October 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

A Conversation with Jim Cahill of Rutherford Wine Co.

by Laurie Daniel

Jim Cahill of Rutherford Wine Co. grew up in a small Wisconsin farming community, but he developed an early interest in wine, taking a cue from his wine-loving father. Cahill’s undergraduate degree is in English from Brown University in Providence, R.I., but he knew that wouldn’t determine his career. He wanted to get into the wine business.

Cahill moved west and attended the University of California, Davis, earning his master’s in fermentation science in the late 1970s. His classmates, he says, went into wine production, while he went into sales. One of his first jobs was for Ernie Van Asperen, who wanted to take his Round Hill wine brand national. Cahill set up a sales network and worked for Van Asperen for about a dozen years. He also has held sales or managerial positions with E.&J. Gallo Winery, Pernod Ricard and Supreme Corq.

In 2011, he approached Rutherford Wine Co.’s Zaninovich family,. He had known them as grape suppliers to Van Asperen, and the family had purchased Round Hill in 2000. Cahill signed on as general manager for domestic operations for the Napa Valley company, whose portfolio includes Round Hill, Rutherford Ranch, Scott Family Estate, Rhiannon, Predator, Lander-Jenkins and Four Virtues.

Q Your company has acquired some brands and started others from scratch. What are the challenges of each approach in terms of building a brand identity?

Cahill: Brands that are acquired have generally developed a market niche. Customers have been habituated through purchases to expect a certain price and a certain quality. It is very hard to upgrade to a better appellation and increase price. A label refurbishment is often worthwhile, though, as it enables you to attract the attention of new consumers and give an old brand new visual appeal.

Take, for example, Round Hill wines, a brand with a long history and significant following at a premium price segment ($7-$10). At Rutherford Wine Co., we gave the brand an updated, more modern look but have not raised prices significantly. At this price segment, a fluctuation of even a few dollars a case FOB can kill a deal. With legacy brands, it’s not in our best interests to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

In the case of developing a new brand, we are able to match up the wine source, the package and message, desired audience and suggested retail price with fewer limitations. It’s a clean slate. With that freedom, however, you also have the challenge of communicating that whole package to the distribution channel. One must work very hard to create internal buy-in from sales teams and distributors and then also work externally to create demand through marketing communications and PR.

Q Some of your brands, such as Rutherford Ranch and Scott Family, have fairly traditional labels. Others, like Rhiannon, are more whimsical. How do you decide what’s appropriate for a particular brand?

Cahill: Our belief is that a brand should reflect its appellation or character. Rutherford Ranch is a Napa Valley winery, and we believe the labels should reflect the quality of the varietals we produce here -- hence the classic white wine labels with descriptive font. Scott Family Estate wines are Pinot Noir and Chardonnays from the Arroyo Seco and Carneros sub-appellations, both recognized for their high-quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. While these labels have more color than those of Rutherford Ranch, they are also very classic in their design, signifying that these are serious wines for today’s serious wine drinker.

For the Predator and Rhiannon brands, we chose very different labels. Predator is a silk-screen bottle with a ladybug crest. The ladybug is a reference to the sustainable farming practices of the family. In the vineyard, the nymphs of the ladybugs take the place of insecticides to reduce the population of predators that can damage the vines in their infancy. In this case, the predators are quite small: aphids and white flies. Predator is a tongue-in-cheek reference to natural predation, which is an environmentally friendly way to maintain vineyard health. It’s priced at about $15, so we were able to have a little fun with this brand, aiming to appeal to a younger wine drinker who really appreciates the sustainable approach.

Rhiannon was developed to pay homage to the family’s Welsh roots. The goddess Rhiannon is a mythological figure from Welsh or Celtic mythology known for her ability to restore harmony in nature. She is associated with magical birds and horses, as well as the contrasting qualities of change and steadfastness. With this red blend, we aim to share consistency in spite of changing vintages. The label, with its rich coloration and the inkjet application, gives both a colorful design as well as a textural quality to the label that we think delivers the message of quality and unconventionality.

Q The label for Two Range is particularly distinctive. How did your team come up with that?

Cahill: Released in 2016, Two Range Red Wine is one of our newest brands and has been quite well-received. The idea was to present a brand that made Napa Valley accessible, both in price and image. Our winemaking team and marketing director conceived of the idea and then worked with our graphic designer to produce a label that embraced both the spirit of wine blending and the premier Napa Valley locations from which we source the grapes. The name and the imagery of the label are derived from Napa Valley’s two mountain ranges -- the Vaca and the Mayacamas. Retailing for around $20, Two Range Red Blend is a brand that is less formal than our wines from Rutherford Ranch, and priced about $10 less than our Rutherford Ranch Cabernet. Our goal is to welcome a new wine drinker to this appellation’s wines at a more accessible price point. The style of the wine balances accessibility with a slightly more structured style than our other red blends in our portfolio. I like to say it’s a red blend with backbone.

Q With your labels, you’re using alternatives to basic paper labels on some of your brands, such as texture and silk screening. How do you decide when that’s appropriate, and what challenges do these approaches present for the actual mechanics of bottling and labeling the wine?

Cahill: There are several factors we consider in selecting a label and bottle. Cost is a big factor. Another is messaging. The third is appeal and shelf visibility. The fourth is product differentiation. This is too important a decision for one person. We have group meetings, which include marketing, sales and production, to review and then set up trials to try to avoid bottling-line mishaps such as blistering or scuffing.

We also do a lot of testing in advance to create labels that resist scuffing, especially for our silk-screened labels. For example, with our Predator brand from Lodi, we have a silk-screened label with a delicate background texture as well as a bold red icon. In advance, we had to do a lot of testing with the silk screener to test different inks and materials of the silk screening. What’s more, we realized that what was also contributing to the scuffing problem in the case of Predator was the interior dividers of the case shipper. In response, we changed the divider to a smoother material and have been able to deliver the wines to market in good shape.

While higher-quality paper labels may avoid this problem, it may sometimes occur anyway. The best remedy is to have a bottling-line manager who keeps equipment in good shape and is always checking during the course of a run to make sure the line is operating as anticipated.

Q What does the bottle – its shape, weight, etc. – convey about a brand?

Cahill: For many consumers, the perceived value of a wine is at least partially related to the label design and the glass container. For whatever reason, consumers generally associate heavier bottles with higher quality. Wineries package their products in heavier glass as a way to message that the product inside is not “vinordinaire.” It says, “I can be proud to share this with friends.” A lighter bottle may be cheaper and more economical to ship, but consumers want substance when it comes to their wine purchases.

Bottle shape is also an important clue for consumers. For our Scott Family Estate wines, we selected a handsome Burgundian-style bottle. Similarly, for our Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignons, we have a Bordeaux-style bottle with strong shoulders. But for our newly released Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, the marketing team wanted to break from the normal wine package constraints and create an image which signaled the wine inside was different — a bold, bourbon-barrel-aged Zinfandel. Taking a cue from the unique barrel aging regime, we selected a heavier, high-shouldered bottle with a bulbous top reminiscent of a bourbon bottle. The response has been great on this wine, which has terrific shelf presence.

Q Are there some cases where the packaging or branding didn’t work out as you expected?

Cahill: Packaging is always an educated guess. Take our Lander-Jenkins brand, for example. It’s named for general manager and proprietor Morgan Zaninovich’s great-grandfather, and we wanted to convey the agrarian history the Zaninovich family has in both farming and ranching. Before the Zaninovich family established roots in California's wine country, their great-grandfather, Rees T. Jenkins, ranched and farmed in Lander, Nev. The label conveys a rancher motif and Old West-style font. We felt the silk-screen design and the font selection conveyed the substance of this message. Focus groups found the label appealing, approachable and, more importantly, they indicated a desire to buy the wine. But on the shelf, the graphic did not stand out as we had wanted it to as a silk screen. We are in the process of altering the design so the brand name, the varietal and AVA “pop” on the shelf.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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