They're making macho merlot in California wine country. Hot on the stiletto heels of last year's wines-for-women trend, new releases from Ray's Station Vineyards in Sonoma County are being pitched to the Y-chromosome set as "Hearty Red Wines for Men."
The bottling of the sexes seems to be part of a wider industry trend that includes cute labels and easier-to-use packaging. Vintners want to break from the pack by making wines more consumer friendly.
"You face this challenge: How do you even get people to know you're alive?" said Robert Smiley, a management professor at the University of California, Davis, who follows the wine industry. Considering the fierce competition to get noticed among the hundreds of brands lining store shelves, gender vending is "not a bad strategy to try," he said.
Last year, wine for women was the theme with brands such as Mad Housewife from Rainier Wine and White Lie Early Season chardonnay from Beringer making news.
Wines marketed to women may be finding an audience.
ACNielsen supermarket data on eight wines aimed at women indicated the brands, some of which are in limited distribution, accounted for $10 million of the approximately $8 billion in wine sales for the year ending Feb. 11.
Wine, especially the higher-end vintages, has long been considered a man's world. But the people behind the Ray's Station campaign say there's an overlooked audience in the backyard barbecuer and NASCAR fan who enjoys wine but hasn't made a hobby of it.
"These guys, they're married; they've got a couple of kids," said Brian Hilliard, who heads up marketing for Ray's Station. "Wine is part of their lives, but it's not integrated in a way that they really force themselves to be knowledgeable."
Ray's Station is selling a merlot and cabernet sauvignon both priced at about $15 and made mostly with grapes from hillside vineyards where the vines have to struggle to survive, producing richer fruit that adds heft to the flavors.
Don't expect any Ray's Station buttery chardonnays or silky sauvignon blancs, though.
"White wines ain't cutting it," Hilliard said with a laugh, referring to the industry axiom that women prefer white wines.
The wines are packaged simply with a label bearing the outline of a galloping stallion. The accompanying tongue-in-stubbled-cheek ad campaign features the winery's namesake, Sonoma County pioneer John G. Ray, and such masculine pursuits as fishing and hunting.
One ad shows a hunter at sunset, dog by his side, with the copy "John G. Ray did not serve pinot noir," a sly dig at the varietal adored by wine sophisticates.
The company doesn't have sales data yet, but the response from distributors has been good, said Hilliard.
"People react to it in the way they should; they chuckle," he says. "It's a little irreverent and it's meant to be fun. But, at the same time, the wine that's going into the bottle is very serious stuff."
Another Sonoma County winery, Ravenswood, has been getting in touch with its strong side for years, rallying behind the slogan "No Wimpy Wines!" The winery, known for its zinfandels, is sponsoring the No. 27 Brewco Motorsports car in the NASCAR Busch Series for 2006.
Although they may seem an unusual pairing, wine and auto racing have been connected for a while, with a number of wineries founded by the sport's greats, including Mario Andretti, founder of the Andretti Winery in Napa.
NASCAR fan Boyce Brannock of Staunton, Va., is watching the trend with some interest. He's someone who already appreciates fine wines and fast cars. He and like-minded enthusiasts of both sexes _ they call their group "Rednecks and Red Rhones" — get together every February to kick off the season and sample wines from the Rhone region of France.
Brannock sees the new marketing outreach as dovetailing with a consumer-driven trend of more nontraditional wine drinkers being willing to take an interest in wine, "or at least not turn up their nose when it's offered."
He wasn't sure men would be won over by marketing aimed at them, but speculated it might be a hit with their wives. "Something like Ray's Station might be an opportunity to say, `Here's something that's not coming out of a flowery bottle,'" he said.
Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women," liked the idea of trying to broaden wine's appeal.
"I'm all for gender marketing," she said. "I'm all for getting wine in more people's hands regardless of how we do it."