A vintage marketing story uncorks uncommon thinking

Attention bon vivants and lovers of great stories of capitalism gone awry:
Let me tell you about my summer vacation!

For the second year in a row, my family rented a cottage on Keuka Lake, one of New York State’s beautiful Finger Lakes. Carved deep by Ice Age glaciers that left behind vast amounts of melted water and an altered geology that is suitable, if not ideal, for vinifera, Keuka Lake is a hidden treasure for wine and outdoor enthusiasts. Grape growing around the Finger Lakes has produced a viticultural region and a cast of characters each with personalities all their own.

This isn’t Napa Valley folks, but it is just a half-day drive from Philadelphia and, as this summer proved, you can learn a lot from a New Yorker.

Bully HillThe early days of wine growing in the Finger Lakes were fueled by a few dedicated people who banded together against a long list of obstacles and challenges, not the least of which were the brutal winters that swept down from Canada and the Arctic. Today though, the varieties are mostly hybrids suited for success in the rugged climate, and they have yielded mostly successful wineries, which include at least a handful of respectable vintners.

If you decide to venture up Route 15, past Harrisburg and through Watkins Glen for a wine tasting tour of your own, you’ll, no doubt, become instantly intrigued by the whisperings you’ll pick up of one winery in particular. The rumors of Bully Hill might intrigue you, but the tasting and tour will tickle your appreciation for clever marketing.

Bully Hill Winery, producing and bottling 100% of their product on their estate, wasn’t always the success story it is today with three gift shops, a first-rate restaurant, two museums, tasting rooms, huge wine shop and one of the absolutely best views on the entire lake.

A brief history of Bully Hill finds the Taylor (a name you might associate with New York wine) family growing table grapes and fruit for barrel wine along the southern end of the Y-shaped Kueka Lake in the late 1800s. Throughout the following decades, the Taylor family’s operation evolved to include two wineries, advanced viniculture and bottling, which of course lead to retail sales.

To make a long, but very interesting, story a bit shorter– one of the two Taylor wineries was sold in 1977 to the Coca-Cola Company who began large-scale production of Taylor Wines. That same year, the smaller family winery was sued resulting in an unusual directive to destroy historical evidence of the business and, even more injurious, a cease and desist on the business’ use of Taylor name in any way.

In the middle of this extremely heated battle featuring one of the country’s largest corporations and a small, family-owned business was the extremely creative, Walter S. Taylor whose name could no longer be used on the wines that he made and loved. Taylor was a prolific visual artist (one of Bully Hill’s museums is dedicated to his large volume of works in virtually every medium imaginable) and his creative contributions to his family’s business have allowed it to survive and flourish nearly thirty years later.

No longer able to use his own name on his products, Taylor use his original artwork for his wine’s labels. On the most popular, Love My Goat red, he placed a drawing of a goat under the caption, “They have my name and my heritage but they’ll never get my goat.”

The winery that became Bully Hill went on to execute other interesting marketing ventures (official wine of the Buffalo Bills, label art merchandising, commemorative vintages) that, although somewhat disorganized on the surface, are some of the most creative and economical ad hoc branding that I have ever witnessed.

What does a New York winery have to do with the marketing of your company? For one thing, examples of creative business promotion are everywhere you look – even on vacation. Even more important, valuable lessons can be extracted from the reactionary tack that Taylor was forced to take. The potential for bad things to happen to good companies is real, but it’s the creative visionary who can consistently make sweet wine from sour grapes.