Colorless glass reveals a light, almost greenish wine. A lipstick-red label is meant to pop out on an endless shelf of Chardonnays. A refrigerator magnet hanging off the neck offers a little quip--a tiny white lie, like "I never snack between meals"--to catch the eye.
Beringer Blass Wine Estates (BBWE) clearly wants everyone to know how different White Lie is. Grapes from Santa Barbara are picked at just 21[degrees] Brix; a portion of the wine goes into a spinning cone, bringing alcohol down to 9.8%, closer to German Riesling than the hefty style emblematic of California Chardonnay. A 5-ounce serving clocks in at a modest 97 calories.
BBWE, now owned by Foster's, has positioned White Lie as a wine tailored to women, from the girl-talk name to a promotion with chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed, In Her Shoes). The company says its latest project simply responds to feedback from women weary of a typical domestic wine's alcoholic punch. Fewer calories don't hurt, but the hope is that White Lie, priced under $10, can win back women too worried about groggy mornings to pour themselves a glass.
"Women today, given our schedules and time, need to be 100% on our best game," says Tracey Mason, Beringer's director of innovation.
It's no secret that White Lie has sparked more than its share of controversy. Why? Not because of what's in the bottle. The wine itself is inoffensive--a domestic Chardonnay with the volume turned down. Still, it has become a poster child for the wine industry's obsession with marketing to women, the latest skirmish in an endless war to win over the three-quarters of Americans who don't drink wine.
Yet women already buy more than their share of everyday wine--accounting for 60% of all wine buyers, according to well-circulated Wine Market Council (WMC) data, and purchasing nearly 80% of wine sold, by volume. While men drive the market for expensive wines, women dominate in wine under $15 per bottle, which happens to be the segment targeted by projects like White Lie.
"Gosh, I don't know who else we've been marketing to for the past 30 years," says John Gillespie of the research firm Wine Opinions (and president of WMC).
Gillespie acknowledges a gender gap, but it's in how men and women appreciate wine's characteristics. In research presented last May, he found women more responsive when Cabernet Sauvignon was described as having "jammy fruit," while men responded to wine called "heavy" and "full-bodied." And yet more men than women--40% vs. 21%--expressed concern about high alcohol.
Value brands like [yellow tail], Barefoot and Smoking Loon have moved millions of cases using a well-established, widely copied formula that appeals to both women and men: vibrant colors, quirky labels and a casual image.
Bellevue, Wash.-based Rainier Wine tried to revise that combination with its Mad Housewife Chardonnay. A typical value Chardonnay, it is selected from 100 samples served to all-female panels and produced by an undisclosed grower-bottler in San Martin, Calif. But Rainier ditched the cute animals in favor of a stylized 1950s-era housewife wielding a spatula.
And the name, obviously, is a flashpoint. While Rainier co-founder Mike Lynch acknowledges older female consumers might be turned off, he bets the kitschy approach will resonate with under-40 drinkers.
"Women respond and say, 'That's me, I'd like to be your mad housewife,'" Lynch says.
At $6.99 suggested retail, Rainier's effort is intended as an eye-catching impulse buy. Lynch has tried to convince 200-plus retailers who stock his wine, including major Northwest grocers like QFC, to place it on the fringes of the wine department or in locations, like the produce aisle, where shoppers are making food purchases.
Others have jumped into the wine-for-women fray. O'Brien Cellars in Napa offers Seduction, a $28 Bordeaux-style blend wrapped in sheer scarlet fabric. Barton O'Brien has said the presentation was inspired by perfume designs and his wife's insistence that women warm to elegant packaging.
And Olympic Cellars on Washington's Olympic Peninsula has its own line--Go Girl Red, Rose the Riveter and Working Girl White--each with its own stylized label painting of a woman relaxing with a wine glass. (For guys, there's Handyman Red.) The winery donates some profits to charities that help women.
But White Lie's girl-power pitch, and Mad Housewife's wink-at-stereotypes packaging ("The dishes can wait. Dinner be damned."), have galvanized women across the wine industry. It especially grates among female winemakers--many of whom have endured years of "women make wine, too" stories in the man's world of wine magazines. None quibble with the notion of attracting more women to wine, but some question the method.
"The idea of someone trying to sell me something, when they put a gimmick on it, makes me recoil," says Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels of Arbor Crest Wine Cellars in Spokane, Wash.
Rather than target women, wineries might aim for the overall under-$15 market--a crucial move, notes Eileen Fredrikson of research group Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, because most female wine drinkers shop in that price range.
It's also a category in which previous wine-for-women efforts failed miserably. Fredrikson recounts several unfortunate projects, from a 1970s wine cooler packaged like a perfume bottle (O'Brien might take note) to diet wines and frou-frou pointillist 1980s labels meant to evoke a feminine touch.
"That was just a turnoff to women who thought that they were being approached in an emotional way, not an intellectual way," Fredrikson says. "You have to make the woman piece of it pretty subtle, I think."
BBWE's Mason insists White Lie has little in common with such "terrible" earlier efforts. But market research suggests winemakers' real priority should be to help younger consumers--especially the 70 million "Echo Boomer" offspring of the original baby boom--more easily fit wine into their lives.
"That's the key issue for the wine industry," Gillespie says.
One approach has been to find packaging options more convenient than the trusty 750ml bottle. The 1.5L Wine Block box, from Kendall-Jackson's Select Division Brands, can be effortlessly tucked into a spare corner of the fridge. And in May, Australian wine giant Southcorp released four wines from its popular Lindemans brand in 187ml mini bottles, sold at $1.99 to $2.25 per serving. (Minis of its Little Penguin value brand are also planned.)
Though 187s aren't new, few premium brands have yet embraced the format. And though one press release invokes Wine for Women author Leslie Sbrocco, Southcorp deliberately avoided overtly pitching Lindemans minis to female drinkers.
"Women are no different than men when it comes to selecting a brand of wine," says Doug Rogers, senior vice president of marketing for Southcorp the Americas. "They don't want something that's been dumbed down or made more girly."
True, minis are costly to produce, but they help shift wine purchases outside the wine aisle. And with 67.4% of consumers purchasing wine at grocery stores and supermarkets, according to ACNielsen Scantrak, it's essential to reposition wine as a convenient weeknight drink.
The most complicated part of this strategy, in fact, is the need to convince retailers they should stock single-serve wine bottles in the beer cooler or next to the deli counter, not between four-packs of White Zinfandel. "I've always thought that they would be great at the end of the salad bar," Fredrikson suggests.
Where female wine buyers remain scarce is in the male-dominated market for collectible wines--accounting for just 20% of the domestic market above $25 per bottle.
Winemaker Merry Edwards of Windsor, Calif., has at times ditched marketing ideas--like custom note cards--because they wouldn't appeal to affluent male customers who buy her $27-and-up Pinot Noir wines.
Yet she believes packaging can easily appeal to both sexes. Stylized, subtle illustrations of dancing, naked women grace her Sauvignon Blanc labels. Her Pinot labels feature a woman's hands (hers, namely) tending grapes, with colors that stand out in dim restaurant lighting.
Edwards admires how value brands attract new drinkers to wine. But during her 31-year career, she has observed that brand impressions--radio ads touting Bronco's Forest Glen, for instance--prove more effective than any wine-for-women pitches.
"I guess I would much rather see something like [yellow tail] than I would White Lie," Edwards says.
Winemakers might also want to consider the power of celebrity. "Sideways" excepted, wine is all but sidelined in pop culture. Even on Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," wine guru Ted Allen frequently raises a glass but hardly ever recommends wines. (This may be changing--Allen recently signed a deal to endorse Mondavi wines.)
Yet Alpana Singh, the 28-year-old sommelier at Chicago's Everest restaurant, notes Cristal's fevered popularity after stars like 50 Cent and P. Diddy made it the hip-hop Champagne of choice.
Perhaps winemakers should worry less about pretty packaging, Singh suggests, and work to place wine on the tables of popular female TV characters. The always-frazzled women of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" sure look like they could use a drink.
"If they do a soliloquy about Gewurztraminer," Singh predicts, "sales of Gewurztraminer are going to skyrocket."
RELATED ARTICLE: Phylloxera Battle Recounted In New Book
In The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine Was Saved for the World, British journalist Christy Campbell tells the tale of phylloxera's invasion of France, and the vintners, botanists, geneticists and entomologists who fought to save the wine industry. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, it's $24.95 in hardcover.
(Jon Bonne is the lifestyle editor and wine columnist for MSNBC.com. He is based in Seattle. Contact him through winesandvines.com.)