How Wine Companies Build Their Brands With Little Advertising

From labels to sponsorships, there are several techniques

Sutter Home wines arranged on a counter for a story on wine brands
Fun fact: Sutter Home's White Zinfandel was a total accident. Sutter Home

Whether you were introduced to the brand’s signature pink, sweet White Zinfandel as you tip-toed your way into wine drinking or spotted its label—its logo paired with a black-and-white illustration of its St. Helena vineyard—in the budget wine aisle of your grocery store, you’ve heard of Sutter Home. That’s no surprise, and it’s certainly not an accident.

Sutter Home’s parent company, Trinchero Family Estates, includes more than 40 other well-known labels, including Ménage a Trois, Joel Gott and Bravium. But Sutter Home is perhaps its best-known brand. Established in 1948, Sutter Home is one of the oldest wineries in the U.S. It’s also one of the largest wineries in the country, selling about 2 million cases of its White Zinfandel alone each year, according to the company.

White Zinfandel, it turns out, was a total accident. In 1972, the company tripped into a discovery while attempting to make red Zinfandel, instead creating a sweeter, pink-hued wine, which it later named White Zinfandel. Sutter Home quickly found that White Zinfandel had wide appeal with both regular drinkers and those new to wine.

“This brand not only epitomizes commercial success, but in an era where wine enthusiasts scorn such sweet wines as being all that’s bad in the wine sector, this brand continues to dominate market share in a category that the brand first created 40 years ago,” said Damien Wilson, Ph.D., Hamel Family faculty chair of wine business at Sonoma State University. “Few connoisseurs will take the time to show this wine at the table, but millions of happy imbibers neither care for such scorn nor have heard it.”

"[I]n an era where wine enthusiasts scorn such sweet wines as being all that's bad in the wine sector, [Sutter Home] continues to dominate market share in a category that the brand first created 40 years ago."
-Damien Wilson, Hamel Family faculty chair of wine business at Sonoma State University

According to an analysis by data website Wines Vines Analytics, Sutter Home was the second top-selling wine brand in 2017, behind only Barefoot. That year, the company generated $358 million in sales. Sutter Home said it sells an average of 10 million cases of wine each year—and its parent company, Trinchero Family Estates, has earned more than $900 million in annual revenue since its inception some 70 years ago.

But despite its success, building a wine brand isn’t easy. When Sutter Home uncorked its first bottle, U.S. wine wasn’t even on the proverbial map. It wasn’t until 1976—when a bevy of U.S. wines bested well-established French brands in the history-making blind tasting, the Judgement of Paris—that U.S. wineries considered marketing their wines beyond word-of-mouth, according to Steven S. Cuellar, Ph.D., professor in the department of economics at Sonoma State University.

The tasting “had implications for not just for national branding, where wines from the U.S. were now viewed as legitimate competitors to French and Italian wines, but also regional branding for both California and Napa wines,” Cuellar explained.

As baby boomers grew into consumption age and began to embrace table wines in addition to dessert wines, producers envisioned a brand strategy: They sold a lifestyle, Cuellar said.

“Early advertisements associated wines with a high-income lifestyle,” he said. “This was, of course, the generation that watched Falcons Crest and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

But that strategy proved a tad troublesome: Convincing people to spend $50-plus on a bottle, when they weren’t passionate about the product, wasn’t easy for wineries.

Enter Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel. Budget brands like Sutter Home took advantage of the daylight between price and passion, serving a “great product for a fair price” and making wine accessible to the masses, said Brie Wohld, Sutter Home’s marketing director.

"Prior to the phenomenon that was White Zinfandel … [wine] wasn't something the everyday middle-class American would drink on a Tuesday night."
-Brie Wohld, marketing director, Sutter Home

“The accessibility of wine has been really core to Sutter Home’s success and our strategy since the creation of White Zinfandel,” says Wohld. “Because prior to the phenomenon that was White Zinfandel … wine was really perceived as an elitist beverage, or a beverage that was only for special occasions, celebratory occasions and white tablecloth restaurants. It wasn’t something the everyday middle-class American would drink on a Tuesday night.”

To spread the word, wine companies often employ more than traditional advertising and marketing campaigns. “Wineries do not often market nationally, partly because they would be in competition with beer industry participants if they tried and would be dwarfed by their size,” said Robert Smiley, Ph.D., professor at the U.C. Davis School of Management and expert on economic and strategic issues in the wine industry. “Instead, wineries market their products through event sponsorship, such as fairs and tastings, social media, events with distributors, and local advertising.”

While Sutter Home does advertise in print media, the brand is increasingly focused on influencer campaigns, such as its #SweetOnSpice campaign to reach its Hispanic audience, and on consumer events, like the Live in the Vineyard concert series in Napa, the Coconut Grove Art Festival in Miami, Latin Food Fest in Southern California and Weber Mobile Grilling events.

Labels, too, play a part in wine companies’ branding. Take Stoller Family Estate, an Oregon-based winery established in 2001. In 2012, Gary Mortensen, president of Stoller Wine Group, rebooted the brand’s label to better communicate its “brand DNA” to consumers.

“If we don’t know who we are, it’s highly unlikely a customer will care,” he said. “What we learned was [that] our winery needed to reflect an identity that incorporated a sense of place, a sense of history and a sense of mission.”

Limited product lines launched to celebrate important women in the life of the winery’s founder, Bill Stoller, with their names on the labels, humanizing the company. It branded its budget-minded line, Chemistry, to look “elevated against our primary competitors in that segment,” Mortensen said, with two connecting circles on the label teasing the chemistry of making wine between people.

“Wine uses an array of promotional tools on the label,” Wilson said. “The promotion of medals or awards won by the brand, informative back labels [with descriptions] and numbered or signed labels are just some of the tools used in wine’s labeling evolution.”

Branding for wineries happens in the supply chain, too: On the first Friday of every October, Sutter Home’s employees wear pink for the company’s breast cancer campaign, then share photos of themselves with Wohld.

“A truly effective, powerful brand needs to connect not only with its consumers but also with internal stakeholders and employees,” Wohld said. “If your employees understand what a brand is all about, they become advocates for you as well.”

Today, the biggest challenge to wine-branding may be shifting its focus to something new: the lifestyle of millennials.

“As boomers have aged and millennials have become the target demographic, brands now want to associate their brand with the preferred lifestyle of millennials: a younger, more naturalistic, and active lifestyle among friends,” Cuellar said.