In Australia, in the Mornington region close to Melbourne, a producer called Gary Crittenden is complaining about the confusion consumers face between his Crittenden Estate wines and - far cheaper - bottles labeled as Crittenden & Co, a brand that belongs to the giant Aussie retailer Woolworths. Crittenden launched his business in 1984, a few years after Myer, another retailer had bought Crittenden’s Fine Wine stores in Melbourne. (The Crittendens in this story are unrelated.)
Gary Crittenden's side of the case (see the end of this post) has been picked up as part of a growing groundswell of discontent in Australia over the duopolistic power of Woolworths and its competitor Coles. - which reportedly control nearly 80% of retail sales - and the 250 or so private brands the two firms offer on their shelves. Sarah Collingwood, business manager of Four Winds Vineyard in the Canberra district, actually set up a website called Who Makes My Wine to provide a list of the retailer-owned brands, some of which are made-up names, while others, like Crittenden & Co are real brands the retailers have have acquired.
At the heart of these stories lies the gulf that lies between the wine industry and the modern capitalistic system and the growing role of distribution. Bordeaux has some 9,000 chateaux (down from 20,000), including a bewildering array of Lafites and Lafittes and Bel-Airs and Latour de Somethings and Pichons and Rausans. Some have the same or similar names because they happened to be christened after the same kind of local landmark in different parts of the region many years ago. Others, like the famous Léovilles and Pichons and Rausans reveal what happened when a large estate is split up. I recall visiting a grubby rat-infested Bordeaux chateau once on behalf of a friend who - poor misguided soul - was looking to buy one. I can't remember its name, only that it was almost identical to that of another, slightly smarter property a little further down the road. The original estate had been divided in the 1920s and no-one had seen any problem in sharing the name. I guess it's no stranger than Bill Smith calling his son Bill.
In Burgundy, the bewilderment stems from a combination of estates being divided after winemakers' deaths, and marriages between families in the same villages. So wines labeled Rossignol-Pamplemousse; Rossignol-Pomme; Pamplemousse-Rossignol and Pomme-Rossignol could all come from the same or neighbouring vineyards, but four different cellars. I don't remember hearing any Burgundy lovers getting their knickers in a twist over any of this. Like classical music fans who know whether the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Symphony Orchestra made a better hash of the Eroica, they know which Rossignol made the best wine in any vineyard in any vintage. And what of the less well-informed? Well, they simply don't deserve to drink Burgundy or listen to Beethoven.
The Burgundians coexist reasonably well - they're often related to each other after all - but spats like the one between Lafite and Lafitte are becoming more frequent in Bordeaux and elsewhere. When we launched our Le Grand Noir brand in 2005, we wanted to call it Le Mouton Noir; it seemed reasonable, given the presence of a great big black sheep on the label. We knew we might be skating on thin ice, but reckoned that as a Languedoc Syrah selling at $10, we were hardly likely to threaten anyone in Pauillac. Needless to say, however, the lawyer's letter duly arrived and we decided that our resources were possibly a little weaker than theirs. So we backed off. Since then, we've had various discussions with other brands with sheep on their labels and a robust one with our Chinese importer about the registration of our brand in his country. All of which is to say that I know a little about the travails of brand protection from both sides of the fence.
While I instinctively support the little guy, I understand the rules. It's no fun being Mr Crittenden against Woolworths or Lafitte against Lafite, but the same is true of my football team, Fulham, which currently sits at the bottom of the premier league and tomorrow faces a match against Liverpool which sits near the top. Like the other most successful teams, Liverpool has individual players who are worth nearly as much as our entire squad. But there's no handicapping system to make life easier for the - financially - poorer team. It is, as they say, a level playing field. Few care to remember that Oyster Bay and Yellow Tail were brands that were created by - in global terms - small family firms. Both are big enough today to bother the Gallo's and Diageos. Ch Lafite is engaged in a daily struggle against Chinese and other counterfeiters, some of whom intentionally or otherwise spell their fakes with two 't's instead of one. And Woolworths' responsibility is to its customers and shareholders. If it can make money by giving its shoppers bottles whose contents and packaging they like, why shouldn't they go on doing precisely that? I'm sure the campaign by Australian campaigners like Sarah Collingwood will appeal to hardcore wine enthusiasts and the we-hate-big-retailer communities, but I doubt that a boycott by either of these will hurt the supermarkets enough to make them change a strategy that is currently paying high dividends.
But what are Gary Crittenden and the >>>> family who own Ch Lafitte to do? Well, the first thing they should do is to stop playing the downtrodden victim and start to exploit the glorious marketing opportunity they've been given. Everyone loves the David & Goliath story and, as Richard Branson proved in the days when he was fighting to make Virgin Atlantic a credible competitor to British Airways, there's a lot to be said for being able to portray oneself as a plucky underdog fighting back against a bigger, less likeable foe.
Instead of (or as well as) writing letters like the one below, Criitenden should head down to the shops and buy a load of cheap Crittenden & Co Pinot Noir. Then, he should make up a batch of two-bottle packs with one of his and one of the retailer's and send them to the 20 most influential wine people in the country, inviting them to send him their tasting notes on the two wines. When he's received those - and assuming they justify the higher price his wines command, he should then include them in a press release to a much wider audience. To make this effort really effective though, he should bite the bullet and rename his brand Crittenden Family to emphasise the difference between his business and the corporate one. In fact, he should probably already have done this anyway because people like buying from family businesses - which explains how E&J Gallo got to be renamed Gallo Family Vineyards. Over at Ch Lafitte, they could do a lot worse than to produce a photograph showing just how many bottles of their delicious (I'm sure) wine you get for the price of 75cl of the Rothschild effort. They could focus on the genuineness of their bottles. (by using one of the new watermarking methods) thus subconsciously reminding people of the risk of buying a fake Lafite. But they too should consider changing their name. Le Grand Lafitte. has a nice ring to it, I'd have thought.
The Crittenden letter
Good Morning / Afternoon,
I am writing this letter to you and many others who I believe have an interest in wine and the Australian wine market.
My family has been making wine on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria since 1984. As a result, the name Crittenden has, we believe, become synonymous with the high quality wine that we produce.
Since 2004, however, the Woolworths liquor group has been marketing a range of wines under the "Crittenden & Co" label. These wines are produced for the mass market end of the wine scale and are widely available in most Woolworths owned retail stores such as Dan Murphy, BWS and Safeway.
We, the Crittenden family of winemakers, have no connection with the "Crittenden & Co" brand, but we believe that there is confusion in the wine drinking publlic about the origin of "Crittenden & Co" wines.
We say this because of the significant amount of email enquiries we receive concerning these wines.
Many of the emails we receive are critical of, or voice concerns about, "Crittenden & Co" wines and are sent to us because the writers believe that we, the Crittenden family are the makers of these wines.
This is most certainly not the case - and it is of great concern to us that there is confusion over who does make "Crittenden & Co" wines.
We want this letter to be published as widely as possible in order to diminish this ongoing confusion as to who owns the "Crittenden & Co" wine brand.
So feel free to pass this letter on to anyone you think may be intersted in what we see as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity in the wine trade. And feel free to use social media to disseminate the information.
Days after I posted this, Woolworth's announced that they will cease to sell wine under the Crittenden & Co label. This unexpected change of mind and heart by the retailer is attributed to the twitter (and other social media) waves that were generated by Gary Crittenden's letter (above). Australian journalist Jeni Port reports that Woolworths say they have sold 15m bottles since 2003.