Early on November 1, New Zealander Erica Crawford enthusiastically tweets her Twitter followers, telling them that today, at last, is bottling day for the new organic Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc.
Loveblock is her husband Kim’s first new product, other than contract deals, since leaving the company which owns his trademark name, and it has been years in the making. There is reason for her excitement.
Within days, however, she has deleted the message. When you’ve sold your name for close to 60 million New Zealand dollars ($49.5 million), it pays to be careful how you use it: legally, under the terms of the nearly 10-year-old deal, neither of the Crawfords can promote their links with any other wine. But with the explosion of social media, it’s easy to slip up when your name is no longer just your own, but rather someone else’s business.
In 2003, when the Crawfords sold their brand to Canadian wine giant Vincor it created ripples of interest. Not because wine company sales were rare in New Zealand – after all, Wither Hills had gone to Lion Nathan, and Montana to Allied Domecq (now part of Pernod Ricard) – but because millions had been paid purely for the name, with no physical assets such as a vineyard or buildings. About NZ$18 million was exchanged up front, with the balance contained in an earn-out clause over the five years the Crawfords remained in the business to drive up sales and exports.
While Erica Crawford says they always intended to build up, then sell the Crawford brand – and neither regrets the deal – it happened much sooner than they planned, and “hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
“It has implications not only for us, but for other people,” Erica adds. The Crawford's 18-year-old son, Rory, is to begin studying winemaking this year but he, too, will be unable to use the Crawford name to promote any wine he might make in the future.
The deleted tweet was a reminder of just how onerous the conditions of the deal are, a decade on. “It may be that I am too cautious,” says Erica. “But yes, it is hard, believe me.”
Erica says she would never name a brand after a person again. “It places tremendous responsibility on the bearer. While things are going well, it’s sweet sailing. But should things go badly, it smears the brand.”
And yet, ironically, a scandal that came closest to derailing the Crawford brand soon after its launch was also responsible for defining its wildly successful essence. It was, says Erica, the brand that said “fuck you” to the establishment.
The 1998 scandal involved a furor over mislabeling by Kim Crawford's former employer, Coopers Creek. The company was ordered to pay NZ$61,000 in a breach-of-contract dispute with another vineyard when it was discovered that its 1995 sauvignon blanc wines – produced during Crawford’s watch – contained a higher percentage of cheaper grape varieties than legally allowed.
“It was a time when the industry was very, very loose,” Kim says now. “At the time, there was a comment from another prominent winemaker who said, ‘If that’s all he’s done, it should be fine.’ There were a lot worse things going on than what we were doing. I was doing as I was asked as a consultant winemaker. I was making wines to a certain style.”
Kim was overseas when the scandal broke, and Erica remembers trying to manage the fallout on her own, while coping with two small children, Pia, now 17, and Rory, and the terminal illness of her father in South Africa. “It was horrific. It was my baptism of fire.”
However, she was determined that the Kim Crawford brand would not fail. It was all they had. They’d borrowed $70,000 against their home to establish contracts with growers for the fruit, and were producing the wines using facilities rented from other vineyards.
“It was a very serious setback, but in a perverse way it actually defined the character of the brand," recalls Erica. "People were skeptical about Kim and the brand carried his name. The only thing we could do was to go underground and say, ‘We will show you.’ We were fighting the industry establishment, the old blazers. Maverick was the whole brand. I did the only thing I knew how and said, ‘Bring it on.’ That’s very much my attitude.”
But while relationships with some industry heavyweights had soured, the Crawfords had strong pockets of support in other quarters, most famously among the gay community in the North Island city of Auckland. The label later produced a rosé called Pansy! which went on to be marketed internationally as “the world’s first gay wine.”
More than 10 years later, “bring it on” is still used as the positioning statement that defines the Kim Crawford brand, even though the Crawfords themselves are long gone. Does that matter? Brand strategist Jill Brinsdon thinks not, admitting that she "wouldn't have a clue" who Kim Crawford is. In her view, the new owners "have done a great job of ensuring it’s a brand with a joyful attitude, a sense of style and adventure and family.”
Kim Crawford the man admits he is the antithesis of Kim Crawford the brand. He’s a country boy, while the brand shrieks city. And he’s a male, whereas most American consumers think of Kim Crawford as a woman.
The Crawfords were among the first New Zealand winemakers to gain a toehold in the United States. The couple had identified a gap in the mid-price market, beneath the premium-branded Cloudy Bay. Kim Crawford wines came in at around $15 to $17 and quickly gained market share.
Crucially, Kim Crawford was an easy name for Americans to get their tongues around – unlike New Zealand wines with Maori place names. And the Crawfords did not tinker with the wine for the U.S. market.
“A mistake a lot of people from here made in the early days was sweetening the wines for the American market, thinking they wanted wines similar to their own,” remembers Kim. “Whereas we went in with the standard wine which went around the world and it was completely different to what they were used to, so you had a point of difference."
He adds: "American wine generally is over-valued; if you put a New Zealand wine at $15 against a U.S. equivalent, we slaughter them.” Today, Kim Crawford is the biggest-selling New Zealand brand by value in the United States (IRI, quarter ending December 2, 2012).
Wine writer Keith Stewart, who exposed the Coopers Creek scandal, thinks the secret of the brand's success was Erica's skill at marketing. "She understands the game and gets on with it. It’s not about ego, it’s about doing it properly, and I find that really refreshing in the wine industry, where there are probably more charlatans per square meter than anywhere else in the world.”
He adds that Erica “marketed Kimmie. She really pushed him, the good Kiwi bloke, the sort of guy you’d like to have a pie and a beer with.”
Stewart now can have that pie and beer – a quintessential New Zealand combination – but says the winemaker didn’t talk to him for years after he broke the Coopers Creek story. He describes Crawford as a “very good technical winemaker. He makes very clean, precise wines. They don’t have the wow factor, in my experience, but they’ll always be good wines and that’s why commercially they’re very sound.”
So why did the Crawfords sell their company to Vincor in 2003?
“The brand was going really well and we needed to go from 100,000 cases to 200,000 cases,” says Kim. “We couldn’t get bank funding, so we had to bring capital in – through five or six equity partners or through selling the brand. I was happier dealing with one person [Vincor] rather than five.”
Constellation Brands, the world’s largest wine company, bought Vincor for $1.3 billion in 2006. Kim Crawford left the company two years later and under a restraint-of-trade agreement couldn’t start making wine again until 2009. “I had some time doing nothing, but it was too early to retire because you had no one to play with.”
But the Crawfords were biding their time. Soon after the sale to Vincor the couple bought the 100 hectares of land they now call Loveblock – their organic vineyard in Marlborough’s Awatere Valley on the South Island of New Zealand. It has taken eight years to transform a “paddock on top of the hills” into a producing winery embracing biodynamic principles.
“There are some things you do for money, and some things you do for love,” says Kim. “This is not for money.
Ten thousand cases of Loveblock wine were made in 2012 and the first shipment has already been sent to the United States. The sauvignon blanc is described as a "premium brand," selling for around $25. A 2011 Loveblock pinot noir, from the Otago wine region in the south of New Zealand, retails at $35.
Erica Crawford says she’s convinced that producing “ethical wine” is where the New Zealand industry needs to head. Keith Stewart agrees. “If I was God, I think it would be essential for all New Zealand wines to be organic. It’s not better-quality wine, but about how you manage the land. Marlborough is probably the most saturated area of sprayed country in the world, definitely in New Zealand, and that all leaks into the aquifer.”
So what if, some time in the future, on this patch of organic land, Kim Crawford makes a wine better than all the rest. Won't he be sorry that he can't name it Crawford? He says no.
Kim has already named wines after his children: Pia has a “complex, opinionated and challenging wood-aged sauvignon blanc,” and “Brut Rory” is “bubbly, youthful and full of life.”
“I haven’t yet made a wine good enough to be called Erica. Hopefully, I’ll be good enough one day.”
*Adapted from an article that first appeared in Metro magazine.
Some popular Kim Crawford wines and their prices on Wine-Searcher:
|Wine Name||Color||Min Price||Avg. Price|
|Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough||$7||$16|
|Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay, New Zealand||$12||$16|
|Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, Marlborough||$13||$18|
|Kim Crawford SP Small Parcel SpitFire Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough||$20||$21|