dating back to the early 1980s? By conveying a sense of a narrative that focuses on the winemakers, the terroir of the property and the quality and character of the wines. It’s a truism of today’s wine market that consumers, especially under the age of 35, are attracted to wines that possess a back-story, whether it’s a unique history or location, whether there’s an interesting aspect to the personalities involved or to the winemaking process. To reach to the contemporary audience, Renaissance needs to do what it has never done in its almost 40-year chronicle: Hire an outside marketing agency to craft this narrative and package the wines for sale to a particular stratum of restaurants and retail outlets. The advantage for restaurants would be that they could offer aged wines on their lists without having to serve them before they’re ready to drink or store them for a decade, the latter a prospect that few restaurants have the space for or can afford. Imagine being able to recommend the Renaissance Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 1989 or the Riesling 2002 or the Estate Cabernets from 1994, ’93 and ’91, all drinking perfectly now, to discerning palates.
This marketing agency could create, indeed with no embellishment, a fascinating narrative about a succession of fanatical winemakers dedicated to low alcohol content, little or no new oak, Old World techniques and organic methods. Imagine the appeal to collectors of a package that included cabernet-based wines from the 1980s, 90s and 2000s made by original winemaker Carl Werner; his wife Diana, who became winemaker when Werner died in 1988; and Gideon Beinstock, winemaker from 1994 to 2011, or of the winery’s late harvest dessert wines. The ability to taste such wines and compare them is invaluable. The fact that Carl Werner’s cabernets from years such as 1983 and 1984 are just coming round to a drinkable state, having shed their considerable tannins, creates a unique opportunity in California. It doesn’t hurt that Renaissance is located not in Napa Valley or Sonoma but in North Yuba in the Sierra Foothills, a region that may lack the glamor and recognition of better-known areas but offers the attraction and authenticity of laboring in obscurity and even a tinge of stubbornness.
A variety of ways exist through which a wine-savvy marketing agency could package and promote these wines to retailers and the restaurant trade, but Greg Holman, president of RVW, and his staff would have to be receptive to suggestions and new ideas and willing to make the financial outlay necessary.
And what about the future?
First, trim the line. RVW offers four cabernet sauvignon or cabernet-based wines — the “regular” cabernet sauvignon, a Reserve bottling, the Claret Prestige and the Vin de Terroir — and four Rhone-inspired red wines, a single-variety syrah and the blends La Provencal, Mediterranean Red and Granite Crown. Asking consumers to understand the differences among these wines and their motivations leads to confusion and indifference. Perhaps limiting these labels to a regular and reserve cabernet and one Rhone-style blend in addition to the syrah would clarify matters.
Second, engage in a major label revamp, another task for a marketing or design firm. Let’s face it, while the Renaissance label may be dignified, it’s also stodgy and bland. I don’t advocate changing a label design whenever the vagaries of fashion seem to dictate, and I admire wineries like Grgich Hills, for example, for staying with an uncluttered, elegant and easily identifiable label. The retention of the Renaissance label, however, feels more like habit than devotion, and I would say that it’s time for a shake-up. Keep the initial “R,” or a version of it, with its hint of antique finery, but clarify, simplify and modernize the rest.
Third, update the winery website with better graphic elements, a more compelling design, pictures of the winery and the estate, and, speaking selfishly, a section for Trade & Press where images and technical information can easily be obtained. A website and an active blog increasingly are part of a winery’s story.