BV Red Chardonnay is not a Californian wine you will find on any retail shelf in the US or elsewhere, but it might have been.
This week, I had a fascinating lunch with David Gluckman, author of a great book called This Sh*t Will Never Sell in which he describes his role in the creation of a wide range of successful beverages including le Piat d’Or - one of the UK’s best selling wines in the 1970s and 1980s - Ciroc vodka and Baileys Irish Cream. Gluckman is now in his early 80s but sharper in his thinking and better informed than many professionals half his age.
Ideas that failed
He makes no pretence of being a ‘wine man’; he’s a consummate marketer whose role was to help large companies like IDV (the earlier incarnation of Diageo) to produce drinks that would do well with consumers. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics but it was perhaps most interesting when we focused on efforts that had failed. Le Piat d’Or, for example, a perfect prototype for Yellow Tail, never had a chance to succeed in the US. The man who ran IDV’s New York office was, Gluckman explained, French. He didn’t believe that American wine drinkers would ever want a French wine with no region or vintage, so he refused to include it in the portfolio.
A European relaunch of Spey Royal whisky failed for a different reason. Consumers in focus groups - and in the stores - didn’t like the label. “Whisky" they said "doesn’t come in bottles with purple labels, so I wouldn’t buy it.” One market took a different view. A pair of entrepreneurs - one Australian and one Thai - knew that, in Thailand, purple is the colour of royalty. So they took on the distribution and had an almost instant commercial hit.
Gluckman doesn’t really like focus groups - and here I agree with him. Even the most skilfully moderated sessions too often tend to involve participants saying what they think others in the room might want to hear. Equally, there are too many occasions when the most forceful attendee influences the mood. Interestingly, he used to insist on giving participants a form to complete about the product before the session. Another point he made was that one should never offer consumers in a test situation a product saying ‘this is something we’re thinking of doing. What do you reckon?’ His method was ideally to create a page of magazine editorial about the product, making it appear as though it is already on the market.
The perfect product
For Gluckman, three things matter for any product:
- It has to taste good to the people at whom it is targeted. Whatever wine critics may say about sweet red wines like le Piat d’Or, Yellow Tail or 19 Crimes, the people who buy these brands enjoy them enough to go back to the shop to pick up another bottle. When he launched the Singleton as a blended malt whisky that was more approachable than most of the single malts on offer at the time, it had to pass muster with Scottish malt fans.
- Second, it has to have an eye-catching design. However good a wine may taste, if it doesn’t create a memorable visual impression and if it doesn’t stand out on the shelf, shoppers simply won’t buy it. If le Piat d’Or or Yellow Tail had been in plainer bottles would they have done a fraction as well?
- Third, it has to have a point of difference that goes beyond the packaging.
The fake magazine article used when researching The fake magazine article used when researching reactions to Red Chardonnay
So, red Chardonnay?
Which brings us back to Red Chardonnay. For Gluckman, this is clearly the fish that got away. At a time when Chardonnay was booming, he discovered that under US rules, a wine only needed to be made from 75% of the grape named on the label. Why not, he thought, start with a flavoursome Chardonnay and make up the remaining 25% or some of it, with a more neutral red? IDV took the idea seriously enough to make a few samples, to commission a label under their BV brand, and to pour it for consumers who, he says, were enthusiastic. Then it got stuck in the mud.
Looking back, he believes Red Chardonnay would have done well if the wine purists hadn’t stood in its way. Indeed, over 40 years later, he’d still like to see someone having a go with it.
I agreed with most of what he had to say, but I actually share those purists’ reservations. I think the wine industry messes with consumers’ heads quite enough already without going that far. Even for an iconoclast like me, the idea of shelves full of bottles of red and white Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio - the logical consequence if the first effort proved successful - is a bridge too far.
Pink Prosecco, at least...
But then I thought of Prosecco. Not so very long ago, Italy’s most popular sparkling wine only came in one colour and that wasn’t pink. Plenty of producers were quietly blending Pinot Noir into their white fizz, but they couldn’t sell the rosé under the Prosecco DOC. Then, as overseas buyers made their wishes clear, a group of officials worked solidly from May 2019 until it was time to go on holiday on August 11 of the following year, to create a new DOC. Today, we take it for granted that, like Pinot Grigio, Prosecco comes in white or pink.
The popularity of the latter is still not enough to make me invest in red Chardonnay, but I could be wrong. All I know is that, without people like David Gluckman and the pink Prosecco pioneers, the wine and the drinks world would be a far duller place.