In what is beginning to look like a textbook case of product branding done right, Crozet’s Well Hung Vineyard is one of only 200 wineries in America to have its label included in an exhibit on the history of the U.S wine industry now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The exhibition, “How Wine Became Modern: Design and Wine 1976 to Now,” traces the explosive development in the American winemaking after the 1976 Paris Wine Tasting saw California wines preferred over French ones in a blind taste test that later became known as the “Judgment of Paris.” The shocking verdict catapulted American wines into respectability and led to an explosion in winemaking, label design, media attention and wine tourism. A bottle of Well Hung Vineyard Blush, a dry rosé made from Cabernet Franc grapes, is displayed in the exhibit’s “Wall of Wine.” The exhibit runs until April 17.
“It’s a mystery how they found out about us,” said Tracy Verkerke, who formed an LLC in 2006 with partners Amy Steers and Kathy Rash to produce the wines. Their first vintages, a chardonnay and a cabernet franc, were released in 2009.
“A woman in San Francisco was taking our label illegally off our website and putting it on other wine and selling it at Fisherman’s Wharf,” said Steers. Her husband Bill, a urologist at U.Va., was visiting San Francisco and happened to spot the bottle. He knew, of course, that their wines are not being distributed in California. They put a stop to the purloining of labels, but one theory of how SFMOMA came to know about the wine is that someone from the museum had seen one of the phony bottles.
The meteoric popularity of their wines seems as much indebted to the name they chose as the quality of the wines themselves, which are produced by noted local winemaker Michael Shaps at his custom winemaking facility, Virginia Wineworks, in Keene.
“We are tiptoeing right along the line of good taste,” admitted Verkerke. “Some people tell us it’s ‘classier’ than they thought it would be.” Some local stores that they approached about carrying the wine balked and refused. When SFMOMA classified it as a label type, they placed under the category “sexy” and into the subcategory “cheeky.” The label shows the lower halves of three men, standing behind a horizontal grape vine with heavy clusters of grapes hanging suggestively in front of their crotches. The illustration was developed digitally from a photograph of Steer’s husband and two sons.
The label went through the federal approval process required by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (referred to as the TTB). “We were on pins and needles when we sent it in,” Verkerke said. Next it went to Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, where it was also okayed. “We got a phone call from a woman who worked for ABC who said, ‘You go, girls!’,” she recalled. “They were surprised to find out that it’s three moms doing it. We do everything. Plant, prune, pick. We do everything.”
“We learned it from the ground up. We don’t hire out to grow the grapes,” agreed Steers, conceding that they leave critical decisions about the fermenting process to Shaps. “We do barrel testing,” Steers noted, meaning that they are trying to learn and understand as well as they can why and how Shaps makes the choices he does. When they started selling apparel with the vineyard logo on it they did all the stenciling themselves too. They do their own bookkeeping and tax reporting and make sales calls and deliveries. They made and maintain their vineyard website.The women have financed all the vineyard’s growth themselves and have not taken out loans.
Steers started out growing an acre and a half of grapes in 2000 on a sloping high ground outside her house’s westward-facing windows. “If I had understood how much work it is, I don’t think I would have done it,” she said. “Grape growing is a money-losing hobby.” Her husband is also a chemical engineer, and the idea originally was to grow enough grapes for him to be able to bottle homemade wine.
But there is no remedy for sore muscles like runaway success. At first, Steers sold her grapes to Cardinal Point Vineyard. But the popularity of their wine means they now are buying grapes from other local producers.
The name happened one day when Verkerke was visiting and helping Steers with chores in the vineyard. “We were out working and we were holding clusters and I said to Amy, ‘what does this remind you of?’ And I said, ‘We should call it Well Hung Vineyard. But that’s so bad. We laughed about it for six months and then we made it a business, an LLC, and Kathy joined us.”
Rash had been sitting across the table from Steers at a Memorial Day cook-out in 2007 when the name of the vineyard came up in the bantering fashion that Steers and Verkerke were accustomed to talking about it in. Rash instantly ordered them, “Shut up about it!” Offended? No. Rash had moved to Albemarle from Chicago after selling a nationwide marketing firm she had created, Consumer Development Group—at the time of its sale it had 22 offices across the U.S.—to a large corporation named United Stationers, an office supply wholesaler. She went to work for them for a while as a vice president, serving clients such as DuPont and 3M Corporation, and brought Tyvek, a house vapor barrier, and White-Out, typing correction paint, to the attention of the country. Rash knows how to teach people about products. She instantly recognized the potential of the Well Hung Vineyard name and had it trademarked and protected.
“Some people still don’t think the name is funny,” they conceded, “But about 9 out of 10 stores we approach to carry the wine will start to carry it.” The name has spread now into Richmond, Virginia Beach and Roanoke and even out-of-state.
“Oh, my gosh!” said Rash about surging popularity of the wine, “And the wine is stellar. There is just no doubt.”
Sales have sextupled in the year and half since the first vintage was ready. “We have sold every bottle in our first vintage,” said Rash. That was only 220 cases, but they sold 550 cases the next year and in 2010 sold 1,400 cases. Their sales chart rockets up. They now produce four wines, a chardonnay, a petit verdot, a cabernet sauvignon and a cabernet franc. They also make reserve wines such as Very Well Hung Chardonnay.
“At first no one would approach our booth at fairs and music festival. Now they are 20 deep,” said Steers.
They are now looking for a location for tasting room in Crozet, downtown or along Rt. 250, that would be convenient for wine tourists visiting local vineyards. “We feel like we need a presence,” said Steers. Or they may try to form a co-op tasting room that small wineries could share. And besides sampling grapes available locally, they are even thinking they may import California grapes to meet demand. They expect to need about 13 tons of crushed grapes this year.
“Our goal is to build a good, reputable brand and then have someone buy us out,” said Rash. “We are seriously studying how to get to that point. We want people to buy the wines again, and not just because they think the label is a joke. It has to be good wine, consistently. Michael Shaps really keeps a close eye on our crop and we trust him.”
“For us it’s been a synergy of talents, each with a contribution,” said Verkerke. “It’s a perfect blend.”