Creating a Luxury Brand
Originally from Australia, Bill Williamson and his wife Dawn had been lovers of wine long before creating their California winery.
Bill no doubt, enjoys challenging the status quo.
“We developed a desire to create wines that represent a true luxury brand and to share them with those who recognize that brand as having value.
There's an old saying, "wine is made in the vineyard" so that's where they started.
Wines from a single grape variety will show different flavor characteristics when the grapes are grown in different vineyard locations. The qualities of different vineyard areas, referred to as terroir, can be examined by multiple criteria, including,
- Climate – weather patterns, sun aspect, water supply, etc.
- Geographical - the physical features of the area
- Geological – the physical structure and substance of the vineyard
- Soil Chemistry - the nutrient composition of the soil
- Microbiome - the biological quality of the soil
- Physiology – the biological strength of the vines
The Northern California valleys of Napa and Sonoma Counties proved to have the perfect geographical and geological structures and coincidently perfect climatic conditions for growing exceptional examples of the international wine grape varieties paralleling the most famous Left Bank and Right Bank appellations of France's Bordeaux region.
After acquiring their first vineyard site the Williamson team began working on the soil chemistry, digging 10,000 holes in their vineyards to evaluate their soil nutrient composition; then comparing them against the soils of those Bordeaux vineyards that had produced exceptional wines for centuries.
Williamson also engaged in soil microbiome studies using artificial intelligence and data science to provide a functional interpretation of soil microbiome.
Using this data Williamson were able to develop a more holistic microbiome approach combined with their soil amendment and enrichment methodology.
Applied as part of their certified sustainable farming program they achieved natural maintenance of soil health, enhanced crop productivity and increased varietal flavor profiles without the need for chemical fertilizers.
Williamson were then able to create a ranking of vineyard locations, essentially a ranking of the “terroir” of select vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Ranking wine is considered important for the consumer because it indicates whether a wine of a particular year is good or not. Magazines and web sites rank wines typically using a one-hundred point scale.
Of course it becomes confusing for the consumer when every wine on the planet appears to have been ranked between 85% and 95%, which seems to indicate that wine reviewers believe there is only a 10% difference between mediocre wine and great wine.
However, Williamson have ranked the vineyard terroir and maintained the discipline required to produce quality fruit, resulting in achieving a very good wine consistently year after year.
Even if a vintage one year is affected by some external condition like fire or frost, the diversity of plantings and varietals across a series of vineyards throughout several counties stills allows for the production of consistently good wines.
Williamson acquires vineyards either by purchasing the property or leasing the vineyard and creating a set of farming protocols focused on each individual vineyard.
After agreeing to terms with the landowners to lease small, perfectly situated vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties, the Williamson team takes over management of the vineyard practices to grow low-yield, high-quality premium grapes producing a set of wines called “Icons” that are only available to their club members.
Occasionally, in a year of optimal vintage when all the growing factors have aligned, they also make series of “Historic" and Reserve” wines.
Historic wines are made in small quantities carefully crafted with very similar blends to the historically significant Bordeaux Premier Cru Chateaux wines. These wines are identified by their (reversed) white label instead of the traditional Williamson black label.
Reserves are made in small quantities from those barrels containing the finest examples of the wines. Considered “best-of-the-best” these extraordinary wines are made exclusively to Bill's taste to reflect the best his vineyard management, winemaking and blending efforts can produce.
Bill believes creating an exceptional range of luxury Bordeaux style wines from California's richer, riper fruit instead of simply creating another “Napa Cab” is a worthy challenge and explains his thinking behind it:
- “I understand why Napa and Sonoma winemaking has often been separated.
Napa, with its rich soils and higher temperatures produces powerful, long lasting Cabernet Sauvignon that fetch significantly higher prices and become the privilege of a happy few.
To me, Napa is California’s Left Bank"
“Sonoma has an extreme diversity of terroir influenced by its close proximity to the Pacific Coast.
Much of the soil is sand over clay and gravel in a series of smaller valleys featuring cool nights and temperate days.
Sonoma farming families produce wonderful Merlot, Cabernet Franc and cooler climate Cabernet Sauvignon.
To me, Sonoma is California’s Right Bank”
What about the loss of the attractive "Napa" appellation on your wine label when you blend across these areas?
American wine is sold through a three-tier distribution system. Generally the consumer rarely has more than minimal insight about the winery, the winemaker or the vineyards. Often, choosing a wine is based on a cliché, like, “if it’s a Cab it should have Napa on the label.”
In California, for instance, a vintage-dated Sonoma County wine can include up to 25 percent of other varieties. In addition, up to 15 percent of the wine could come from other appellations and 5 percent from a vintage other than the one on the label. Naturally Bill has a comment about this practice:
- “I am an Australian winemaker with vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, both among the most prestigious, high-quality wine producing appellations in the world.
- Land here is expensive, as are the costs of growing grapes and making wine here.
I do it because of the unique quality and beauty of the wines we can produce here.
I make wines as single-vineyard, single-varietal wines expressing the terroir of their appellation. I make and bottle all five of the Bordeaux Nobel reds as standalone wines and they proudly carry their Napa or Sonoma appellation heritage.
I also appreciate the best qualities of each appellation and blend those standalone wines to produce wines of tradition and elegance.
My blended wines are not distributed to restaurants and stores so I have little concern for appellation or varietal on the label. My customers are not choosing my wine by its label in some supermarket, they actually taste and appreciate the flavor and consistency year over year to determine their own favorites and have them delivered as a regular wine club allocation."
Williamson wines are only available to an elite group of customers via their wine club. Their customer network ranges from individuals and families to professionals and business leaders.
Wine club members remain members of Williamson for years, as Bill says,
- “Our club members are genuine wine lovers, having tasted our wines they decided to join up and have a small allocation of our wines delivered on a regular basis.
- Some are happy to receive their regular wine shipment, perhaps modifying it over time to match their personal taste. With a selection of over forty wines each year and there is a pairing available for virtually every food preference.
- Many members like getting together, which is something we’ve supported for decades now, enjoying parties, trips and dinners together.
- It’s a fun circle and we have all become friends as a result of their membership.”
Williamson also offer a unique club membership for wine lovers engaged in socially conscious service professions with fixed income levels like first responder fire, police and EMT workers, teachers, nurses and active serving military personnel.
Selling the wines only by allocation to club members was the original Williamson concept and over twenty years the club has grown, as Bill indicates,
- “Our membership growth is organic and people stick to it because they like the wine, the food pairings and the sense of community developed by attending events with fellow members who have similar tastes and who, over time, have become friends.
- We may have thousands of members but our team still caters to every member as an individual with respect and friendship.”
Seven months of the year the Williamson team provide multiple parties while twice each year they host food and wine adventure trips with destinations that have included Australia, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, England and Monaco.
Epicurean dinners, an intimate gathering of ten to twelve club members over six courses with wines to match, are held on the first Friday every month at the Home Ranch.
Each year the beginning of harvest is celebrated with a spit-roasted pork feast while the end of harvest is celebrated with a lobster feast. Both events are held in the Home ranch vineyards with club members.
The Williamson Epicurean Kitchen, staffed by an expert creative culinary team, develops recipes to pair with the wines and provides daily exhibitions of food and wine pairings.
New recipes are developed for each wine in every allocation shipment with almost five hundred easy-to-make recipes already published, many supported by videos available on the Williamson Wines YouTube channel.
Bill also works with highly regarded winemakers in Australia under his umbrella of “Sister Wineries” to produce limited releases of premium wines via an auxiliary club called “Bills Cellar” available only to existing wine club members.
Optional Auxiliary clubs provide one bottle from “Bill’s Cellar” each shipment.
The Cheese Club provides different cheese selections paired with the wines of each allocation.
The Spice Club provides a sampling of all-natural spices paired with recipes and wines.
A range of all-natural gourmet foods such as jams, mustards and salts are also available to enhance food flavors when paired with Williamson wines.
These auxiliary club products enable members to experience greater enjoyment from their food and wine choices in their own home every day.
Wine Value, usually reflected in its Price, is a combination of Demand + Cost + Quality + Availability. Williamson truly measures up as great value.
At the end of the day is it a science project, a winery, a culinary adventure, a travel club or a tight-knit group of food and wine lovers who like to party together?
It's actually all of these things and more! A real luxury brand delivering true value to a limited group of fortunate people.