Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs...Grapes

Posted: September 2, 2010 by
Patrick Henry

About 90% of the wine made in the U.S. comes from California, and about 4% of California wine comes from the Napa Valley. The Napa Valley Vintners, a trade association, says that wine pressed from Napa Valley appellation grapes amounts to about 9.5 million cases annually. But, it’s mostly small-scale production: three-quarters of the region’s 400 or so wineries make fewer than 10,000 cases per year.
JAQK Cellars, one of newest sources of Napa Valley wines, expects to beat the 10,000-case benchmark next year if all goes according to plan. It will be a juicy achievement indeed for a business launched less than two years ago by people who, for the most part, weren’t wine industry professionals. In the beginning, they didn’t even have the wine grapes—but they did have a fully ripened plan for a brand identity that may be the most singular that Napa Valley and the rest of California’s wine country has ever seen.
One look at the bottle of any of the eight JAQK Cellars varietals reveals the line’s visual identification with gambling, and it’s tempting to read the images of cards, roulette wheels, etc., as unintended metaphors for the business risks that the young company is taking. But, that would be missing the point.
Far from being a roll of the dice, JAQK Cellars is a carefully calculated marketing venture by branding professionals who understand the crucial role of eye appeal in successful consumer product marketing. That’s what makes package design, as expressed in the highly stylized appearance of the bottles, so central to their strategy.

Serving their “ideal client”
JAQK Cellars literally is a brand manager’s dream, because in this case, the brand manager and the brand owner are one and the same. Behind the concept is Hatch Design of San Francisco, a branding and graphic design firm co-founded by Joel Templin and Katie Jain. In conceiving the JAQK Cellars brand, says Jain, the partners were creating an “ideal client” with the benefit of a special advantage—a deep insight into exactly what the client wanted.
Best of all, a full set of creative skills and brand management resources was already in place at Hatch Design, which has a staff of nine and a long list of consumer product accounts including Apple, Coca-Cola, and Levi Strauss. “What we do for JAQK Cellars,” says Jain, “we do for other people.”
Templin explains that the nascent concept of building a wine brand with total creative control goes all the way back to 1998, when he first met master winemaker Craig MacLean, an early Hatch client. Work on the MacLean said he was "all-in," and JAQK Cellars brand commenced in September of 2007, just a few months after Templin and Jain opened the doors of their new design firm. JAQK Cellars was incorporated as a business in January of 2008. Following the trial distribution of some of the wines in October of that year, the line had its first-vintage release in February of 2009.
MacLean, then a principal in the Kelham MacLean winery, was intrigued with the notion of creating a line of wines in which the brand image would be as carefully and as individually cultivated as the wines themselves. When MacLean joined the partnership to lend his winemaking artistry full-time, says Templin, the JAQK Cellars venture finally was ready to bear fruit.

A concept ripe for testing
The partners believed that the wine world was ready for a brand driven not just by the high quality of the product, but by the distinctive look of the packaging and the pull of the narrative surrounding each selection in the portfolio. Templin says that thanks to the “lead by design” branding strategies of trend-setters like Apple and Mini Cooper, consumers are used to responding to edgy visual finesse when they shop—a market trend that can work to wine’s advantage as well.
The first branding component to establish was the name, and Templin says that the credit for “JAQK Cellars” as well as the names of the eight varietals belongs to Vinnie Chieco, the San Francisco copywriter who also christened Apple’s iPod. But, in the first round of fundraising, the brand was still so new that there weren’t even bottles to show potential investors, let alone wine to put in them.
Instead, Templin and Jain presented photo-quality 3D renderings of the eight varietals in their signature bottles, while MacLean offered samples of wines he’d previously authored as a foretaste of things to come. It was enough, Templin says, to secure the needed capital, and as he and Jain refined the designs, MacLean sourced the grapes from selected vineyards from throughout the Napa Valley. The “crush services” and the bottling would be provided by Bin to Bottle Winery, a contract producer of custom wines.

Making the case(s)
The next step for the brand, says MacLean, will be to establish its own winery, although some of grapes will continue to come from trusted sources in the region. The initial output has been modest: 4,700 cases in 2009, an anticipated 8,300 cases this year, and, if sales momentum continues to build, 12,000 cases in 2011.
But in any quantity, says David Dees, national sales manager, JAQK Cellars will remain “a premium luxury brand that does not discount.” Indeed, those who insist on shopping for wine at $20 per bottle or less will find that the brand has only one such selection to offer: Charmed, a Sauvignon Blanc that sells for $19 at the JAQK Cellars web site. High Roller, the flagship Cabernet Sauvignon, tops the list at $67.
At these prices, says MacLean, the JAQK Cellars line clearly doesn’t aspire to be “a grocery store wine” or a brand that can be purchased in big-box environments like Costco. This hasn’t made the sales drill any easier for Dees: “I get beaten up on price every day,” he says, quick to add that price resistance only strengthens his resolve to maintain the brand’s upscale cachet.
Anticipating this kind of pushback, Templin and Jain knew that they would need a uniquely compelling motif both for the bottle designs and for the story lines that they wanted to associate with the wines. The more that they looked at gambling, the smarter it seemed as a creative bet.

The allure of the aleatory
“Everybody grew up playing cards,” says Jain, who likes to take a hand in a weekly pick-up game of poker herself. “It’s something fun, something everyone can relate to.”
Gambling also has mass appeal as a form of entertainment via broadcasts of events like the World Series of Poker, for which JAQK Cellars was chosen to be the official wine last year. Sensing the general fascination with games of chance, Hatch Design has woven gambling lore into the names and the imagery of each of the line’s eight varietals.
Film buffs, for example, may also recognize the name 22 Black (Cabernet Sauvignon) as the winning number that Humphrey Bogart’s Rick urges the desperate young couple to play at roulette in Casablanca. The “jacks” pictured in the labels of Soldiers of Fortune (Syrah) are historical and mythic figures who immortalized themselves as heroic royal retainers. Pearl Handle (Chardonnay) recalls the Derringer pocket pistol linked in legend to the gamblers of the Old West.
But, there’s also an astute business strategy behind the yarnspinning. “In this business, stories sell,” says Dees, whose job is to tell the tales convincingly to the restaurateurs, sommeliers, servers, and bartenders through whom most of JAQK Cellars’ sales are expected to come.
These workers, says Dees, are “the gatekeepers to our brand,” and he believes that the better acquainted they are with JAQK Cellars lore, the likelier they’ll be to recommend the wines to diners and drinkers in their establishments.
Dees sees the magic taking effect whenever he succeeds in getting the varietals added to wine lists at upscale restaurants—typically a hard struggle for a new brand. But at more than one location, he says, the unity of the story lines behind the wines has prompted cellar keepers to pick them in themed groups: an “unprecedented” coup, Dees says, for a line now barely into its second vintage.
Among the hardest of all lists to penetrate are those kept by restaurants in the Napa Valley region, where über-awareness of wine reigns supreme. MacLean says that when JAQK Cellars started making the lists of “icon” wines at high-profile places like the Rutherford Grill in Rutherford, CA, “it gave me confidence that Napa was ready to embrace us sooner than I thought.”

Hitting the production jackpot
If the payoff is rich, it will be because the technical stakes were correspondingly high in the decoration of all of the bottles—particularly the screen-printed examples. Hitting all of the narrow roulette wedges in 22 Black with full coats of ink pushed the direct screen printing process to its limit of precision. So did laying down the noir-ish shamrocks that add texture to the surface of Black Clover (Merlot).
The 360º direct screen printing on 22 Black, Bone Dance (Merlot), Charmed, Her Majesty (Chardonnay), and Black Clover is provided by Bergin Glass Impressions, a 23-year-old Napa Valley bottle decorating company that does virtually all of its business with the California wine industry. The company also engraves and hand-etches 3-liter bottles for 22 Black, Bone Dance, and High Roller, typically in small orders of a few dozen each.
Mike Bergin, president, is used to being put to the test by JAQK Cellars and the tricky-to-reproduce graphics on its bottles. “They’re phenomenal designers,” he says of the Hatch team. “They really pushed the envelope in the artistry of what you could do with screen printing.”
Bergin Glass Impressions has its own staff of artists, and these creatives are now in their second year of working with the Hatch team. The result of the close collaboration, says Bergin, is that there have been “very few hiccups” in developing the portion of the brand design that belongs to screen printing.

This “wine press” is offset litho
“They’re tough, but they’re unique,” agrees David Buse, president of Collotype Labels, the wine and spirits division of Multi-Color Corporation, a label producer since 1916. From Collotype, JAQK Cellars obtains offset-printed front and back labels for Pearl Handle and Soldiers of Fortune; back labels for High Roller; and strips that supplement the screen-printed labels on Black Clover. All are pressure-sensitive, and all are printed on Classic Crest.
Offset lithographic printing, the process of choice for laying down rich colors in tight register on paper substrates, flaunts its capabilities in these labels. The textured, tapestry-like portraits of the “jacks” in Soldiers of Fortune are printed in seven colors of ink. The red, gray, and black front labels of Pearl Handle are printed on the back side with an ace in one of the red or the black suits, visible through the pale Chardonnay and the clear glass of the bottle.
A branding element shared by all of the varietals is the JAQK logo in the charcoal-grey wrap that surrounds the neck of each bottle. Another common touch lies beneath the foil that protects the cork. Lifting the foil, says Jain, reveals a whimsical little surprise: a candy-kiss greeting such as “Good Luck” stamped into the surface of the stopper.
Considerably more complicated was the design of the High Roller bottle, custom-made for JAQK Cellars in Italy. For their priciest wine, the partners wanted a thick, heavy bottle that would convey quality. To enhance the premium message, they added structural features that the other bottles don’t have: the initials “JAQK” debossed into the base, and, below the shoulder, the raised decorative cartouche surrounding a recess that contains the bottle’s most unusual touch, a custom-made poker chip.

Through a glass elegantly
JAQK Cellars sources all of its bottles from Bruni Glass SpA, a designer of glass packaging in Milan, Italy. Except for High Roller, all of the varietals go to market in “Leonardo,” a 750-ml bottle that is one of 100 stock shapes that Bruni Glass has created for wine. The bottles, weighing 800 grams, are made for JAQK Cellars by factories in Italy and Slovenia. Antique green glass is used for the five reds; flint (clear) glass surrounds the three whites.
Bruni Glass also makes the High Roller bottle from a stock mold, but with extensive customization to give the bottle its one-of-a-kind look. The basic size is 750 ml, but Bruni Glass also supplies limited quantities of 1.5-litre Magnums, 3-litre Double Magnums, and an even larger 5-litre size.
At 1,200 grams, the High Roller bottle is an uncommonly heavy piece of glass for a wine container—but that characteristic, says Nancy Cantrell, a U.S. sales representative for Bruni Glass, helps JAQK Cellars to underscore the richness of its flagship offering. The extra weight, however, made perfecting the design a “delicate project,” particularly in the fine details of the cartouche and the recess for the poker chip. These features, says Cantrell, had to be worked into the mold “without interfering with the integrity of the bottle,” and getting them correct required some tweaking.
Adding to the challenge was the fast pace of the bottle’s creation in 2008. Eager to debut the entire line with the High Roller bottle at the helm, JAQK Cellars “wanted it done yesterday,” recalls Cantrell.
They got it in a series of events that took place from April through October of that year—an unusually quick turnaround for the development, testing, and delivery of bottles from a customized mold. In such a project, notes Cantrell, the shipping alone can take eight weeks, to say nothing of the fact that “Italy goes on vacation in August.”
But the deadline was met, and the result was so satisfactory that Bruni Glass was pleased to show off High Roller in its exhibit at Emballage 2008, the world packaging expo in Paris. Cantrell says that the company, in its third year as a supplier to JAQK Cellars, now ships the fledgling wine producer more than four times as many bottles annually than it did when the relationship began.

Glum news from the grapevine
Nevertheless, the rise of JAQK Cellars is taking place against a backdrop of tough times for California’s wine industry. In a recent report, Bloomberg Businessweek cited falling land prices, vineyard foreclosures and mergers, and “the sudden frugality of the American wine drinker” as factors souring the outlook for Napa Valley wine producers. Needless to say, the downturn adds urgency to the company’s quest to establish a brand identity and build a customer base.
Since promotion began in earnest last year, the main goal has been to establish JAQK Cellars in the nation’s top five wine markets by state: California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas. (Las Vegas, with its profusion of high-end dining and drinking spots, is an additional target market for the brand.) Dees says that in all of these regions, 75% to 80% of the business should come from on-premise sales in hotels, restaurants, bars, and resorts, with retail purchases in upscale wine boutiques accounting for the rest.
To make it happen, Dees recently undertook a six-week, 16-state summer road trip to all of the domestic destinations where JAQK Cellars hopes wine enthusiasts will learn to request its varietals by name. His agenda was crowded with wine festivals, in-store tastings, and other events at which JAQK Cellars could roll the marketing dice in front of an audience.
Jain notes that the wines also can be delivered to all 33 states where it’s permissible to ship wine, and she recommends membership in “The Society of the Tipsy King”: a wine club offering discounts on quarterly shipments of two, four, 6, or 12 bottles to home or office. Promotion also is under way in eight foreign markets (Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Macau, and Japan).

Drinking with the eyes?
JAQK Cellars isn’t the only producer of quality wine in distinctively decorated bottles—see, for example, “The Package as Canvas” in the May 2010 issue of Package Design Magazine, or “The Fine Art of Wine Labels” from September 2008. Creativity and innovation in packaging are well and good, but what does it really take for a bottle of wine to stand out on the shelf when there are so many unique bottle and label designs competing for attention?
“It’s a question that’s asked a lot in wine country,” Bergin acknowledges. But design matters, he says, not least of all because seven out of eight wine buyers are women—a customer segment, according to Bergin, that responds strongly to packaging aesthetics and the emotional associations they inspire.
But, like his clients at JAQK Cellars, he also knows that even the most exquisitely designed wine container can’t do all of the work by itself. With high-quality decorating techniques, he says, “I can help you sell the first bottle of wine.” But after that, repeat purchases won’t occur unless the drinking experience is as pleasant to the memory as the bottle design is to the eye.
MacLean, who authored his first wine in 1986 while a student at UC Davis, agrees that quality ultimately is what drives brand loyalty. But at the same time, he says, “consumers gravitate to a label for one reason or another.”
Cantrell thinks that although wine shoppers know and tend to favor certain brands, there’s still an opportunity to catch their attention with something unique. “You’re going to look at what stands out,” she says, when the design promises that the quality of the wine will be as distinctive as the look of the bottle.
Cantrell speaks from personal experience, having been so taken with the appearance and the taste of Charmed that she recently served the JAQK Cellars Sauvignon Blanc at her daughter’s wedding reception. The glittering bottle presents beautifully at the table, she reports, “and the silk screening doesn’t come off in an ice bucket.”