The Sisterhood: Breaking the rules to sell wine to women

Wine Sisterhood's community outreach includes "Around the World in 80 Sips" events.
Wine Sisterhood's community outreach includes "Around the World in 80 Sips" events.

How an upstart brand is nurturing its own grapevine of female consumers

Is wine aimed specifically at women only a passing novelty, or is it breaking new ground in lifestyle marketing?

Wine Sisterhood, the California wine company that makes and markets the Wine Sisterhood and Middle Sister wine brands, is a good place to find an answer. Known for consumer crowdsourcing some of its wine blends — blasphemy in an industry that reveres star winemakers — and relying heavily on social media and lifestyle content, the company produced about 300,000 cases last year, making it a solid mid-size player. Three years ago it was producing about a third of that volume. All its brands retail for $12 to $15.

More from Joan Voight: Are "chick wines" smart or just silly?

"Using social media and consumer input to develop wine brands has had a direct impact on our sales growth," said Mary Ann Vangrin, co-founder and director of social media and communications. "When we go into a retailer with a label redesign or a new brand, it helps that the change has been evaluated and voted on by the Wine Sisterhood social network. It’s the ultimate third-party endorsement." On top of that, "our customers have been more loyal because they are a part of the process," she said.

The marketplace is fertile for any wine that can win over women. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 46% of women who drink alcohol say they drink wine most often and that they enjoy four glasses a week. In contrast, only 17% of male drinkers sip wine more often than beer or liquor.

Earlier this year, the Middle Sister brand crowdsourced ideas for a revamped label and in May the new packaging will be unveiled by Clever Girls Collective, a content and social media agency with a network of lifestyle bloggers. The wine company will amplify that message through its own social networks, including nearly 400,000 Facebook fans.

The Wine Sisterhood broke rules practically from the start. Seven years ago it was founded — not around a storied winery or wine family — but rather as a business that would create a community for women and also sell wine.  Since being acquired by Vintage Wine Estates in June 2014,  "our focus on building community to generate loyalty and sales is more important than ever," Vangrin insisted.

Along with wine events, this year’s outreach initiatives include Wine Sisterhood TV, consisting of videos about wine, food, travel, entertainment and style; book recommendations for Women’s History Month; and ideas for hosting a "Game of Thrones" viewing party.

In many ways, chick wines like Middle Sister are learning from the craft beer boom, with its irreverent gender-focused products like Fat Bastard Ale and its insider vibe. It makes sense that the idiosyncratic ethos of craft beer would eventually expand to wine, said Andrea Van Dam, CEO of media agency Women’s Marketing Inc. "We’ve seen that the female consumer, particularly the Millennial, is looking for authenticity and personality in everything she buys."

Rina Plapler, a partner at brand agency MBLM, agreed.  "Niche, craft wines allow people to subtly show that they are not part of the crowd who drink only well-known, popular brands," she said. "Allowing a women to showcase herself as a true insider can create very strong bonds and a level of brand intimacy that more mainstream brands are unable to compete with."

And here’s the twist: Men are happily welcomed into the women’s wine club. "While the Wine Sisterhood community is clearly female-focused, we always invite ‘Wine Misters’ to join us," Vangrin said. Male wine drinkers, in fact, account for about 15% of the brand’s followers. The Sisterhood also promotes a sibling brand of red wines, called Purple Cowboy, designed to appeal to both men and women.

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