The brand builder: an interview with Dennis Carroll

Wednesday, 13. December 2017 - 15:45

Dennis Carroll (front) with winemakers

What Dennis Carroll doesn’t know about wine brands probably isn’t worth knowing. In a career spanning just over two decades, Carroll has not only created, sold and built major wine brands, but he’s taken existing brands and revitalized them.

After graduating as an accountant, he became a founding member of a new San Francisco wine and spirits store called Beverages and More in 1994. That venture has since become BevMo!, a West Coast powerhouse with more than 145 stores. Carroll parlayed this experience into his own wine consultancy, whose projects included facilitating the sale of Blackstone to Constellation.

In 2001, Carroll co-founded the Sonoma-based Purple Wine Company, which produces both branded wines and private label wines for retailers and restaurants. During his tenure, the company built a number of popular brands, such as Mark West, which was sold to Constellation in 2012. After leaving the Purple Wine Company, Carroll founded Wine Hooligans, which now has five wine brands, four winemakers and himself as Head Hooligan.

One of Wine Hooligan’s most successful projects has been the revitalization of the Cycles Gladiator brand, which had suffered from a volume-driven corporate strategy. Another notable success has been Broadside Wines, which partnered with Wine Hooligans in 2014 with a view to extending distribution and developing an affordable Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2015, the new wine was named as one of Eric Asimov’s Fall Wines: 20 under $20.00, and found a home in more than 30 new markets.

In short, Dennis Carroll is very good at wine brands. The below interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

After you sold Mark West, why did you get back into the wine business rather than, say, heading for the beach?

You know, I’m not young but I’m not old quite yet and I still wanted to do some things in the wine business. It was a great brand, but there wasn’t necessarily a Mark West behind it. I wanted to take a different approach, with authenticity behind it – real brands, real places, real people.

When did you found Wine Hooligans?

It was founded in 2013 and we started shipping in 2014. It was based on the relationships I built at Purple Wine Company – we had those distribution networks.

How many brands did you start from scratch for your new venture, and how many did you buy?

I bought three; I acquired three and developed two. I brought Broadside, Cycles Gladiator and Stephen Vincent. We bought Cycles from a company called Hahn Estates. It had been a very successful brand and I had always really liked the label, but they had changed the label. The label was an old French bicycle company that represented empowering women during the Belle Epoque era, so it was interesting visually. I happened to know the original winemaker, Adam LaZarre, and I thought it was a refurbishing project. I knew what I was up against, but I was able to hire Adam and he stepped right back in. We shored up the wine quality and I went back to the original label, with some modification.

How do you refurbish a brand?

Everything in the States starts with your distributor network, so you have to convince your distributors that it’s worth their time and effort to partner up with you and go out and reintroduce the consumers to the wine. It is an additional step in the sales process to say, ‘hey you guys, remember this brand? We’ve taken the qualities that were good before and brought them back and we want to introduce it, hopefully with help from restaurant partners’. Your distributors have to think that it’s worth it to reintroduce it.

Did you buy distribution with the brands?

About half and half. We had some distribution with distributors in place that we moved the brand to and we kept it with some of the distributors we were with. Over the last three and a half years, we’ve basically moved the brand to a different distributor base.

How do you create brands from scratch?

I always look at the market first and determine what may work. We developed two brands. One is called Sea Monster, which is a white blend, and then 3-Ball, a tri-appellated Zinfandel from three growing areas in California. [Creating it] was more of a person issue than whether we need another one. There was a fellow by the name of Christian Tietje and he was the founder and winemaker of a pretty successful Zinfandel brand back in the 2000s and he wanted to do the project. We wanted to see if we could bring a different profile to Zinfandel at a $14.99 shelf price, which usually goes from pretty sweet to heavy fruit and doesn’t really move much from there. Our Zinfandel is lighter and a different taste profile and we thought it would do well in the market. It’s done OK.

Where are the wines made?

We have a small little winery down in Paso Robles and then we have a crush facility and use production services.

We have a whole revenue stream, or a side of the business, where we will develop labels and the wines specifically for a retailer. We don’t distribute them, we just make them. We own the brands and that’s a nice, augmented business.

What is the artisan aspect of the wines?

It is the winemaker – I equate the artistry of winemaking with a winemaker who is involved in it. Each of our brands has got a winemaker who’s dedicated to that brand.

Who is the target for your wines?

For the small portfolio brands, what I’ll call the national branded items, we operate in the $14.99 to $19.99 or even $24.99 area, so the wines are really targeted to your everyday wine drinkers who wants good value for what they’re paying, but is a click above the $7.99 or $9.99 guys. They’re looking for a bit better constructed and a bit better pedigree, but still everyday drinking.

What do look for in a brand?

If I look at the three acquisitions, Broadside was one that had ten vintages under their belt. They were successful in a limited amount of markets, so it worked, it just wasn’t widely distributed. The press was good, wine writers loved it, it was an on-premise brand so that was attractive and we could increase the distribution and spread the brand out. That’s something I always look for. It’s been successful, it’s basically in New York, California and Hawaii and there are many markets in which I thought it could work.

If you come to me and you want to sell me a brand and it doesn’t necessarily fit one category that makes it work, there has to be an opportunity there that I see that we can capitalize on. The critical part of that – beyond seeing the opportunity – is also, ‘are these the people I want to bring into the company? Are they committed to do what they need to do to make the brand grow?’ I don’t just buy the brand – we need the people.

Where do you want to take Wine Hooligans?

At present, we probably do a little shy of 120,000 cases. We’d like to see the portfolio grow to a million cases in five to seven years.
Interview by Felicity Carter