The yellow trim and blue floral border look almost traditional. The slightly jazzy font is just enough to catch your eye.
“It looked like a really sexy bottle of wine,” says jeweler Bria Bergman, who bought a bottle of Cupcake wine for the first time at a Michigan grocery store in mid-2010. The 30-year-old New Yorker admits her choice was largely based on aesthetics. She was headed to a pool party and it seemed like the perfect light-hearted white for the occasion.
Competition on United States wine shelves these days is looking less Bordeaux versus Burgundy and more pop-culture savvy, with bottles of Naked On Roller Skates Shiraz jostling for attention with Vampire Merlot and Mad Housewife Chardonnay.
It’s hard to imagine strategy meetings yielding the names, until you consider the recent popularity of roller derby, the undead, desperate housewives, and, of course, the single-serving frosted cakes that first broke free of the kids’ birthday party circuit to become a lasting trend a little over a decade ago.
The turning point was the unlikely sight of "Sex and the City’s" stilettoed Carrie and Miranda nibbling cupcakes outside New York’s Magnolia Bakery in season 3 of the TV show, broadcast in 2000. By 2009, "Martha Stewart's Cupcakes" was on the New York Times bestseller list for 11 weeks and “cupcakeries” were fulfilling the sweet dreams of legions of small-scale entrepreneurs.
In recent years, Cupcake Vineyards, based in California, has received numerous distinctions based on impressive growth in sales and volume, and the magazine Beverage Dynamics reports that this "rising star" tripled sales to one million cases in 2010. But Underdog Wine and Spirits, the makers of Cupcake, won't say how much they bottle each year, or how many bottles they sell. The company does confirm double-digit growth since the brand launched in 2008.
Cupcake wine’s name “was developed under the auspices of the trend at the time,” says Todd Ziegenfus, then marketing director of Underdog’s parent company, The Wine Group. It's one of the biggest wine conglomerates in the United States, with brands ranging from top-selling Franzia wine in a box to the 130-year-old Concannon Vineyard. Ziegenfus says that with Cupcake, “we wanted to develop wines that were very easy to drink, approachable.” The concept of a cupcake – an easy-to-eat indulgence – was the perfect match.
Cupcake has expanded its “decadent” portfolio to more than a dozen wines from prime regions, with tasting notes aimed squarely at the sweet-toothed. Its New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is “reminiscent of a lemon chiffon cupcake,” while the California Pinot Noir evokes “a cherry cupcake with currant coulis.” Cupcake’s collection now also includes several flavors of vodka, including chiffon, frosting and devil’s food. And the company’s marketers have tapped into the rise in the popularity of moscato in the United States, launching a Moscato d’Asti it compares to “a pineapple right-side-up cupcake.”
The canny marketing has paid off: in 2011, just three years after it was launched, Cupcake won Market Watch magazine’s annual Leaders’ Choice Award for Wine Brand of the Year. Behind the branding, Cupcake winemaker Adam Richardson works with growers and producers not only in California but also around the world – in Argentina, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Italy. The overseas-sourced wine is then shipped to California in giant versions of the bags used for boxed wine.
Asked whether he is thinking about marketing demographics when crafting his product, Richardson replies: “I am always thinking of the target consumer when I make wines – that's why we make the wines.”
Cupcake is aiming for 21- to 35-year-old “adult millennials,” reports marketer Ziegenfus. They account for 50 million people in the United States, and it’s a plum group: they’ve been hardest hit by tough economic times, but are least likely to cut back on spending, according to a report by the market research publisher Packaged Facts.
Ziegenfus won’t divulge whether Cupcake has anyone more specific in mind, saying the company's competitors “know who we’re after.” But the concept is clearly evocative for some.
“I picture it at a party with women who are getting their eyebrows waxed, and mani-pedis [manicure-pedicures],” says Bergman, with a laugh. The New Yorker admits she won’t be buying Cupcake wine again, but attributes its general success with women her age to pop-culture appeal.
Thirty-four-year-old baker Fadi Jaber, who has bakeries in Aman, Jordan and Beirut, Lebanon, was tickled pink when he had his first glass of Cupcake while on vacation in Florida, courtesy of a female friend. He loved the wine itself and appreciates the symbolism. “People love cupcakes,” says the professional cupcake maker, “because (a) they are user friendly and (b) they remind them of a less-complicated time in their lives.”
The best seller at Sugar Daddy’s, Jaber’s bakeries, is the "Red Velvet", a confection named after one of Cupcake Vineyards’ blended drops – a combination of zinfandel, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah that boasts “over-the-top aromas of chocolate.” But Jaber doubts that too many men would be attracted by the concept, noting that most of his own clients are women. “For some reason, I think cupcakes as a product really speak to them."
Gender-specific strategies in the wine world have been largely based on studies showing that women are responsible for more than half of all wine purchases. However, Christian Miller, a California-based wine-marketing specialist, has found that the gender gap has actually been narrowing significantly in recent years.
“If you look at attitudes toward trying new wines – like to buy certain varieties – there are generational or age differences,” he says, adding that younger drinkers are more willing to experiment with new varieties and regions. Miller assesses Cupcake’s flagship chardonnay to be “well made, fat, round, low acid, ripe California oaky ... very mainstream. Well executed for its price range.”
The cupcake craze shows no immediate signs of slowing. The phenomenon has now crossed the Atlantic – the British newspaper The Telegraph recently ran a story headlined "Why cupcakes are the new cocaine." There are rumblings, however, about a cupcake bubble, with predictions that a sugar crash must eventually prevail. Whoopie pies are now offering stiff competition for eaters' attentions.
“Frankly, they will go out of fashion,” says Ziegenfus. Nevertheless, he's confident that nimble marketing can keep the Cupcake wine brand fresh.
Over in Beirut, Fadi Jaber, is optimistic: “People will never tire of cupcakes. They have such universal and timeless appeal – or at least I hope so."