Case study: Red Bike
Red Bicyclette, the French table wine brand that the giant California wine company E & J Gallo hopes to make the largest-selling French wine import in the U.S. by the year after next, has begun rolling onto American shores.
Red Bicyclette launched in Illinois in July, sporting a jaunty, sunny yellow label featuring a cartoon character of a bicycle-riding Frenchman with a beret and a white dog in tow, toting a baguette and a bottle. Its Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah varietal wines moved onto retail shelves in the rest of the nation last month. (Its availability in the rest of the world is less certain, perhaps because Gallo has locked up much of the production of the Limoux-based maker, Les Caves du Sieur d'Arques, for U.S. import.)
Another $10 French wine in a glutted market? One might be excused for responding, "Ho hum!"
But that would underestimate Gallo's often demonstrated marketing prowess. The Modesto (Calif.) Bee, Gallo's home town newspaper, took a deeper look at the phenomenon in a somewhat PR-ish but intriguing article last month.
"Suppose you wanted to introduce a new wine label to compete with the thousands of wines in the market," wrote Bee reporter Tim Moran. "To add to the challenge, you choose to develop a new French wine brand, at a time when the French wine industry is in a tailspin, battered by exchange rates, a stodgy image and fallout from political decisions. What do you do? Buy some bulk French wine, slap a label on it and hope it sells?
"Not if you are E.&J. Gallo Winery. The Modesto-based wine behemoth leaves nothing to chance. The creation of its new French wine, Red Bicyclette, is an example of the level of marketing sophistication Gallo applies to brand development."
The long article is worth a look, online in the Bee's archives at
One approach focused on consumer attitudes toward France - bearing in mind that the project began just as the U.S. went to war in Iraq - and concluded that even Americans who held negative stereotypes about France tended to find images of small villages in the French countryside warm and inviting. They studied thousands of photos to come up with a label that would "represent the French countryside for consumers."
Meanwhile, Gallo mustered tasting experts to create a series of "sensory maps" of popular grape varietieties, seeking to identify as many as 30 to 45 specific styles for each, based on such varying characteristics as acidity, oakiness, body and flavor. Then they invited panels of consumers - essentially "focus groups" - to taste and rank samples, making it possible for Gallo to gauge how its brands align with consumer preferences.
"It takes all the subjectivity out of it," Gallo Marketing VP Iain Douglas told the Bee. "What do consumers want, what do they like, are we able to deliver a range of Chardonnays by brand." Added Marketing VP Gerry Glasgow: "It's not an opinion - it's what the American market wants. It's proven to be a very effective tool for us."
The conventional wisdom among the wine press has been that Red Bicyclette aims at the same "lifestyle" market niche as Yellow Tail and Little Penguin from Australia and Fat Bastard from France: Simple, affordable, slightly sweet and slurpable wines marketed through attractive and sometimes zany packaging.
As New York Times wine columnist Frank Prial wrote last month, "Studies have shown that 90 percent of all wine drunk in this country is consumed within 30 days after it is purchased, indicating that aging and cellaring are irrelevant for most consumers. Like Yellow Tail, the new Gallo line of French wines, Red Bicyclette, counts on a catchy name and clever packaging - not wine snobbery - to make sales."
But based on my first tasting of the Merlot, Red Bicyclette falls into a somewhat different category. It's a palatable, even interesting dry red table wine in the Southern French tradition, but if it was intended as a direct competitor to Yellow Tail and its peers, it emerged in a significantly different style. As far as I'm concerned, that's a plus.
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Red Bicyclette 2003 Merlot Vin de Pays d'Oc ($9.99)
Very dark reddish-purple, almost black. Attractive if restrained aromas display perfumed blackberry and dried-cherry fruit and hints of spice. Black fruit and spice notes carry over on the palate in a tart, dry and somewhat austere flavor with subtle herbal notes of anise and tarragon and soft but obvious tannins in the background. U.S. importer: Red Bicyclette USA (Gallo), Harward, Calif. (Oct. 21, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with an Italian-style braised beef rump roast.
VALUE: Meets but does not exceed the competition at $10, the "sale" price at Cost Plus Wine World, a new local wine shop; Web searching turns up many vendors offering it at $8 or less, at which point it's more persuasive.
WHEN TO DRINK: Not a wine to age, but it should keep on the wine rack for a year or two.
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Friday, Oct. 22, 2004