It's Tuesday night. At home I sit alone. A simple chicken dinner with vegetables and a dinner salad. The dilemma floors me when I open the door to my wine cellar. Wine cellar. Hah. I like that word. It's a temperature controlled unit (one of two in my home) that keeps the delectable fermented bottles of grape at the precise temperature. Heat hurts. Cool is good. For wine, that is.
I feel guilty if I open a good or great bottle of wine for just me. Selfish. Good and great wine are meant for sharing. I pull out shelf after shelf of wine bottles. Some red. Others white. Even a pink — or two. “Too good…. Nah, saving that for so and so… too good.” What the hell. I've got nearly 200 bottles of wine here and not one I can drink alone? Just me, the bottle and my simple dinner?
Then I spot the Arrowood. At $60 a bottle it's not what I'd call a Tuesday night wine. If I remember it correctly it's stellar. the 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Got 97 points or something like that — for those who care. But the insanity of my warped rationale doesn't really hit me — yet. Oh, I can open that bottle. I know I have at least three more in my “true” cellar — off site where I can't be tempted by the seeds of desire. I'll just open that. At least I can taste how it's doing — how it's aging. Alas, my Tuesday night wine decision dilemma solved.
But I need something to make my dinner. A quick jaunt to the local grocer and zoom back again.
With olive oil in hand I bolt toward's the registers. Then I slam on my brakes as if a bicycle just pulled out in front of me. Screeeeeeech. Well I'll be. Yes. It is a bicycle. A red bicycle. Rather Red Bicyclette — a new wine imported from France. Cases of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet stacked 3 or 4 high. The price? Only $7.99 (the website is not up yet though a cute animation and registration form promises to let us all know when the site is live)
Truth is, this IS French wine. But I can't be fooled like many who will stop in wonder and gaze at the rather hip, contemporary label. Somewhat muted yet primary yellow with accents of blue and red, I grabbed the Syrah, released the brakes and idled toward the registers once again.
So why did I opt for a $7 bottle of French village wine instead of fulfilling my whim and tantalizing my palate on a great Sonoma $60 cabernet? This is no ordinary French wine. And that's not to say it's extraordinary either. This wine has a unique pedigree. A very well known pedigree in the states. Some might find offense with the word “pedigree” urging words like trailer trash, wrong side of the tracks or even worse. But I won't go there.
This French wine is made by, or for Gallo.
You know the company. Famed for its Thunderbird, Night Train and Hearty Burgundy. The Modesto giant who fought with Jess Jackson of Kendall Jackson over the use of a grape leaf as a brand icon when it introduced Turning Leaf several years ago and in the process practically pushed Jackson's wines off the grocery shelves. Yes. E & J Gallo, is behind this bold new brand launch.
But you'd be hard pressed to find any indication of Red Bicyclette's Gallo heritage on the label. Only © Red Bicyclette USA appears in mouse type below some flowery copy about Southern France and “magical moments pedaling” through countrysides of flowers, lavender and flavors.
My expectations were well managed. I had prior knowledge of Gallo's wacky drift into French wine. Wacky because who'd think an American icon (good or bad) would enter into a venture and market French wine at a time when American sentiment to France is at an all time low. Forget the Statue of Liberty. Let's talk the liquid of love, life and seduction. Wine.
But Gallo went there.
The wine 2003 Red Bicyclette Syrah Vin de Pays D'OC has pleasant aromas of strawberry, spice, floral notes and white pepper. On the palate its mild acidity and spicy flavors meld with bright fruit up front. But then the flavors fade and disappear. Not a complex wine. And not extraordinary. Not bad. And at $7.99, not $60. 87 points.
But what stopped me at the store was the story of the brand's development. Gallo is a clever and shrewd marketer. Adhering to the P&G model of buy mine or mine, there are a number of brands on the shelves that most consumers have no clue belong to Gallo. Brands like Turning Leaf, Frei BRothers, MacMurry Ranch and more. Many of these wines are very good. I'm not sure if this is Gallo's first partnership or marketing venture involving French wine, but the story is fascinating.
Writing in the Modesto Bee, Tim Moran explored the making of a brand the E&J Gallo way:
[…] the idea for a French wine came from Gallo Co-President Joseph Gallo, said the company s vice president of marketing, Gerry Glasgow. Joe came into my office one day and asked, Where do we go next? What do you think of France? Glasgow said.
Glasgow and five other Gallo marketing executives hopped on a plane, and spent 10 days in France. It was a week after the Iraq war had been declared, and others in the company questioned their sanity, Glasgow said. Consumer reactions to France are ambivalent, Glasgow said. They view France as the birthplace of wine, and remember the French paradox pointing to the health benefits of wine.
But they also think of arrogance, rudeness and conceit, said Iain Douglas, Gallo vice president of marketing particularly in the cities of France. The French even feel that about Paris, he said. The consumer images of the French countryside are different warmth and inviting small villages[…]
Gallo could have simply purchased bulk French wine, throw a fancy label on it and use its marketing clout to gain prime distribution. But they took an approach that would ideally give the brand longevity. It's about the product… That is, balancing the brand's image with the juice in the bottle.
[…] a brand image means little without a quality product, however, and Gallo approaches the development of wines with a sophistication few others in the industry can match. Borrowing techniques from the fragrance and food industries, Gallo uses a panel of trained sensory evaluators to create a map of the characteristics of a wine varietal.
The panel will taste hundreds of chardonnays from around the world, for instance, to identify perhaps 35 or 40 distinct styles of that varietal. Each wine style is then mapped for different characteristics acidity, oak, body, palate, finish. Every possible description to pass on to the winemaker, Douglas said.
Then consumers are brought in from around the country to taste five wines a night, and rate them on a scale of one to nine, with nine being the highest possible score, Glasgow said. We end up with consumer likability scores, Glasgow said, across many demographics age, income, level of wine sophistication. Those scores are combined with the sensory panel information to make a three-dimensional map of how the various styles match up with consumer preferences[…]
Some of my wine brethren may find this rather unsettling. But let's face it, we all have our preferences for the way things taste or feel on our body — brand preference or not. Take toilet paper. Ah. The glamor. But similar tests and methodology are used to develop a fine, soft and soothing tissue that will — okay. I won't go there. Soft drinks, cars, menus even at high end restaurants. All are subject to such testing to a certain degree.
But most fascinating to me is how Gallo named the product.
[…] The Gallo executives traveled, observed and took in the ambiance of the southern France countryside. They took 5,000 pictures, which were brought back to the Modesto winery and pinned up in a room, Glasgow said. The pictures were studied for images or symbols that would represent the French countryside for consumers. Red bicycles seemed to recur in the pictures, Glasgow said but red bikes sounded American, so it became Red Bicyclette. French, but easily translatable. Baguettes, a fellow in a beret and a little dog were added a brand image was born […]
It's Tuesday night and I'm on my second glass of Red Bicyclette. it's not great. It's not $60. And it's not bed.
I'm sure you'll find it at your grocer or liquor store. Pick up a bottle and check it out. I think it's an ambitious endeavor and I think Gallo will succeed — despite the odds: a strong Euro, jaded opinions of France and the proliferation of $2 wines like Two-Buck Chuck and others.
Let me know.