Thursday, September 18, 2014

Marilyn Merlot and Norma Jean Wines - A Study in Branding

Marilyn Merlot and Norma Jean Wines - Now That's Branding! 

Another blog post on wine marketing and branding - one of the more imaginative and marketing driven labels is a study in the ultimate branding exercise that totally transcends the wine experience. I wrote in a recent blogpost about wine branding about a couple of labels which were lacking a theme and absent of typical recognizable elements in accordance with branding practices. To the other extreme, Nova Wines have created an entire franchise on one celebrity identification theme based on a play on words - Marilyn Merlot. Marilyn Wines holds an exclusive agreement with the estate of Marilyn Monroe for the use of the name and the images in their wine marketing and packaging.

Playing on the name of the famous cinema starlet, Marilyn Monroe, the marketers at Nova Wines have  built the brand on an annual release of moderate priced Merlot varietal featuring an authentic Marilyn Monroe photo on the label. What might have started out as a whimsical or even corny idea has turned into a fun wine that has an almost cult following in some precincts of collectors. Vintage bottles of the label fetch high prices that far exceed the pedigree of the wine, explicable only due to the marketing/branding of the label collection. I know of one reputable wine shop in a mid-size midwestern city that holds a 1985 Marilyn Merlot that they're offering at $3500.

Marilyn Merlot 2003
I've assembled a portfolio of Marilyn labels in my label library on my winesite. And, I admit I've collected a 'vertical' collection of the wine that spans the past dozen years. We do have fun gifting these wines to friends for suitable occasions, great for those not into the wine so much, but taken by the clever packaging. The Marilyn Merlot label is now in its 26th year.

Evidence of the Nova team marketing savvy and building upon the success of their branding, the portfolio has grown to more than a half dozen labels all playing to the 'Marilyn' theme, bearing whimsical names, Marilyn Meritage, Sauvignon Blond, Blond de Noirs, and this label, Norma Jeane.

Playing on the name Norma Jeane, the given name of the starlet before she became 'Marilyn' famous, the wine is a modest priced entry level sipper intended to be consumed young or soon after release, lacking the sophistication and pedigree for aging. As with the Marilyn label, "each vintage of Norma Jeane Merlot features a photograph taken of the young actress in the years just before she captured the imagination of the American public as Marilyn Monroe", according to their website.

Norma Jeane is the low end, budget priced label in the portfolio which continues to grow in a range of varietal offerings and price points. The family has grown to also include Marilyn Cabernet and a recently released Velvet Collection. According to their marketing, "Norma Jeane wines have captured the imagination of collectors and as well as those who simply enjoy the exuberance of young and delicious Merlot." Indeed, its more marketing than viticulture and winecraft as the wine's appeal exceeds its wine pedigree. They're striving to address this with their premium Velvet Collection label.

Evidence of their marketing success is in the pricing of their 'vintage' wines. Today, their winesite offers ten vintages of the otherwise 'modest' Norma Jeane label. The release price from Nova for their 2013 vintage is $13 and its generally available from $10 to $14. The 2012 release is also available at $13. But note the price escalation for earlier vintage releases - the 2011 is offered on their website at $70! The 2010 vintage is a bargain at $35 if you look the hefty $110 price for the 2009! The rest of the flight is available at 2008 - $70, 2007 - $55, 2006 - $65, and the 2005 is priced at $100. But wait, after the bargain priced 2004, available at $50, the 2003 is $155 and the 2002 is $175. Hold on, the 2001 and 2000 are offered at $225 each, and you can round out your vertical collection with the 1999 at $110 and the 1998 at $160. Don't fret, the 1998- 2009 Vertical Collection is In Stock and available for $1500. I can't make this up. Don't forget, this is a $12 every day sipper. Marketing!

I refer to Nova Wines as marketers as opposed to producers, since I believe they are more negociants than producers - purchasing fruit or wine from others and remarketing it under their own branding and labeling. I am not aware of land holdings or vineyards attributable to Nova Wines.

According to their stated history, "Marilyn Wines traces its origins to 1981, when a small group of friends started making wine at their home near St. Helena in the Napa Valley.  One evening in 1983, over dinner and a bottle of homemade merlot, the concept of "Marilyn Merlot" was born.  The wine enjoyed a good deal of popularity around the valley and was often donated to charity auctions and given as Christmas gifts.'

"In 1985, the playful idea and the fine wine that bore its name led to the limited production of Marilyn Merlot for sale to the public.  Over the 25 years, continuing acclaim from critics, collectors, and lovers of fine wine have led to the production of Marilyn Merlot, Marilyn Cabernet, Norma Jeane, the Velvet Collection, Marilyn Blonde de Noirs, Marilyn Red Dress, and Marilyn Sauvignon Blonde, and Marilyn Meritage."

While they may own some land, and make some of their own wine, I suspect their incredible success has grown beyond that capacity such that they now source their product from other growers and or winemakers to meet their demands.

As I wrote in earlier blogs about negociants and their practices, while this often provides notable wines at extraordinary prices, since their sources may change from vintage to vintage, there may be no such element of terroir, sense  of place with consistent predictability or uniformity in the product. Here again, this isn't about the wine, its about the brand. Kudos to the Nova team for creating an marketing case study in branding, contrary to my earlier citations on the practice.
Norma Jeane Red Wine 2013

Ironically, I picked this up at the local wine shop while I was there to pick up the absolute last available bottles of another negociant label - Ninety Plus Cellars Lot 101 Syrah. Now that its gone, its gone forever. I scoured the market to find the last stock and grabbed it all.

While I follow the releases of Norma Jeane, based on their marketing and labeling featuring images of the starlet early in her career, I've not been a consumer of this wine. I don't have a palette for or particularly enjoy low end modest red wines, despite their affordability at around $10. Its a double edged sword, that as one tastes and studies more wine, and develops a conscious palette for such, one's preferences tend to elevate to more sophisticated wines, which naturally cost more. This is one of the perils of wine enjoyment, one's 'tastes' tend to become more expensive with the more educated palette. As I've written before, this isn't continuous, one reaches their limit of sophistication and preference at a particular level, that typically reflects a pricepoint, whether it be $20, $35, $50 or more. Above that level, I contend that price does not equate with wine quality or appeal, rather marketing and label 'cache' takes over and dictates prices as much as the product itself. Aside the rarified air of certain ultra premium wines, certainly there is a point of diminishing returns for the vast majority of labels. 

This wine was vegetal in character with green pepper predominating over any essence of berry fruit, almost to a point of airing wet grass with woodiness. Buy it for the label, not the contents. Indeed, people will.

RM 83 points.