Every time I walk down my mega-market’s wine aisle, I find myself humming Gun N’ Roses’ 1988 hit, Welcome to the Jungle. After all, the shelves are full of rabbits, frogs, goats, bears, cats, eagles, ducks, penguins, ravens and, of course, kangaroos. We live in a time that will someday be referred to as The Age of Critter Wines.
What is a critter wine? There’s no definitive definition. Some say they’re the inexpensive bottles with a cutesy animal printed on the label. Cheap or expensive, serious or Bugs Bunny-like, there are a lot of animals on our wine bottles. There’s even a website (www.critterwines.com) to help you find your favorite animal-themed wine.
The last bit of data I can find goes back to an ACNielsen report that said critter wines (yes, an actual category) accounted for $600 million in the American market in 2006. From 2003-2005, 18 percent of the wines launched (77 of 438) donned an animal and they were doing well.
“The sales generated by new brands featuring a critter outperform other new table wines by more than two to one,” said Danny Brager, vice president of Nielsen’s Beverage Alcohol Team, in an article published in Beverage Daily.
Real Zebras don’t change their stripes, but the times may be changing for critter wines.
“It is pretty difficult to see sea changes,” said Brian Loomis, advertising consultant for Bronco Wines, one of the country’s largest wine producers. But his sense is that the effectiveness and numbers of critter wines are decreasing.
Don Sebastiani, Jr., president and CEO of Don Sebastiani & Sons, makers of Smoking Loon wines, agrees with Loomis. Sebastiani, however, is not crazy about the term “critter wines,” mostly because he makes a wine with a loon on it.
“[It was] probably originally coined by someone who does not market a ‘critter label.’ I have always preferred the term ‘identity brands,’” Sebastiani said. He also pointed out a perfectly good reason for the success of critter wines…er, identity brands featuring animals.
“People desperately want wine to be made more simple for them….Wine brands for so long had either hard-to-pronounce ethnic names (like Sebastiani) or nice-sounding forgettable names like ‘Winding Creek.’ Suddenly, people were putting dancing gorillas on a bright orange label—and the wine is not bad either. That is memorable. I can identify (and identify with) that brand!”
But if the future sees a diminished role for critter wines, like a loon smoking a cigar, then what? Sebastiani recently released Flock by Smoking Loon with nary a loon in sight. This slightly upscale line of wines, with “Smoking Loon” in smallish 14-point type, features a single black feather on the label.
Other wine companies are going the “story” route to make a bond with customers without the use of a creature.
“A sense of place can never be taken away from the brand-building message of a winery,” said W. Gillett Johnson president of International Vines, a wine import company. “If you are in the Russian River [wine region], then both your efforts as well as the efforts of your neighbors will boost the brand image. If you have a squirrel on your label, other squirrel labels won’t benefit your brand.”
Johnson’s company brings in Wirra Wirra wines from Australia. Each wine tells a story that reflects the colorful history of the winery. For example, The Lost Watch Riesling tells the story of the late founder’s lost watch, his lifetime eschewing timepieces and his perpetual lateness.
Of course, the stories don’t have to be true. Bronco recently introduced two new lines, Motos Liberty and Masked Rider. Motos’ label shows a Buck Rogers-like spy on a zooming motorcycle with a lightning bolt slashing across the scene. The back label story invites you to: Ride the Lightening. The Masked Rider, according to its label, is a famous cowboy legend who searches the West “to bring you the best value, best tasting wine to your table top.”
“Every wine should have a story to tell,” Loomis said. “You’re looking to separate yourself from the thousands of other wines out there. And you’re looking for a way to connect to the customer.”
Sebastiani likes the progression from critters to stories in wine marketing. “It is the next natural evolution of identity brands. It takes the consumer to a second, third, fourth layer of identity with the brand.”
2008 Wirra Wirra, The Lost Watch, Adelaide Hills, Australia
Two Thumbs Up
Wonderful aromas, with a touch of lemongrass, lime, apricot and a touch of smoke. It is bone dry with bracing acidity with juicy flavors of lime, orange, green apple and lime zest.
2007 Masked Rider Zinfandel, California
Two Thumbs Up
Spicy aromas of raspberry, black cherry and black pepper. Flavors of raspberry, black cherry, a touch of black licorice and black pepper finish. Very smooth.
2008 Flock by Smoking Loon Chardonnay, Mendocino, Calif.
Two Thumbs Way Up
Rich aromas of honey, mango and a creamy buttery quality. It has robust flavors of pear, apple with nice accents of lime, nutmeg and buttery toffee.
2008 Motos Liberty Pinot Noir, California
One Thumb Mostly Up
Light aromas of artificial red cherry and candied apple. Flavors of Concord grapes, and light red cherry quality. Inoffensively pleasant.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)