End of an era

by Michael Cooper / 17 July, 2010
Kiwis have known the name Montana for 50 years, but don't expect to see it around much any more.

Miley Cyrus dumped Hannah Montana, so tweens would not have been surprised when Montana announced its name change to Brancott Estate. But 50 years after Montana became a household name in New Zealand, the axing of the famous wine brand in overseas markets, and its limited survival here, still comes as a shock.

Pernod Ricard NZ - known until 2004 as Montana Wines, and between 2004 and 2006 as Allied Domecq Wines NZ - has long marketed wines in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and elsewhere under the Montana label, while selling the same wines in the US under a different brand, Brancott Estate. The idea of marketing New Zealand wines in the US under exactly the same name as the huge state of Montana, in the north-west of the country, was simply out of the question.

America's fourth-largest state has its own fledgling wine industry. The eight wineries in Montana buy most of their grapes from Washington, Oregon and California, but some also have small estate vineyards planted in early ripening varieties, such as pinot gris and pinot noir.

The state's distinctive wines often reflect the use of cherries, chokeberries, huckleberries and honey. They are sold under such brands as Farm Dog Red and Firehole Sauvignon Blanc.

Pernod Ricard NZ, which exports most of its output, believes the time is right to stop marketing its wines overseas under different brands. Fabian Partigliani, the company's managing director, says selection of the name Brancott Estate will "focus resources and significant long-term investment globally to leverage the power of a single premium brand of wines for our export markets".

Partigliani also believes the Brancott Estate brand "resonates with consumers", since it creates a link between the company's wines and its sweeping Brancott Estate site, on the south side of the Wairau Valley, where in 1975 Montana planted Marlborough's first sauvignon blanc vines.

In the early days, nestled on a hillside in West Auckland's Waitakere Ranges, Montana (montana is Spanish for mountain) was the highest vineyard in the land. The founder, Ivan Yukich, a Croatian immigrant, is believed to have sold his first wines in 1944. In the 1960s, with his sons, Frank - a far-sighted and tireless entrepreneur - and Mate - a viticultural specialist - at the helm, Montana embarked on a crash expansion programme. During the 1970s, Montana replaced Corbans as the country's biggest winery.

However, the latest move reflects a steady drop in importance of the name Montana over the past decade. The decision to change the company's name from Montana to Allied Domecq NZ heralded the end of an era. "There is a sadness that the name people have worked for and built is changing," Gerry Gregg, still the company's national wineries manager, observed at the time. He joined Montana in 1976. "But I guess the ones who have been with the company for a long time still feel it is Montana. The brand is still alive."

The Montana label will survive here, but only on lower-priced wines, such as Montana Gisborne Chardonnay - and the words "by Brancott Estate" will run under the Montana brand. The Montana Reserve range and the top "letter series" wines such as Montana "T" Terraces Marlborough Pinot Noir are all being rebranded as Brancott Estate.

The power of the Montana brand has also been declining in other areas of the company's operations. Pernod Ricard NZ's giant production facility south of Blenheim, long known as Montana Marlborough Winery, is now the Brancott Winery. And since the firm bought its major rival, Corbans, in 2000, it has had other famous wine brands in its portfolio - notably Stoneleigh.

Gregg recently told the Marlborough Express he approves of the new name because of its strong links to Marlborough. "It's an iconic vineyard, very picturesque ... and it's our place."

Pernod Ricard NZ recently announced its sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup 2011 - the first New Zealand-based company to do so. The wines poured will all be from Brancott Estate.

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