Brown-Forman Corp. and British billionaire Richard Branson teamed up Monday to introduce Virgin Vines, a wine label with an attitude.
With the motto "Unscrew it, let's do it," the wines would project a hip image counter to wine's stodgy reputation.
"Wine, like life, is meant to be enjoyed," said Branson, the man behind the ubiquitous Virgin brand. "All the pomp and ceremony currently associated with wine just gets in the way of enjoying it."
Virgin Vines' red and white wines began reaching store shelves nationally Monday amid a kickoff celebration in New York City, including an evening party complete with women dancing on wine barrels.
The combination of Brown-Forman's distribution and marketing muscle and the famous Virgin brand will make the wine industry "stand up and pay attention," said Jon Fredrikson, a wine industry consultant in the San Francisco area.
"Being associated with Richard Branson is going to be a plus," Fredrikson said. "He's got a pretty good track record in everything he touches."
Virgin Vines feature a white chardonnay and a red shiraz from the California vineyards of Brown-Forman Wines, a division of Louisville-based liquor giant Brown-Forman. The wines sell for $9.99 per bottle, or a four pack with smaller, plastic bottles at $8.99.
The new venture is in a hot-selling price category. Wines in the $9 to $10 price range have had double-digit sales growth nationally in the first six months of the year.
Brown-Forman Wines will market the new product and it expects to sell several hundred thousand cases in the first year.
"We expect this will be a leading California wine brand within three years," said Brown-Forman brand director Don Freytag, .
The wine bottles feature painted labels and cork-free screw tops with a pull tab. On the backs of the bottles, Virgin Vines pokes fun at connoisseurs who overanalyze wine: "Dare to enjoy this wine without dashes of pretentiousness or hints of snootiness. Virgin Vines believes wine should be all about having fun and loving the taste ... not waxing poetically about meaningless wine-speak and food pairings."
Fredrikson said such swipes would be an attention grabber. "We have so much folderol in the business that it does turn off a lot of potential consumers," he said.
He said the cork-free tops — used by some other wine makers — and plastic four packs will be appealing. "There's a lot of people in the country who don't own a corkscrew," he said.
Brown-Forman, the maker of Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and other liquor and wine brands, approached Branson about 18 months ago about teaming up on the venture. "One of the ideas was, let's take advantage of this wonderful trademark and launch a wine," Freytag said.
Brown-Forman plans to put millions of dollars behind the Virgin brand in advertising, he said. That includes ads in alternative publications that resemble singles ads. One such ad reads: "Full-bodied Shiraz desires hookup. No commitments, baggage or corkscrew..."