Branding strategy in Sta. Rita Hills AVA

by Eve Resnick on July 31, 2008

in General

Yesterday I spent a fascinating day visiting four wineries in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County, California -thanks to my friend Bernard Roth who organized this tour.

Besides tasting great and hard to find wines, I learned a few facts on the branding strategy of this recent AVA. Let’s get back in time. The Santa Rita Hills AVA is mostly located in the Santa Ynez Mountains and was first granted in 2001. Unfortunately the powerful Chilean winery Vina Santa Rita claimed the new AVA’s name was diluting its international trademark. A few meetings between the two parties lead to an amicable agreement: the Santa Rita growers and wine makers agreed to shorten their name to Sta. Rita Hills, their official name since 2006.

The Sta. Rita Hills have a very good geography for growing great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with an increasing interest in Syrah. Yesterday we tasted mostly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the outstanding exception of Palmina Winery that makes mostly Italian-Style wines based on Italian varietals.

The trip organized by Bernard was very well thought out: we started our day at Melville, owned by the Melville family where Chad Melville greeted us and whose wine maker is Greg Brewer. We then moved on to Sea Smoke vineyards and winery where we were received by their GM and viticulturist, Victor Gallegos, who defined clearly the winery philosophy.

After a much needed but short lunch break, we drove to Brewer-Clifton winery where Steve Clifton presented us their wines. Our final stop was Palmina winery, founded and owned by Steve Clifton.

What made the day so interesting is that all the wine makers know each other and work together. They exchange information and tips and promote each other’s brands. How is it possible? First they build partnerships based on a similar wine making philosophy. Greg Brewer from Melville and Steve Clifton from Palmina share the same passion for the very French notion of “terroir” and are making wines based mostly on expressing in their wines the qualities of the soil. Their wines are the best interpretation of the soil.

This strategy allows them to create wines using the brand name of an other winery: Brewer-Clifton winery produces a Sea Smoke Chardonnay and a Melville Pinot Noir. Brewer-Clifton winery does not grow its own grapes, but buys them from grape growers. Greg and Steve buy grapes grown by Sea Smoke and Melville on specific blocks and create the wine expressing their own interpretation of the terroir. For example, in the morning, we tasted a 2006 Terraces Pinot Noir and 2006 Carrie’s Pinot Noir made by Melville. The grapes are grown on a terraced plot and for the Carrie’s block, located above the terraces. In the afternoon, Steve poured his 2006 Melville Pinot Noir from an other block and vinified with a little oak. The three wines expressed the Melville growing strategy and soil but were three very different expressions of the soil.

From a branding strategy point of view, it is exciting to see wine makers working together to present the consumers with the best expressions of the Sta. Rita Hills region. The brands – Melville and Sea Smoke in this instance – could play a similar role as the name of a plot in Burgundy: Melville and Sea Smoke would be the equivalent of “Les Caillerets” plot where Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard and many others produce a Premier Cru Chardonnay. Brewer-Clifton would be the signature names (such as Domaine Jean-Noël Gagnard) and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA the equivalent of the Chassagne-Montrachet Appellation.

A very instructive day, indeed. And many thanks to all the wine makers and owners who welcomed us so generously yesterday and shared their passion for their outstanding wines with us!

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