The brands that broke through

The second part in our series on wines that changed their category, or otherwise made history.

bottles
Photo: E&J Gallo Winery

Apothic, USA

After the financial crisis of 2008, American consumers snapped their wallets shut. Companies fast tracked cheap and cheerful wines to the market – and then, in 2010, came Apothic from Gallo. A California blend of Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel, it was unapologetically opulent. It also came with 16g/L of sugar. But while it was priced at less than $10.00, it looked like something much more expensive – and it exploded off the shelves, selling 120,000 cases and inspiring imitators. Today, the high-alcohol, high-residual-sugar red blend is a highly profitable sector of the red wine market. Gallo has since taken Apothic into extreme territory, creating a version aged in whiskey barrels and one infused with coffee. FC

Barefoot, USA

Browse the business section of any US bookshop and you’re almost sure to find a New York Times bestseller called The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand. Its authors, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, describe how in 1986, with no previous experience in the industry, they created Barefoot. The couple were business consultants who bottled a batch of bulk wine taken as payment from a bankrupt winery. The secret, as Houlihan says, lay in making wine fun, using a memorable label and charging an affordable $5.99. The Barefoot founders lacked the means to pay for major marketing, but were able to respond generously to requests for wine from charities seeking funds. And every time they did so, sales seemed to rocket. Supporting non-profits became a major part of the Barefoot strategy and today, the brand belongs to Gallo, which has built it into one of the biggest brand in the US, with annual sales of nearly $670m. RJ

Blue Nun, Germany

In 2021, a brand that helped to change the wine world will celebrate its centenary. The 1921 vintage of Blue Nun was not released until 1923, and the figures on the label were dressed in brown not blue. But the German wine with a simple label – Liebfraumilch Spätlese – was revolutionary. From the 1960s, Blue Nun began to gain its place as the world’s best-known wine, thanks to former US soldier and CIA operative Peter Max Sichel, who introduced it to the US after taking over the business in 1959, and to a new generation of drinkers who appreciated a “wine that goes with any dish” carefully blended to suit their taste. Jancis Robinson MW recalls being surprised to discover that a “rather nice white wine” she was served blind in the late 1970s was Blue Nun. Over the years, Blue Nun has featured in countless movies, TV series and songs. The Mosel-based, family owned company Langguth bought Sichel in 1996 and revitalised the brand, introducing new varietals. Two innovations include the launch of a blue bottle, and in 2014, a 22K Gold edition. Today, Blue Nun is sold into more than 100 countries. RJ

Château Lafite Rothschild, France

Lafite, owned by the Rothschild family since the 19th century, was one of the four châteaux named as First Growths in the original 1855 classification. Situated in the Médoc, it has been recognised for the quality of its wines for more than 800 years; by the early 18th century it was one of the most sought-after wines in Europe. The estate has suffered many reversals, being made public property after the French revolution and plundered by the Germans in World War II. On the other hand, its wines inspired Thomas Jefferson. Always known for notable wines, the estate’s quality soared after Baron Éric de Rothschild inherited it in 1974. During Baron Éric’s period, Domaines Barons de Rothschild expanded to estates in Sauternes, Languedoc, Chile and Argentina, as well as throughout Bordeaux. When the Chinese market began to open up to wine, it was the prestige of Lafite that they sought – so much so, that Lafite was soon the most counterfeited wine in the world. But this also lifted demand for the genuine article, such that at a 2010 Hong Kong auction, bottles of Lafite sold for the highest prices on record. FC

Codorníu, Spain

Codorníu, a master of both marketing and innovation, was founded as a sparkling wine producer by Don Josep Raventós, the first to make bottle-fermented fizz out of Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo in 1872. After his death in 1885, Manuel Raventós inherited Can Codorníu and, like his father, altered the direction of the family business. He decided the winery should devote itself to making Cava and travelled to France to study the traditional method. Today this iconic firm produces 3.6m cases from more than 3,000ha of vineyards. Its own vineyards meet 30% of the demand; the remainder comes from growers across the Penedès. Yet despite its ancient origins, Codorníu is the most innovative firm in the Cava industry today. It started the foreign grape controversy by importing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir into local viticulture, and has shown a commitment to premiumisation. Codorníu launched three Ars Collecta single-vineyard Cavas in November 2017 – a milestone for a region that has until relatively recently all but ignored the notion of expressing individual terroir. These Cavas show a level of ambition unheard of in the Penedès, and are a vital weapon in the category’s continuing struggle to go upmarket. JL

Cuvée Mythique

The ancient region of Languedoc-Roussillon was once the sleeping beauty of the French wine industry, viewed as a source of cheap, basic wine. The exceptions to this rule were almost universally small, private estates. The Val d’Orbieu cooperative, based in Narbonne, bucked this trend in 1990 by launching a premium-priced blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir and old Carignan under the Cuvée Mythique label, complete with an eye-catching owl. Behind the clever packaging was an equally clever wine, made from grapes sourced from some of the best grower-members, whose vineyards the Val d’Orbieu viticulturists visited regularly during growing season. Their wine earned a 92-point score from Robert Parker, the first Languedoc wine to do so. The original wine was a red Vin de Pays, but the brand has expanded to include an AOP Languedoc and a Cépages Mythique range of varietals. Today, Cuvée Mythique is one of the most widely exported Languedoc brands with growing sales in China where its simplicity is appreciated as an alternative to the more complex labels associated with Bordeaux. RJ with FC

Don Maximiano Founder’s Reserve, Chile

Until 1994, Carmenère was thought of as extinct. Then an ampelographer from Montpellier found it in pre-phylloxera vineyards that Chilean producers had thought were planted with Merlot. None was more enthusiastic about the discovery than family-owned Errázuriz, whose head Eduardo Chadwick has striven to raise the profile of Chilean wines through blind tastings against top Bordeaux. He valued Carmenère’s spicy character and silky texture but, as he acknowledges, it is not the easiest of varieties. “You have to ripen it properly in the right soil, otherwise you get unripe green characters,” he says. Errázuriz was among the first to launch a varietal example and its Estate Series – which includes a small amount of Syrah and Petite Sirah – is one of the most successful, helping to make Carmenère Chile’s second most exported variety to Asia after Cabernet Sauvignon. Even more importantly, Errázuriz has established Carmenère’s credibility by producing a super-premium wine from it, called Kai. In a 2010 New York blind tasting, Kai beat Châteaux Lafite, Haut-Brion, Opus One and Sassicaia. RJ

Gravner, Italy

When Joško Gravner released the 1997 vintage of his two white wines Breg and Ribolla, his Italian public thought he must have a screw loose. Gravner was celebrated as Italy’s best white winemaker, famed for his elegant, barrique-aged white wines made in a Burgundian style. But the 1997s were amber coloured, cloudy and replete with unfamiliar aromas and flavours. After years of frustration that his cellar wasn’t expressing the authentic character of the region, Gravner had gone back to basics. His grandfather’s simple method of macerating white grapes for a week was the inspiration, but Gravner would revert to the hands-off Georgian method of leaving grapes, skins and stems in an amphora (or qvevri) for six months. It took a few years for the world to catch up with his revolutionary ideas, but by the mid-2000s they were causing a furore in fashionable circles. He accidentally created a new category – orange wine – and also lifted the curtain on Georgia’s ancient wine culture. Orange wines are now revered by top sommeliers. SW

Freixenet, Spain

A familiar sight in supermarkets worldwide, Freixenet was started by Don Pedro Ferrer in 1889, after he married Dona Dolores Sala from another traditional winegrowing family. Freixenet would grow into Spain’s largest producer of sparkling wine, responsible for more than 10m cases of fizz annually. Over the past 20 years or so the firm has invested in Argentina, Australia, California, Mexico and Champagne and now owns more than 400ha of vineyards. This once staunchly conservative company has kept up with the times: it is no longer family-owned – German conglomerate Henkell purchased 50.67% of Freixenet in March 2018 – and now markets a range of prestige cuvées containing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This was a response to demand but also followed its purchase of the ex-Bodegas Chandon property, which had Champagne clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The firm is first and foremost celebrated for its black bottle Cava: Cordon Negro; and while Prosecco may have stolen some of Cava’s thunder, Cordon Negro remains one of the world’s best-selling and most famous sparkling wine brands. JL

Frescobaldi Gorgona, Italy

The Italian island of Gorgona, a penal colony since 1869, is home to some 60 inmates, plus a vineyard planted in the 1990s. In 2012, the vines became the responsibility of Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi dei Frescobaldi, who agreed to sponsor a winemaking project. Farming the vineyard is not easy, as getting to the island involves a long ferry ride. Frescobaldi had to lease the vineyard at €13,000 a year, a rate so high as to be extortionate, and sank another €20,000 into equipment. The first vintage, the 2012, was a blend of 60% Vermentino and 40% Ansonica. Less than 3,000 bottles a year are produced, which sell for about €80.00 each – it’s not a moneymaking venture. However, the inmates are paid for their labour and also learn a skill they can use once released. International interest in the project has been intense, proving that wine has the power to transform people’s lives. FC

iHeart, multi-region

There have been many attempts at creating a truly international wine brand based on wines from different regions, but until now, none has really succeeded. iHeart was different. Robin Copestick, the UK-based wine importer who created it, realised labels were key and focused on creating designs that wine buyers would recognise from a distance. “We wanted to keep it simple. To make it really easy for people to find good examples of wines they know they like.” Initially Copestick had to get over the hurdle that New York City owned the heart symbol. The solution was a design which formed the iconic logo typographically rather than out of a solid colour. The iHeart range includes varietals such as Pinot Grigio and Merlot, styles including an off-dry rosé, and appellations such as Rioja and Marlborough Sauvignon. Bottles are sealed with screwcaps, and the origin of the wine may vary from year to year and market to market. The style, however, will be consistent. iHeart now enjoys distribution in 23 countries, thanks in part to the acquisition of the brand in 2016 by the German sparkling wine producer Henkell. RJ 

Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel, Australia

Putting wine into whiskey or bourbon barrels is a hot new trend – but first there was Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel. Launched in 2014 after 18 months of research, the wine used high-quality Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in whiskey barrels, the brainchild of marketing manager Derek Oliver and a colleague, who had both worked in spirits. Their goal: to get consumers to trade up. “While consumer preferences evolve over time, one fundamental remains: if consumers are going to pay A$25.00-plus a bottle for a red wine, then they want an enhanced experience,” said Oliver. As Pernod Ricard, the owner of Jacob’s Creek, has affiliates in Ireland and Scotland, the whiskey barrels were easy to source, and before the launch, the company explained the process to wine writers and opinion leaders. It worked: the wine has been in double-digit growth since its launch, and is now selling into 26 countries, which proves that even a major step into the unknown can work when consumers are taken seriously. FC

JP Chenet, France

Joseph Helfrich, founder and, with his wife Laurence, joint head of Grands Chais de France, France’s biggest wine exporter, remembers designing the simple but iconic JP Chenet bottle in a day. Helfrich, whose roots are in Alsace and who now owns vineyards across France, clearly understood design and the challenge of launching a French wine brand. “In the 1980s, the socialist regime in France had killed brands and they’d been replaced by regional wines with no identity.”  The first release JP Chenet bottles, in 1984, were AOP wines but within six months, he could see this was a mistake because “no one cared”. The following year, he switched to Vin de Pays Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Since then, the brand has evolved to include styles such as a Cabernet-Syrah, as well as a white labelled medium sweet and an ‘Ice’ sparkling. Packaging has expanded into bag-in-box, pouches, single-serve and even wooden labels. Today, JP Chenet is by far France’s biggest and most widely exported brand, with two bottles being shipped across the world every second from the highly automated Grands Chais warehouses. RJ

Mionetto, Italy

Long before Prosecco became a trendy smash hit, the Mionetto winery in Valdobbiadene was producing quality sparkling wines. Founded in 1887, Mionetto is one of the oldest producers of Prosecco, and has always been a leader, being the first to launch a wine made from organic grapes. Mionetto USA was opened in 1997, and introduced US consumers to Prosecco in 2000. FC

Nicolás Catena Zapata, Argentina  

In 1902, Italian migrant Nicola Catena planted his first Mendoza Malbec vineyard. His descendant Nicolás Catena Zapata revolutionised Argentine wine in the 1980s by focusing on quality, as well as by planting vineyards at an elevation of 1,500m and spearheading the revival of Malbec. For his efforts, he was named Decanter’s Man of the Year and awarded a Wine Spectator Distinguished Service Award. His daughter Dr Laura Catena has pioneered altitude winemaking and founded the Catena Institute of Wine. This year, the Nicolás Catena Zapata wine joined the La Place de Bordeaux. La Place is the system of selling Bordeaux wines through a network of merchant and brokers, and it has an aura of immense prestige. Fewer than five new world wines have gained listings. FC

Penfolds Grange

In 1950, winemaker Max Schubert returned to Australia after a visit to France and began using Bordeaux techniques. His aim: to create a world class wine built for ageing. Management declared his wine a failure and told him to stop but Schubert nevertheless persisted in secret. By 1960, the age-worthiness of his early wines was apparent, and management told Schubert to start again, not realising he’d been working on Grange all that time. The wine quickly won international recognition and many major awards. Not only did Penfolds Grange put Australia on the wine map, its success in China has helped bring a whole new audience to wine. FC 

The Prisoner, USA

In 1998, 25-year-old Dave Phinney sold his first vintage of The Prisoner in bulk, and the following year he produced just 99 cases. He could never have imagined that his would become one of the most valuable brands in the world. Phinney started out growing grapes as a hobby in the desert of Arizona where he was studying political science. Next came a stint as “as the only white guy on an all-Mexican night shift crew” at Robert Mondavi. Success came in 2000, when a tricky harvest forced him to blend his limited crop of Zinfandel with varieties such as Charbono and Petite Sirah. Production soared to 385 cases. If the rich, powerful, blend was innovative, so was the choice of label which included a dark Goya etching. Some hated it, but others were captivated. Phinney sold the first vintages to restaurants and specialist shops, picking up good scores from critics along the way. By 2010, when he sold The Prisoner for a reported $40m to Huneeus Vintners – despite having no vineyards or winery – the brand had a cult reputation which grew sufficiently for Constellation to believe it worth $285m in 2016. Today, more than 170,000 cases are sold every year, at a retail price of $35.00 or more. RJ

Whispering Angel, France

If ever there was a wine that owed its success to the efforts of one person, it is Sacha Lichine’s Whispering Angel from Château d’Esclans. While Château Miraval is often credited with starting the Provence Rosé revolution, by the time high-profile owners Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had launched their first wine, Lichine had already released six vintages. Lichine, a former sommelier, recalls falling under the spell of rosé when he drank it with Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly on their yacht in Monte Carlo. He set out to make a pink wine that stood out by employing Patrick Leon, former winemaker of Mouton Rothschild, and launching a limited release of a pale, super-premium oak-matured wine called Garrus. US critic James Suckling gave Garrus – with its $100.00 price tag –  a score of 98 points and its success created demand for its more affordable siblings, Rock Angel, Les Clans and particularly the $27.00 Whispering Angel. The latter now enjoys sales of 350,000-plus cases a year and has been named as the biggest selling French wine in the US. In the decade since its launch, exports of Provence rosé grew from 5m cases to almost 30m. And Sasha Lichine deserves a fair bit of the credit for that. RJ
 

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