With so many new vineyards seeming to pop up overnight in the rolling countryside of Britain, it can be hard to remember who is who, and who is where. According to the latest figures, in 2018 there were 164 wineries in Britain. These wineries produced over 13 million bottles of wine, and many were making wine for several different brands. Wine GB has estimated that by 2040, British wineries will be making 40 million bottles a year.
When there are hundreds of bottles jostling for drinkers’ attention, how can producers make their wines stand out? I’m sorry to report that many of my civilian wine drinking friends (that’s people who aren’t in the wine trade by the way) freely and frequently tell me that they choose a wine by the label. It goes without saying that the liquid inside the bottle is very important. But I wanted to know why some wines stay at the front of our minds whilst others dwindle in the shadows.
I began working at Rathfinny for the 2019 vintage and took the opportunity to speak with Sarah Driver, who established Rathfinny Wine Estate in East Sussex with her husband Mark in 2010. They put me in touch with specialist packaging agency Stranger & Stranger who put their labels together, so that I could investigate what it takes to create a wine brand from scratch.
The creation of Rathfinny Estate all began with a blind wine tasting. So impressed with how the quality of sparkling wines made in Britain compared favourably with Champagne, Mark Driver was inspired. In a previous life, Mark had already started a successful business from scratch, as a founding partner of a profitable hedge fund group. Now, he had found his next venture in creating Rathfinny Wine Estate.
From day one, Sarah and Mark set out to make premium, traditional method sparkling wine which would rival the top Champagne houses that are centuries old. To do this they would have to recruit the best in the business to help them. This was not just in the vineyard or the winery, but in the creation of the brand too.
To create the logo, they were directed towards the expertise of John Rushworth, partner at the design studio, Pentagram. Before meeting with the Drivers, Rushworth took the time to tour the surrounding area. He saw the figures cut into the green hillsides, the chalk cliffs and the newly planted vines at the estate. Sarah recounted that his advice upon arrival was, “your brand must be based on you and your location”.
From this, a strategy was developed based on the notion of the ‘Sussex origin’. The Rathfinny logo was adapted from the Sussex coat of arms, using the same red shield, but replacing the traditional martlet birds with white grapes to represent the chalk. For their labels, the Drivers went to Stranger and Stranger, the same company who created the labels for Wiston Estate in West Sussex. Sarah and Mark initially hoped to create something a bit quirky. However, at the time English sparkling wine was not as well-established and highly regarded as it is now, and they were advised to include key indicators that they were making a premium sparkling wine product, such as the foil.
The resulting label is sophisticated in its design, whilst featuring some quirky elements true to Sarah and Mark’s instincts. A cut-out top illustrates the line of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. The fonts used were created by Sussex-based sculptor, Eric Gill. Some may recognise his work: the Gill sans font was used on the London Underground, for instance. For the finishing touch, the paper of the label has a chalky texture, referring again to the chalk soils of the South Downs.
However, it goes without saying that creating a brand is not just about the label. Every wine lover holds a cult wine in their mind that they dream of tasting one day. Take Wyndoree in South Australia’s Clare Valley, for example. They don’t do any form of marketing – no website, no social media or any comment on the wines whatsoever. The only way to buy the wine is to be on the mailing list and no one gets bumped up, not even famous journalists. Then there’s Sine Qua Non of Ventura California, whose wines have reached 100 points on more than one occasion on the famous scoring system devised by the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker. As a result, there’s a 12 year waiting list and the wines now fetch thousands of dollars. And then there is perhaps the pinnacle of all cult wines, and a personal goal, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
To be noticed, a brand must stand for something. I asked Kevin Shaw, founder of Stranger and Stranger, what it takes to create a successful brand. “Stand-out. That’s it”, he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the cheapest, the most expensive, the tallest dwarf. Just stand for something. There are way too many wine bottles that look alike and have identical back labels which talk about being crafted to go well with your meat pie.” I was enthralled by his concise and straight down the line response, but also intrigued to know how smaller wineries can compete with bigger ventures with hefty marketing budgets.
“It’s really not about the budget; it’s about being very clear about what the brand stands for”, Kevin said. “Give people something to write about, talk about, Instagram. We’ve seen plenty of huge budgets squandered on focus groups and micromanaging tweaks aimed at appealing to everyone. Better to not appeal to everyone. Polarisation is good. Have an opinion and get a smaller group to absolutely love you.”
With this in mind, I wanted to know exactly which group Rathfinny appealed to and how they stand out. Sarah’s daughter, Millie, the estate’s marketing manager, revealed that they describe their target audience as ‘adventurous connoisseurs’. “They are people who like to be in the know and who are less interested in the ‘it’ brands, and more in favour of exploring something a little less conventional, so that they can share their new knowledge with their friends”, Millie said.
“Give people something to write about, talk about, Instagram.”
– Kevin Shaw, Stranger & Stranger
A piece of sage advice John Rushworth gave the Drivers was that when selling a premium product, everything else that you present must follow suit. Sarah said that they followed this through, starting “with the state-of-the-art winery, to the compliment slips, to the quality of the bed sheets. Everything is reflective of the wine we are producing.”
Owing to the youth of the British industry, Rathfinny have been wise to work closely with the country’s top establishments. This means that sommeliers can correctly educate customers on English wine, and thus, have largely been making sales through bar and restaurants’ trade.
The Drivers have also had the foresight to think beyond their own winery to the Sussex wine region as a whole. Mark took the lead on establishing Sussex as a Protected Designation of Origin, initiating the movement whereby bartenders offer ‘a glass of Sussex’ alongside the choice of Champagne.
There are three key points I learnt whilst writing this article: a good place to start when creating a wine brand is to ask: ‘what makes your wine unique?’ Location and terroir should be the first point of differentiation, closely followed by the producer’s personality. As Sarah rightly pointed out, “if you try to be something you’re not, you will be found out and it just won’t work”.
You don’t need to have a big marketing budget. As Kevin said, “the key ingredient is attitude”. The first example of a winery that springs to mind with a small budget and big attitude is Tillingham. Ben Walgate’s Pétillant Naturel label simply consists of two letters, ‘PN’ and the year, written by hand. And yet his wines are arguably the most well-known natural wines in Britain.
My final thought: trying to appeal to everyone’s tastes is too difficult. You can’t please everyone. Better to find your niche, narrow down your audience and get a small group to absolutely love you.