I met brand strategist Ross Halleck, owner of Halleck Vineyard in California’s Sonoma valley, a year ago in Orange County. Then I met him again at the Digital Footprint event in Philadelphia last week.
It turns out we had much in common. Halleck has a deep background in tech, having served as CMO and consulted for multiple technology firms. We reminisced about his background with HP, McKesson Corp. and Agilent. He also defines the role of communications in business as broadly as I do, to include friendships, referrals, events and every related element that goes into the ethos of a company and brand.
Then we got to his accomplishment I admire most. Halleck has created a full-on luxury brand (think Hermes, Dom Pérignon, Chopard, Cartier) in less than a lifetime. In fact, he’s established the Halleck Vineyard brand in less than two decades, as the vineyard he acquired in 1993 did not produce its first vintage of Pinot Noir until 1999.
Halleck is a connoisseur of wine like few others. A self-described “New World winemaker with Old World sensibilities” he was first introduced to fine wines in his 20s, by the French. He continues to produce Pinot Noir, Dry Gewurztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc in the benchmark styles established by many years of tradition. All have won national and some international recognition. So what goes into the making of a luxury brand that other entrepreneurs can model?
Halleck was passionate about beginning a vineyard, but didn’t enter the business with the agenda of starting a brand. He put his focus on reaching the highest achievable quality. He made the decision to build a brand only after submitting two bottles of his wine to the 2002 Pinot Noir Summit in San Francisco (unbeknownst to his vintner, Greg Lafollette, who was vehemently opposed to wine competitions). It was an invitation only competition among 217 wineries from the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. The wines were blind tasted by 30 judges over 30 days.
“I realized I had nothing to lose,” Halleck says, “As the iconic wines of our region were all participating, I would at least see how we stacked up. And since no one ever hears about the wines that don’t make the top, my secret was safe.”
The outcome: Halleck’s wine was named Judges’ Choice and acknowledged as the Number 1 Pinot Noir in the United States in 2002. Yes, having a product of exemplary quality and winning a prestigious award was a tremendous benefit. But Halleck maintains that every market category—sunglasses, luggage, fruit preserves, any industry at all—has a “luxury position.” If you choose to go after this position, the following are the principles and strategies you should understand, he believes:
- Be transparent and transferable. There are fewer secrets in the making of a luxury brand than you might think. As with many high challenges, the process relies upon people working together who share a vision and a passion to accomplish great things. He suggests that a luxury brand requires DNA2.
- Respect Derivation. A luxury brand requires history. In art, they call it “Provenance” (meaning “to come from”). The chronology, the third party validation and the history (even if it’s a short history) validate the status of a luxury brand.
- Exude Nobility. This includes your ingredients, your intentions and you actions and has to pervade the way you do business. Customers see and experience the nobility in your products and services. A luxury brand must empower and inspire.
- Proceed with Authenticity. This is true for every brand and business, but is especially vital of a luxury product. “It’s gotta be real.”
- Find the Ardor. If you love what you do, people sense it and they want to experience it with you. It’s the ultimate differentiator. This must come from “within”; look there for the green lights that give you the signal to move forward.
- Embrace the Mystery. A luxury brand will always imbue an aura of mystery. But “mystery” also denotes the surrender of control. “In the case of a winery, a vintner is dealing with Mother Nature,” Halleck remarks. “You are in a dance with Gaia; she has big feet and always leads. I walk the vineyard twice a day and see the shoots grow 3” sometimes between morning and evening. It’s humbling to realize I’m playing a bit part in a miracle that requires us to be, in some ways, expressions of God.”
In Halleck’s case, the wine is purposely exclusive. It is not available through retail and customers must purchase by becoming members of the vineyard’s wine club, its Inner Circle.. The club participates in at least two events every month, some designed around the philanthropic desires of its members. These proceeds go to the cause of the members who choose the locale and often serve as the hosts. Other events are selected to celebrate life, such as going to see “Hamilton” in NYC, or taking a group to Cuba to enjoy meals with the best chefs in the island country. Halleck Vineyard’s Inner Circle is “building community through wine” all around the world.
Is social media effective? In Halleck’s case, not so much. “We’re about community, we have a substantial following, but we haven’t cracked the social media code.”
He has, however, established a Google authority site, Wine.net, that contains no advertising, no references whatsoever to the site’s ownership, and is not used for promotion. “I’ve authored a lot of the articles,” Halleck says.
In all, however, Halleck sees wine as the ultimate connecter of people. The connections and the bonding over great ideas and philanthropic endeavors is deepened through the sharing of exemplary and high quality wines. It is a strategy that has been highly successful in that it’s been meaningful to all who are part.