What is a wine brand?

If you’re a follower of my blog, you might know that I am currently working towards my WSET Diploma, which is like an advanced wine business degree. It is a long process of schooling: courses, tastings, exams, papers, etc. My latest research topic was wine branding and whether it is beneficial to consumers, producers, both, or neither. I passed with Merit 🙂 so thought I’d share with you all.

In today’s global market, wine branding is necessary in order to first communicate what exactly is inside a bottle of wine, and second to differentiate one wine from all other wines. Branding exists in all segments of the market from value-priced wines to extremely high-end wines, as well as for wines made on a large scale of production to those wines crafted from limited quantities of a single plot or vineyard in a highly coveted location.

Even if a wine isn’t distributed on a regional or national level, or intended for an international market, those produced on the smallest scale (those sold in one tiny village or town) need some sort of branding in order to communicate what the wine actually is and what makes it unique. In the simplest form, the basic conveyance of a brand of wine starts with a few simple words on its label. But in many instances branding can be as complicated as a well researched and professionally designed label, a long history or intricate story behind the wine, advertisements in various publications, representation through influential people, and strategic placement in various outlets in certain markets.

borrowed from searchengineland.com
borrowed from searchengineland.com

But if wine branding looks both as straightforward as putting a simple tag on a bottle or as complicated as a strategic system designed to communicate an intricate history behind and/or assign a value to what is inside, how can we actually define what a “wine brand” is or how to successfully brand a wine?

According to http://www.dictionary.com a brand (of anything) is a “kind, grade, or make, as indicated by a stamp, trademark, or the like.” In wine, however, defining merely a kind, or a grade, or even a trademark on the wine, doesn’t necessarily constitute a wine brand. While the concept of a wine brand is complex and there is little consistency within much of the leading wine press, most authors agree that an effective wine brand clearly explains what is in the bottle, distinguishes itself from others in its category, and is able to adequately reach its target consumer.

According to Jamie Goode, a British wine writer with a PhD in Plant Biology, branded wine is defined as, “wine that doesn’t come from a strictly defined patch of ground, but is instead marketed by a brand name or ‘make’. Branded wines are typically made from either brought-in grapes, or grapes from several disparate sources, which may include many vineyards owned by the same company.”[1] Dr. Goode explains how branded wines are “commodity wines.” They differ little, one from the next, since the grape sources are not unique and volumes must be scaleable to meet demand. Commodity wines are not purchased for their inherent or peculiar qualities, “but because they serve a purpose like milk, juice, or sugar.”[2] As commodities, they compete with other wines in the same price category. Despite how they are branded, Dr. Goode asserts that commodity wines are homogenous and interchangeable, though the consumer is most likely unaware of it.


The opposite of a commodity wine, according to Dr. Goode, is a “terroir wine,” a wine chosen precisely for its inherent qualities and peculiarities. Terroir wines are those wines defined by site-specific differences such as region, village, or specific vineyard, as well as the grape or grapes chosen to make the wine. These site-specific differences come from variations in regards to climate, sun exposure, soil types, drainage, and other environmental influences, as well as human: cultural and historical. The resulting wines are distinctive and expressive with a unique personality, changing from one vintage to the next as well as evolving over time.

Dr. Goode divides all wines into these two categories: commodity and terroir. While the distinction between the two categories is valuable and I completely agree with the existence of both, he asserts that commodity wines are branded, whereas terroir wines are not.


I would argue that some wines can be commodity wines but not be heavily branded while some true terroir wines do have an associated extensive brand campaign. While commodity wines, as Dr. Goode defines them, generally rely more heavily on it, both categories can be promoted by branding.

For example, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a memorable and professionally designed label, a clear history, advertising, and placements in some of the finest restaurants and shops within the USA and the global market. Jamie Goode would say that a branded winery like this would not be producing terroir wines. But the winery does produce wines clearly defined by terroir and it has clearly differentiated itself as unique compared to other Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producing wineries. In 1970 the founder purchased 44 acres near the promontory of the Stags Leap Palisades on the eastern side of the Napa Valley. He named the property Stag’s Leap Vineyards and soon Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was born.[3] After just a few years what really made Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars famous was the victory of its Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1976 Judgement of Paris over all others in both the California and French categories.[4] The result secured the credibility of not only the winery, but also the appellation. Value is added to the brand based on its historical location and pivotal role in establishing Napa Valley as an eminence in the global wine market. What defines the brand is one distinct terroir (appellation), the wines coming from it, and its intricate history. Even with vintage variation, consumers buying in this high-end category have come to recognize over time that Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ quality is both reliable and consistent.

Thank you www.winemag.com
Thank you www.winemag.com

Sebastian Aguirre, premium wines marketing director for Concha y Toro, the 3rd most successful brand in The Drink Business magazine’s ranking of “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015”[5] says a real wine “brand” must tell a story, strike emotions in the consumer, over deliver for its price point, add value to a category, and have a strong presence in many markets. According to Aguirre, “It’s hard to find true wine brands on the market, most are just labels … wine labels are commodities, while wine brands actually mean something to consumers.”[6] He defines wines with no associated emotional element or story as “commodities.” A consumer will easily interchange one with another such commodity wine on the market. While the idea of the homogeneity of commodity wines (any one is easily traded out for another) is consistent in both Goode’s and Aguirre’s definitions, Goode says commodity wines are all the same but the consumer is unaware because of branding, while Aguirre says that regardless of whether the wines are actually different, without properly developed branding, consumers will view them as all the same. Aguirre makes no distinction between terroir wines and non-terroir wines but simply describes any wine without successful branding as a commodity. While Goode’s distinction between the two categories is valuable to understand sales trends and consumer demand in the global wine market, Aguirre’s take on wine branding validates the necessity for even terroir-driven wineries to embark upon an authentic branding campaign.

Producers need to use branding to communicate authentically recognizable and distinct meanings for their wines. Brands must invoke emotions and loyalty in consumers, have a strong presence in target markets, and over deliver for the price. Retailers need to fully understand the brand’s message so that they can strategically position the wines, as well as properly define and explain their products.


So how does a wine brand go about meaning something to consumers? Any successful wine brand has a story behind it—an emotional and compelling description of how the winery came to be, explaining a clear-cut motivation, rich in culture or steeped in history. It creates customer confidence and thus loyalty to the brand. According to Christopher Ratcliff in a recent article for Econsultancy, ” Storytelling in marketing terms isn’t just about producing an advert with a narrative, it’s about telling the story of the ‘brand’ across multiple channels and using various tools and methods.”[7] The brand needs to have a consistent, clear and recognizable message and story behind it across all marketing tools: its website, label design, advertisements, choice of distributors and/or importers, sales force education, and strategic placement in the market.

The Mondavis, the iconic Italian-American Californian winemaking family, has achieved success through such storytelling across multiple channels of the wine market. Not only does the family story focus on the founding of the Robert Mondavi winery 50 years ago, with its success based on its location in, and 1988 trademark to, the famous To Kalon Vineyard of Oakville,[8] the Robert Mondavi story reaches consumers via every category of its wines in the market.

Credits to www.robertmondaviwinery.com
Credits to www.robertmondaviwinery.com

Robert Mondavi’s pioneering spirit led him to coin the name “Fumé Blanc” in 1968[9]—a term he invented to denote a dry California Sauvignon blanc rather than sweet, which had been the trend in style until that time—and started Opus One Winery in 1979, a joint venture between his family and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild of Bordeaux.[10] Today the Mondavis own multiple brands, including the bulk wine producer Woodbridge, which saw a 6% increase in sales in 2014.[11] Even in light of a bulk wine brand, consumers assuredly associate anything Mondavi with quality because Robert Mondavi was such a pioneer of the California wine industry post-prohibition and a true advocate for quality in Napa wines. Robert Mondavi Winery ranked 4th in the “Top 10 Wine Brands of 2015.”[12]

Reka Haros explains that “successful brands offer confidence—both emotionally and functionally.” In order to do this a brand needs three things. First, it needs a purpose: what they believe in or their motivation. Second, the brand needs actions to make it come to life, and third, a result, i.e. what the brand does to achieve this.[13]

Barefoot, the biggest selling bottled wine brand in the world[14] does all three, and effectively. The whimsical look and feel of their website[15] is consistent with their messages “wine drinking is way more fun than wine tasting,” and “our wine is free from the tyranny of all snobbery.” To have fun and enjoy wine without snobbery is their purpose. E&J Gallo’s vice president and general manager, Bill Roberts, highlights the brand as a “gateway” wine, amplifying their message of being totally accessible to first-time wine drinkers.[16] “Get barefoot and have a great time,” their main slogan, plays off the free spirited attitude of crushing grapes barefoot and shows a clear action, making the act of drinking Barefoot wine come to life. They want their consumers to feel like they’re having fun and joined up with the party to enjoy wine in a carefree way. That is the result. While the history of the brand is evident on the website—the story speaks about Davis Bynum’s garage-based foray into winemaking—Barefoot’s motivations and actions are the real focus of their campaign. They give confidence to a first time wine buyer that Barefoot wine is accessible to them—and with no snobbery. Loyalty comes after the customer tastes Barefoot, and finds value in the experience.



But is brand loyalty always a good thing? The main advantage of the existence of wine brands for the consumer is the availability of a consistent, recognizable, and reliable product. This creates consumer loyalty. But what happens when a wine is so heavily branded that the consumer’s loyalty is based on something besides what is actually in the bottle?

For the majority of wine consumers, the goal is to just enjoy wine, not contemplate it. For simplicity, I will call the wine-uneducated consumers, “end-users.” They might not really care all that much about the unique qualities of climate, exposure, soil, drainage, or any other historical factors that brought the bottle to them. They want a product that is consistent, appeals to their emotions, and is something they can recognize and feel good about. Popular brands on the market offer these satisfactions to end-users. For example, for a commitment of only $10-$12, a typical end-user can be satisfied with many options available. Red blends with names like Apothic Red,[17] Ménage à Trois,[18] or Cupcake Vineyards Red Velvet,[19] appeal to an otherwise uneducated wine drinker’s emotions. “Apothic” sounds mysterious, ” Ménage à Trois:” adventurous or risqué, and “Cupcake Red Velvet:” delicious. Nielsen data show that “red blends” as a category is growing six times faster than the USA’s overall wine category,[20] showing that the demand for these wines is solid and growing.

Brands that give you little clue as to what is really in the bottle
Brands that give you little clue as to what is really in the bottle

But Dr. Jamie Goode would argue that this isn’t an advantage at all. “The wine brands are cashing in on this image that has taken hundreds of years to build, by marketing themselves as ‘lifestyle’ products that offer this tradition and sophistication – the good life.”[21] Jamie Goode calls it mimicry. I personally experience this type of misinformed consumer on a daily basis while recommending wine on the retail level. When I get asked for specific grape percentages or vineyard locations in the exact wines I mentioned above, I am encountering the misguided consumer who thinks they are drinking terroir wines. Look at any technical sheet on those wines and they are vague at best, though the image the brand wants to convey is loud and clear. Branding can sometimes fool and misguide consumers and when branding does this, it is a clear disadvantage to the consumer.

Similar advantages and disadvantages to consumers exist in high-end wines; the most illustrative example comes from the Champagne category. Champagne’s success depends strongly on brand recognition and loyalty. While Champagne is a high-end category falling in with the ranks of other terroir wines, it is unique in that the category is dominated by famous house styles and quite rarely by vineyard locations and vintages. Champagne is a terroir wine since it has to be from Champagne and is classified according to village ranking of Grand Cru, Premier Cru, or Cru. But unless referring to certain vintage Champagnes, or the village is called out, consumers generally rely on the consistency of house styles. Any die-hard, dedicated Champagne connoisseur will eagerly tell you whether he or she prefers Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Tattinger, Cristal, or another, and why.

Credit to www.liveauctioneers.com
Credit to www.liveauctioneers.com

Every Champagne house strives for consumer loyalty but for what price? What happens when the icon promoting the product isn’t the one the winery has chosen?

In 2006, after a period of intense promotions of Louis Roederer’s Cristal, highlighting it in his music videos and other venues, Jay-Z completely renounced the Champagne,[22] claiming the manager was racist. Frédéric Rouzaud, managing director of the winery, replied when asked if the “bling lifestyle” was hurting the brand, “That’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”[23]

Jay-Z quickly moved his attention to a new brand, Armand de Brignanc, a small Champagne house run by the Cattier family in the Premier Cru village of Chigny-les-Roses. Though the vineyards are distinguished, the family had no international prestige until it became Jay-Z’s new bubby of choice. The details of how Jay-Z discovered the incidentally sexy and sleek bottle, called “Ace of Spades,” are not completely clear but his dedicated switch—from Roederer’s Cristal to Armand de Brignac’s Ace of Spades—was obvious by the release of his 2009 video for “On to the Next One,”[24] where he calls out the exchange.

Photo from the referenced article
Photo of Ace of Spades from www.meininger.de

Wine critics naturally confronted the hype of Ace of Spades with skepticism but after Jancis Robinson gave it her stamp of approval in 2009,[25] the brand gained some professional respect. Though Robinson’s advocacy certainly isn’t what has been selling the wine and neither has any branding campaign started by the Cattier family. What has exploded sales is Jay-Z’s idolization of Ace of Spades through his popular nightclubs, making it an icon for the flashy bling lifestyle—even using the bottle as an integral part of the decor.[26] Jay-Z cashed in so heavily on sales that he purchased the entire Armand de Brignac brand in 2014,[27] making him the king of one tiny plot of Premier Cru Champagne property.

Chigny-les-Rose vineyards, thanks towww.lacaveduterroir.com
Chigny-les-Rose vineyards, thanks to www.lacaveduterroir.com

But do most consumers of Ace of Spades even know what they are drinking? Most likely, no. And how many who spend $300 for one bottle, in hopes of getting a taste of the bling lifestyle, cannot actually afford it? Many. One high-volume American retailer claims that it is the brand most associated with fraudulent purchases. Even Jay-Z’s present day marketing director, Gerald Loparco, recognizes that the Ace of Spades nightclub bling image has been taken too far. “The new strategy is to establish the brand in the daylight. We’ve been in nightclubs too much.”[28]

In either case, whether it’s purchasing a value-priced red blend with a whimsical name, or an extremely high priced bottle of champagne associated with an ostentatious lifestyle, when the consumer is emotionally attached merely to an idea associated with a wine, and not to an understanding of what is inside, branding is taking advantage of the consumer and brand loyalty has gone too far.


[1] Jamie Goode, “The Two Cultures, how the rise of brands is changing the face of wine,” Wine Anorak, October/November 2002, http://www.wineanorak.com/twocultures.htm

[2] Jamie Goode, “The Two Cultures, how the rise of brands is changing the face of wine,” Wine Anorak, October/November 2002, http://www.wineanorak.com/twocultures.htm

[3] Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, “Our History,” Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 2016, https://www.cask23.com/our-story/history

[4] Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, “The 1976 Paris Tasting,” Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, 2016 https://www.cask23.com/our-story/history/paris-tasting

[5] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/9/

[6] Lucy Shaw, “Successful Wine Brands ‘Tell a Story’,” The Drinks Business, Jan 29, 2015, http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/01/successful-wine-brands-tell-a-story/

[7] Christopher Ratcliff, “Six brand case studies that proved the value of storytelling,” Nov 3, 2014, https://econsultancy.com/blog/65698-six-brand-case-studies-that-proved-the-value-of-storytelling/

[8] Matt Stamp, “The True Story of To-Kalon Vineyard,” Guild Somm, Sep 7, 2015, https://www.guildsomm.com/stay_current/features/b/stamp/archive/2015/09/07/the-true-story-of-to-kalon-vineyard

[9] Professional Friends of Wine, “Fumé Blanc,” Jul 24, 2011, Vincyclopedia, http://www.winepros.org/wine101/vincyc-fume.htm

[10] Opus One Winery, “The Story,” Opus One Winery, 2016, http://www.opusonewinery.com/Our-History/The-Story

[11] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/8/

[12] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/8/

[13] Reka Haros, “Wine Branding: Why It’s Important for the Industry’s Growth,” NOMACORC, Nov 24, 2015, http://www.nomacorc.com/blog/2015/11/wine-branding-why-its-important-for-the-industrys-growth/

[14] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/11/

[15] Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, “Barefoot Wine & Bubbly,” Barefoot Wine & Bubbly, 2016, http://www.barefootwine.com/

[16] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/11/

[17] Apothic Wines, “Apothic Red,” Apothic Wines, 2015, http://www.apothic.com/wines/red.html

[18] Folie a Deux Winery, “Ménage à Trois Red,” Folie a Deux Winery, 2016, http://www.menageatroiswines.com/wines/red

[19] Cupcake Vineyards, “Cupcake Red Velvet,” Cupcake Vineyards, 2016, http://www.cupcakevineyards.com/product/wine/red-velvet

[20] Gabriel Stone, “Top 10 Wine Brands 2015,” The Drinks Business, Apr 7, 2015, https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2015/04/top-10-wine-brands-2015/7/

[21] Jamie Goode, “The Two Cultures, how the rise of brands is changing the face of wine,” Wine Anorak, October/November 2002, http://www.wineanorak.com/twocultures_3.htm

[22] Intelligent Life, “Bubbles & Bling,” The Economist, May 8, 2006, http://www.economist.com/node/6905921

[23] Intelligent Life, “Bubbles & Bling,” The Economist, May 8, 2006, http://www.economist.com/node/6905921

[24] Jay-Z . (2009). On to the Next One (Music video). United States: Roc Nation. http://www.mtv.com/videos/jay-z/469115/on-to-the-next-one.jhtml

[25] Adam Lechmere, “The rappers Champagne,” Meininger’s, Mar 18, 2016, https://www.meininger.de/en/wine-business-international/rappers-champagne

[26] Detrick, Ben, “40/40 Club,” The New York Times, Mar 14, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/fashion/jay-zs-40-40-club-is-a-sports-bar-and-nightclub-in-the-flatiron-district.html

[27] Weisman, Aly, “Jay Z Bought A Luxury Champagne Brand Just To Spite Cristal,” Business Insider, Nov 7, 2014, http://www.businessinsider.com/jay-z-buys-ace-of-spades-champagne-2014-11

[28] Adam Lechmere, “The rappers Champagne,” Meininger’s, Mar 18, 2016, https://www.meininger.de/en/wine-business-international/rappers-champagne


(additional sources consulted for this paper)

Crosariol, Beppi. “Cristal has the last laugh in bubbly brouhaha.” The Globe and Mail. Oct 12, 2010. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/cristal-has-the-last-laugh-in-bubbly-brouhaha/article1370285/

Givhan, Robin. “Bubbly Boycott? Oh Please, Jay-Z, Just Chill.” The Washington Post. Jul 7, 2006.


Heimoff, Steve. “Mondavi: Life of a Legend.” Wine Enthusiast. May 16, 2008. http://www.winemag.com/2008/05/16/robert-mondavi-life-of-a-legend/

List, Rich. “Top 12 Richest African Americans of 2015.” Richest Lifestyle. Mar 8, 2015. http://www.richestlifestyle.com/richest-african-americans-of-2015/3/

MacNeil, Karen. (2015). The Wine Bible. New York, New York: Workman Publishing.

Puckette, Madeline. ” Cristal Champagne: The Wine of Tsars and Stars.” Apr 21, 2015. http://winefolly.com/update/cristal-champagne-the-wine-of-tsars-and-stars/

Rolling Stone Magazine. “Jay-Z.” Rolling Stone Magazine. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/jay-z/biography

tvh2k. “Spade.” Urban Dictionary. Dec 11, 2002. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=spade

Wikipedia. “Armand de Brignac.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armand_de_Brignac

Wine & Spirit Education Trust. (2014). WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wine & Spirits, An Introduction to the Global Drinks Business. London, England: Wine & Spirit Education Trust.


2 thoughts on “What is a wine brand?

    1. Good point! Yes, very true as long as the producers can come together and promote the place in an effective and honest way!
      (Dang Corton! I broke my foot on that hill!)

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