How Michael David Winery Turbocharged Its Brands

7 Deadly Zins producer reveals secrets at Wines & Vines Packaging Conference

by Paul Franson
wine michael david freakshow
Michael David Winery covered three large tanks with the label for its Freakshow brand. The tanks are popular with winery visitors.
Yountville, Calif.—Improving packaging can have a big impact on a winery’s success, as described by Melissa Phillips Stroud, the vice president of sales and marketing at Michael David Winery, and director of marketing Mike Stroh at the third annual Wines & Vines Packaging Conference held Aug. 17 at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville.

Named after brothers Michael and David Phillips, Michael David Winery created a huge hit with 7 Deadly Zins, a Zinfandel originally made from seven vineyards in Lodi. The wine helped put Michael David Winery and its home Lodi on the national wine map.

Introduced in 2002 with 700 cases of the 2000 vintage, 7 Deadly Zins was named one of the Top 10 Hottest Brands in 2004 by Wine Business Monthly, and grew to more than 250,000 cases annually in its first 10 years. But it hit a plateau before a relaunch and package redesign that projected it to 16% growth in 2015 sales.

It was named an Impact Hot Brand in 2016, and 7 Deadly Zins is now America’s No. 1 Zinfandel by dollar sales, Stroh said.

Along with sharpening the 7 Zins image, the winery also created a family of wines and used branding to tie them all together as part of the Michael David Winery portfolio. Its brands in order created include 7 Deadly Zins, Earthquake, 6th Sense, Petite Petit, Inkblot, Freakshow and (for the more classic offerings) Michael David Winery.

A long-time Lodi family

Michael and David Phillips are the fifth generation of Lodi growers in the family. They established the winery in 1984 after years of growing grapes. Michael David was one of the original seven wineries of the Lodi appellation, which was little known or respected at the time.

Today the winery has extended itself to the sixth generation of growers, with Michael’s son Kevin Phillips and daughter Melissa Phillips Stroud now overseeing day-to-day operations at the winery. They are producing nearly 800,000 cases in 2016 and expect to pass 1 million cases in 2017. They make 30 varietal and individual blends each vintage and market more than 40 SKUs.

The family manages 1,200 acres of vineyards and owns 800 planted acres. All of the Phillips’ family vineyards and Lodi-sourced fruit is certified sustainable following The Lodi Rules, and the winery is one of the few in the state to pay a premium for certified sustainable grapes.

Creating a winery brand
After releasing the 7 Deadly Zins in 2002, the winery had great success expanding its lineup of eclectic wines, adding new brands and price points to its portfolio.

However, “The winery’s brands were developing a loyal consumer fan base, but few knew all of these great wines were being produced by one winery,” said Melissa Phillips Stroud, the vice president of marketing.

She noted that having multiple brands on a wine list without everyone knowing it was one producer had its advantages—the giant wine companies tend to play down their brands’ ownership in fact to make them seem smaller. “But as the portfolio expanded, it became more important to bring our group of wines together so that consumers who liked one brand would try others. It also gave us more visibility with distributors, retailers and restaurants.”

In early 2009, the family decided to build the Michael David Winery brand to create a stronger winery image and help tie its growing portfolio together.

The next year, the winery introduced its new logo featuring two crossed corkscrews with the letters MDW. The design was a play on the crossed axes that adorn fire trucks across the country. To engrain the winery’s history, its founding year, 1984, was included in the new logotype. 

This logo was introduced into Michael David’s lineup of wines with national advertising and point of sale promotion to emphasize the wine’s producer. The legal name was changed from Michael and David Phillips to Michael David Winery in bottling statements and the new logo was added to all capsules, corks and labels where appropriate.

The winery’s first national advertising introduced the Michael David logo and both ads tied the quirky-branded family of wines to Michael David winery.

Introducing Michael David wines
With the Michael David branding in place, the winery turned to its struggling Chardonnay program then labeled 7 Heavenly Chards. The winery had tried a number of package upgrades. It found that being different doesn’t always work—like a flint claret bottle instead of a green Burgundy bottle.

With its consumers favoring traditionally styled packaging, Chardonnay was the perfect varietal to introduce the Michael David brand in 2013. Chardonnay continues to grow each vintage, and the family has added Sauvignon Blanc and a rare Cinsault made from a 130-year old vineyard.

The Michael David label is also used for a handful of tasting room and wine club wines offering its best customers something exclusive. The winery has 6,000 members of its wine club.

It’s in the name
All of the brands are created with sales channel, pricing and wine style defined. It starts with a name—simple, playful and iconic. “We search for names that naturally lend themselves towards creative imagery and label design,” Stroh said. The Phillips family and its marketing team suggest possible suspects and some come easy, some take time.

Once a brand name is solidified and trademarks cleared, a designer is chosen to create a label that is eye catching and memorable. Creative label dyes, print techniques and unusual wine label imagery help distinguish the labels.

Based upon the wine, pricing, decoration and application, the team chooses a glass mold and closure type – and they don’t forget the shipper carton, one of the cheapest expenses in packaging a case of wine with the most branding potential.

To keeping brands fresh, they revisit brands every few years for opportunities to improve.

Stroh noted that it wasn’t long ago that they had to call vendors for almost anything but now they seek the winery’s business. “We work with a pretty select group of vendors, keeping a smaller list of suppliers who have either supported us in the past working on projects, or others who have stepped forward offering solutions for issues we’ve encountered. When you show up in Graton (at a custom crush winery) at 5 a.m., and all of your suppliers are on site for bottling, you know you’re on the right track.”

Refreshing the 7 Deadly Zins
After 10 vintages in the market, The 7 Deadly Zins package was starting to look tired and dated in comparison to the fresher, newly created Michael David brands, Stroud said. With sales flattening, the brand needed new energy. “Marketing pushed to rework the 7 Deadly brand with updated packaging and a fresh spin on the label design. The family was hesitant. ‘If it’s not broke don’t fix it.’”

They told marketing to explore opportunities for change but the winery was looking for a brand evolution not revolution.

They ended up with a custom bottle mold that was slightly taller with broader shoulders and had “Michael David Winery” embossed at the heel of the bottle for additional branding.

They kept the primary elements of the label including the 7/Z lockup with the muted sins, halo and burnt parchment edge. 

Though the winery was doing well, it wanted to expand its Zinfandel line, so it created a reserve program from California’s top Zinfandel regions. Each wine is named after a sin. Even though these brands represent some of the winery’s highest priced wines, the labels still incorporate creative imagery and subtle details that hint to the sin at hand:

Lust: Lodi. “It’s our hometown, so of course it’s the sexiest,” Stroud said.
Gluttony: Amador, known for big, juicy, almost fat style.
Sloth: Mendocino, a nod to the historic hippy culture.
Greed: Napa Valley.

These wines use larger, heavyweight glass, higher end corks and tin capsules. The fully printed lay-down six-pack shipper also projects a higher image.

Freakshow Cab creates labeling problems
Looking to expand its portfolio, the winery saw opportunity in a mid-tier Cabernet Sauvignon. They chose the name Freakshow.

Marketing wanted to push the envelope creating the industry’s largest full wrap label—9.5 inches wide and 5.5 inches tall—using public domain art of real sideshow acts and outcast “freaks” from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A strongman was chosen as the focus for the strength and power of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Freakshow Cab was awarded Impacts’ “Rising Star” award in 2016.

Although successful as a brand, the Freakshow label created challenges. After trials at a half dozen bottling facilities, the winery chose a line in Napa that could run the full-wrap design, but after three vintages and almost 25,000 cases, they needed to find a facility that could grow to 100,000 cases for its fourth vintage. It required a high percentage of rework and slowed lines with added costs, so they decided to redesign the full-wrap label into a more conventional two-piece design.

Other Michael David wines include Earthquake, which includes three varieties, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah, created in 2002. It was named after a Zinfandel vineyard planted at the time of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Earthquake received a complete package overhaul in 2006 with an unusual shattered three-piece label highlighted by a sculptured gold foil Richter scale.

Petite Petit is a blend of Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot with a label showing two elephants representing Michael and David as well as the big, bold varietals inside. Petite Petit grew 45% in 2015 and is the No. 1 Petite Sirah in America costing more than $10.

The presenters also gave a preview of upcoming wines to the 400-plus attendees, but those aren’t ready for the public—yet.

Posted on 08.19.2016 - 09:19:49 PST
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