Lily Volpe, Yellow Tail

Lily Volpe’s dream is to own a car that’s equipped with a GPS navigation system. While driving from the White Plains, N.Y., train station to the nearby W.J. Deutsch & Sons’ headquarters in her humble Honda Accord, the brand manager explained, “I have notoriously the worst sense of direction. I would [sometimes] go out to get something to eat and wouldn’t be able to find my way back,” she said. “It was so embarrassing. I didn’t want people thinking I took a two-hour lunch!”

Fortunately for winemaker Yellow Tail, Volpe’s lack of navigational skills does not extend to her job. Volpe is, in fact, one of the best brand drivers in the business. In her six years at the company, she’s helped Yellow Tail find its way from the Casella family vineyards in the Riverina region of Australia into the wine glasses of millions of U.S. consumers. Six years ago, the brand didn’t exist. Today it’s the best-selling wine in America, behind Franzia’s bag-in-the-box wines and Carlo Rossi’s jug wines. This year Yellow Tail will easily eclipse 8 million cases sold in the U.S., making it the No. 1 imported wine, and three times larger than the runner-up import, Chile’s Concha y Toro.

Industry watchers agree that much of Yellow Tail’s success lies in its ability to package a very drinkable product at an attractive price and make it unpretentious, accessible, and fun—a genius stroke in a country where consumers are developing more sophisticated palettes, but are still intimidated by wine and how to select it.

It’s probably no coincidence that Volpe herself radiates the same kind of real-world unpretentiousness that’s driven her brand’s performance. “I hope you don’t mind that my car is a mess,” she said before picking up this reporter on a recent afternoon. And of the creeping crack marring the car’s windshield, Volpe said, “It’s not that bad yet. I haven’t had the time to fix it.”

It’s a valid excuse: Volpe’s known to put in 12-hour workdays. Attempting to describe her devotion to Yellow Tail, CEO William J. Deutsch described her as “passionate,” “enthusiastic,” with “a feel and sensitivity” and “in love with Yellow Tail. In 47 years, I have never seen a marketing person fall in love with a brand the way she has.” As her boss heaped on the praise during an interview, Volpe cringed, embarrassed by the adulation. Yet her words echoed his sentiment, “It’s such a feeling of having hit the lottery to be a part of this brand. I’m really motivated by that sense of responsibility to take good care of it.”

Volpe’s car was a fitting place to have a conversation about that responsibility. (This despite the fact she that didn’t actually own an automobile until she accepted the position as Yellow Tail’s brand manager.) Her car, you see, is the place where, she says, she gets most of her ideas. One of which drove this Australian import’s ascension into the top three players.

Color My World
It was an idea as simple as it is effective: color-coding the labels. Rather than expecting Americans to ask for, much less pronounce, the Shiraz-Grenache blend, they can simply ask for the pink one. This way, when average Joe consumer goes into the liquor store he can simply ask, “Where’s that kangaroo wine? My wife said to get the blue one.” All Yellow Tail wine bottles sport a simple belly band just below the neck. “Yellow Tail” is rendered in lower-case print, while the label color denotes the variety: buttery yellow for chardonnay, purple for pinot noir, blue for cabernet merlot, green for pinot grigio, and so on. Aside from the playful logo (more on that in a minute) below the label, there’s nothing else on the bottle.