January 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Making a 'Vice' Out of Ice wine

How Ontario's Vineland Estates Winery invented a Vidal-vodka martini

by Hudson Cattell
vice ice wine
Vineland Estates Winery launched ?Vice to boost its ice wine sales.

Two years ago Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates Winery in Vineland, Ontario, had a problem. He had looked at the sales numbers for ice wine and realized they were no longer increasing by as much as 20% per year but rather beginning to decrease 5% per year. It didn’t take a crystal ball to figure out why: More and more wineries were producing quality ice wines, the great recession was taking hold and, since ice wine was a luxury item, people could do without it.

Schmidt’s challenge was to find new ways of increasing ice wine sales. He remembered that 10 years earlier he had visited the Fairmount Chateau Lake Louise Resort in Banff National Park and found that their ice wine sales were quadrupling, and their recipe for success was mixing his ice wine with vodka. Schmidt loved the product but discovered that restaurants and bars weren’t interested in opening an expensive bottle of ice wine to make a drink for one customer and then be left with a half-bottle or more that would oxidize before it could be consumed.

The solution, Schmidt realized, was for 50,000-case Vineland Estates to bottle its own vodka ice wine. It was the type of cocktail that would appeal to a new demographic of consumers who would prefer drinking ice wine in a martini setting to a dessert wine setting.

In October 2008, Schmidt met with the winery’s ownership, Jim DeGasperis and other board members to discuss the concept of vodka ice wine. Schmidt said he could make it, and DeGasperis was sure he could market it. The new product was to be a vodka ice wine martini that was a blend of approximately half Vidal ice wine and half Canadian vodka. It would taste like ice wine but avoid its heavy sweetness.



No mention of ice wine
Naming the new product was a challenge. Winery executives wanted to differentiate it from ice wine, so they decided to put it in 500ml and 750ml bottles with no mention of Vidal or ice wine on the label. Then the search started for a catchy trade name. The winery’s marketing company came up with the word Vice: “V” for vodka and “ice” for ice wine.

The play on words with “vice” was of some concern because “vice” and “vice squads” connote drugs and organized crime. However, when winery staffers Googled “vice,” the first search result was a list of the seven deadly sins such as gluttony, greed and sloth, all of which had nothing to do with modern vices. Gluttony and greed, in fact, seemed to have a perfect association with the product and gave everyone a lot of confidence in the name.

It took one month to come up with the appropriate blend for Vice and nine months to get legal approval in Canada. The product category, a vodka-ice wine martini, was a new one for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and the concept of putting ice wine and vodka together confused every regulatory department at the LCBO and the Ontario and Canadian governments.

Trouble with TTB
When Vineland Estates went to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in the United States to get label approval for its vodka ice wine martini, the name was turned down on the grounds that anything called martini had to have vermouth in it. The attorneys for the winery did some research and discovered that 17 products made by some of the largest wineries in the United States were being marketed with brand names that included the word martini without having any vermouth in them.

TTB answered by saying that the approvals given to these products were given in error and that they would be rescinded. This set off an expensive fight on the part of the wineries involved to retain the name martini on their products, and a couple of trade publications ran stories about a small Canadian winery that was causing all this oversized trouble.

As for Vineland Estates, it simply changed the product’s name to “Vicetini.” Vineland trademarked both names and uses Vicetini on bottles marketed in the United States and Vice on bottles sold in Canada. In terms of marketing, winery execs believe that TTB did them a huge favor by insisting they name their product Vicetini.

Vice was first placed on the market in July 2009. During the first year the winery sold 10 bottles of Vice for every bottle of ice wine. Marketing slogans included “Discover your new Vice!” and “Vice is the duality of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.” In the United States, sales began in early 2010 in Las Vegas and California, and a distributor in New York City made a trip to the winery in September to talk about distributing Vicetini there.

Vice is a fortified white wine with neutral spirits added. At 21% alcohol, it is stylistically similar to a white port. The decision to promote it as a cocktail rather than a dessert wine is in recognition of the fact that in the ice wine marketplace only 2% of consumers will purchase ice wine, while 30% of liquor purchasers will buy vodka, flavored vodka or a vodka derivative. That is the market Vineland Estates is after and, to date, no imitators have emerged.

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