Candid Q&A with Rick Tigner, CEO of Jackson Family Wines

by | Sep 13, 2018 | Blog, Lifestyle, News

FLTR: Graham Weerts (winemaker at Jackson Family Wines), Ann Ferreira and Rick Tigner (President and CEO of Jackson Family Wines).

After the passing of its founder and legendary pioneer Jess Jackson, the Jackson Family Enterprise managed to find a very capable successor in Rick Tigner. After seven years at the helm navigating the ship, Rick continues to grow the family-owned winery group’s reputation across the globe.

Rick joined Jackson Family Wines in 1991 and has served in a variety of sales and distribution leadership roles during his tenure with the company. Today, Rick is the president and CEO of Jackson Family Wines, and has been spending a lot of time in South Africa of late…

Owning a plethora of wineries in leading wine-producing countries like France, Italy, Australia and Chile, Jackson Family Wines also has a stake in Capensis and the Fijnbosch Vineyard region of Stellenbosch. Rick was recently in Cape Town for the CapeWine 2018 trade show, and spoke during the opening about the family’s commitment to sustainable wine-growing and business practices globally.

Online editor Anton Pretorius caught up with Rick (including winemaker Graham Weerts) afterwards to find out what it’s like working for America’s other famous Jackson family.

Q:  What makes a good sales and distribution strategy?

RT: I think first and foremost, it’s about having the right people. Our industry needs more storytellers. I only want to hire people who I want to buy wine from. You got to have a really good channel strategy. If you have your own distributor, you’ll want to know what customers are important to you, whether it’s the retail customer, the on-premise customer, club customer or e-commerce customer. Especially for our brands, we don’t call on every customer. Because not every customer sells out type of wine. You must be able to vet out customers that can be sustainable. In California, there are 50 000 licenses, and we only call on the top 15 000. This means that we’ve vetted out 35 000 accounts that we’re not going to call on because they don’t bring any value to us. The bottomline is that not only should you know your consumer, but you better know your customer too. That’s really important. You cannot be all things to all people.

Q: You spoke at length about brand identity. How hard is it to establish a recognisable wine brand?

RT: When you think about consumer demand, you’re buying things because you’re brand aware. With wine, there are hundreds and thousands of choices. It’s impossible for consumers to walk into a store and know most of the wine brands. Literally, 10% of the population drinks 90% of the wine. So the infrequent (or even frequent) consumer basically walks into a store and buys wine based purely on label and price. So to be brand conscious of any wine is hard to do. When a consumer walks into a store, they’re met with what I like to call a ‘canyon of glass’. They’re trying to think of what Cabernet, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay they’re going to buy. But how do they make that buying decision? Most consumers are buying brands they’ve never heard of before.  So the fact that they might know your brand is very hard to do. What if I asked you to name five Australian or Spanish brands? Your average consumer won’t be able to. Building brands are hard. Knowing your customer is critical. It’s not about the purchase, it’s about the repeat purchase. You’ll get closer to having a repeat purchase if you do all the right things.

Q: What are the reasons behind Jackson’s investment in Capensis?

RT: The investment in Capensis gives our winemaker Graham Weerts an opportunity to make wine twice a year. He makes wine and oversees all our vineyards in California. Now he’s able to come home and make wine here in South Africa too. Graham hand selected that property. Think about it, we have the resources to buy property in lots of places. But we didn’t just show up and pick Capensis for no good reason. Graham saw it as the ‘filet mignon’ of Stellenbosch and the Western Cape. You really have to see the potential of the vineyard and the flavours and textures of the wine and what it’s going to give us in the long-term to fully grasp the value of this investment.

Q: Is there a demand for South African wine in the US market?

GW: Yes, I think there is a big demand for fine wine in the US. There’s a demand for fine wine that’s even a little experimental as well. The tricky thing is convincing the gatekeepers at the restaurants. If you look at Capensis right now, we’re building it on the entrée, we’re not going into big retail stores. We’re taking it to influential people in New York, Los Angeles and San Fransisco restaurants where they are more receptive to wines that are from other places. You won’t find us at an outback steakhouse in Texas where they prefer big, bold Californian Cabs. We have the opportunity to show our wines to people who are openminded to experimentation. We’ve found that the repeat purchase numbers to be incredible. This can be attributed to our sales force. Our founder Jess Jackson was adamant about owning his distribution and having storytellers. The ability of our sales people to walk into a store and the relationship they leverage with retailers and storeowners is second to none.

RT: Wine is a treasure hunt. New, up and coming winemakers and innovators are constantly looking to try new things. We don’t sell Capensis as an South African wine, but rather a world-class wine. But I think it helps South Africa. But we don’t lead with that. I’m excited to see what Capensis will look like 2025.

Q: How can South African wine farms practice more sustainability?

RT: I’m a believer of integrity – doing the right thing when no-one is watching. But my four pillars to sustainability is people, lands (this includes wineries and facilities…), brands and innovation. Number one is to do right by your people. With regards to lands, you can conserve water, take care of your assets and utilise your machines to their maximum capacity. Make sure your vineyards are well manicured, try to minimise the use of pesticide and stuff of that nature. Make sure you have a good crew out there, not just for picking but also for pruning your vineyards. You want those vineyards to last a long time. Invest behind your brands. With innovation, look at alternative energy sources and reduce your carbon footprint. New consumers are looking for authenticity. There’s a new consumer culture of ‘trading up’. I use to love Starbucks. You could get a coffee for a nickel. Now, people are paying $8 for a cup of coffee.  People are willing to pay more for premium products. People have an aspirational attitude and actually want to live a nice life, They’re willing to pay extra. Consumers are looking to trade up, so take advantage of it.

Q: What lessons can South Africa learn from the California wine industry?

RT: Measure twice, cut once on planting. Make sure you plant the right things in the right places. With certain varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Franc, you can literally plant it in the wrong places. Do your homework before you put vines in the ground…

GW: Also, before you put vines in the ground, know what people want to drink…When I was still new to the wine trade, we looked at all sorts of weird and wonderful varieties. But the truth is, we’re still today trying to teach people to drink Pinot Noir or Merlot, let alone the rest of the things we can hardly pronounce. So, I think winegrowers need to think long and hard before experimenting with lesser-known varietals. Understand where things are going to get sold…

RT: Think about supply and demand. When you start putting vines in the ground, it’s going to last 25 years. We tend to plant on demand. We work on the prediction that people will continue to drink Chardonnay or Cabernet in the future. I’ve been watching Sauvignon Blanc for a decade, and today, people are still drinking Sauvignon Blanc. It gets a good yield and you can make good money on it…

GW: We talk about how tough it is for people to remember your brand. Now you still want to throw a new, unpronounceable varietal at them…

RT: When I walk into a wine store in California or Connecticut, I recognise only 2% of all the wine in the store, and I often wonder: who are they selling these wines to? Well, they’re selling them to somebody. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the competition out there…The problem with the word premium on the globe is that it has different definitions. We got to change the way we categorise the definition of premium. But let’s not dumb it down either.


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