American tourists who come to the Cayman Islands and are introduced to the Napa Valley red wine Six Eight Nine often return to the US and try to buy the wine at their favourite retail shop, but they can’t. Curtis McBride, the producer of Six Eight Nine explained the reasons for that during a recent trip to Grand Cayman for the Taste of Cayman food and wine festival.
Chances are, any Cayman Islands resident who has attended or hosted a party, or eaten out at a bar or restaurant in the past couple of years has seen or tried the Napa Valley red wine blend called Six Eight Nine.
For a number of reasons that include origin, taste and price point, Six Eight Nine has become popular in the Cayman Islands to the point of ubiquity. But the wine is virtually unknown to residents of the United States unless they have travelled overseas.
Premier Wine Group, the company that produces Six Eight Nine, is a company that has been distributing California wines to more 20 countries outside of the United States since the late 1990s. Premier’s Managing Director, Curtis McBride, said he got the idea of creating Six Eight Nine after looking at what the overseas wine market needed.
When McBride launched Premier Wine Group, the initial idea was to establish new distribution channels outside of the United States for high-end Napa Valley wines.
Over the years, he was able to do that, taking on iconic Napa Valley wineries like Paul Hobbs, Plumpjack and CADE, as well as adding some high-end Sonoma Valley wineries like Patz & Hall. The company sold wines in Asia, Africa, Europe, Canada and in many Caribbean islands. Along the way, as he got to know the consumer markets in his distribution countries better, he noticed something when it came to blended wines.
“As my business grew, I saw there were certain areas, certain niches, not being met,” he said. “There was a void in the market.”
Many of the Napa Valley wine blends making it into overseas markets fell into one of two categories; low quality, inexpensive wines or high quality expensive wines, There weren’t a lot of wines aimed at the middle of the market
“I thought about it and said to myself, ‘there’s an opportunity here’.”
McBride decided to develop a easy-drinking blended wine from California varietals using Napa Valley grapes.
The name and label image
When trying to come up with a name for his wine, McBride mentioned it to a friend of his in Asia, where he visits frequently.
The friend later called him and said, “Write this down: six, eight, nine,” and he told McBride to look it up.
“Numerology is big in the Asian culture,” he said. “When I looked it up, I saw that six was the number for happiness; eight was the number for wealth; and nine was the number for longevity. Those three things are a little bit of what we’re all looking for.”
But having the name Six Eight Nine for the wine was only part of the problem.
“[The name] turned out to be the easy part of putting the package together,” McBride said, adding that he still needed a marketable label image to go with the name. He hired someone to take his Six Eight Nine name concept and what it stood for and to create a label image. However, nothing they created captured his vision.
Then one day he was talking on the telephone to a client who was complaining about something and he idly drew a ‘6’ right on top of a ‘9’. He noticed that the when he drew the six and nine together, the circle parts of the numbers could be combined to form an ‘8’ in the middle.
McBride said he told the client he would call him back and started using coloured pens to draw different elements of the image to make the eight stand out. Just like that, McBride had developed an image with almost yin-and-yang symbolism.
The Six Eight Nine label image problem was solved.
Production and concept
The initial bottling of Six Eight Nine occurred in 2008 with 4,000 cases. McBride doubled that production for the 2009 vintage. In 2010, 10,000 cases were produced and they sold out a month earlier than expected. There were 15,000 cases produced for the newly released 2011 vintage.
The idea has always been to only sell Six Eight Nine to the international market, partially because all of Premier Wine Group’s distribution channels are overseas.
“We don’t distribute anything in the US,” he said, adding that he gets emails all the time from Americans who tried and liked Six Eight Nine when travelling overseas and they want to know where they can find it in the US.
McBride said that he wanted to develop a wine that overseas distributors could get behind precisely because it wasn’t available inexpensively in the US, as many of the mid-range wines are.
The concept has worked, not only in Cayman but in many countries where Premier distributes. Part of the key is that McBride only uses Napa Valley grapes for his wines because Napa Valley is a internationally recognised brand.
“I’m delivering Napa at a price point that’s approachable,” he said.
The Premier Wine Group doesn’t own any wine growing property and instead buys the grapes to make the wine from other growers. The positive aspect of that is that when there’s a bad growing year – like in 2011 – McBride isn’t tied to any one property and he can look to vineyards that fared better in a low yielding or bad vintage year. The flip side of that is that sourcing grapes can be difficult.
“The challenge for me is… that there’s not a lot of fruit coming out of Napa. How do I keep delivering it from year to year to year from Napa?”
Names and labels and marketing concepts are all important, but in the end, people will only continue to buy a product if they like it. Making Six Eight Nine appeal to people’s palates was the final part of the equation.
McBride said he wanted an easy-drinking wine that wasn’t not too tannic and didn’t have a very high alcohol content.
“I enjoy Zinfandel,” he said. “It’s a fun grape varietal to work with, but I find sometimes it can be a little too big – too much alcohol.”
By blending Zinfandel with four of Napa Valley’s other common varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petite Sirah – McBride was able to create the kind of taste he was looking for.
He said the idea when making the wine was to create a layered approach with Zinfandel – the primary grape in the blend – giving the fruitiness to the flavour, the Cabernet structure, the Merlot roundness and the Petite Sirah backbone.
The result is something McBride thinks works and if the steady increase of sales is any indication, so do consumers.
“It’s a nice, smooth, fruit-driven blend with less alcohol,” he said, noting that Six Eight Nine has a 13.5 per cent alcohol content. By contrast, many Napa Cabernets have alcohol contents of 14.5 per cent or higher and Zinfandel has alcohol contents starting around 15.5 per cent and many go higher than that.
McBride thinks his trademarked Six Eight Nine logo is perfect for the wine.
“That’s what the wine is about; individual parts all coming together as one.”.