Laser Focused: Why Honig Winery Built Success on Just 2 Varietals

A Red. A White. That’s it.

For most of the 40 years it has been open Michael Honig has guided Napa’s Honig Winery by selling just two wines. It started with him leaving college to help sell a backstock of Sauvignon Blanc and then adding a line of Cabernet Sauvignon to increase business.

It’s never changed and never had to.

“If you ever see Honig Chardonnay, you’ll know that I’m dead,” he said with a laugh. “You’ll know my kids didn’t like the idea [I had for the winery].

“That bullet approach versus the shotgun approach, I think is paramount. We have brands that can last a long, long time so don’t screw them up.”

That “two-bullet” business strategy has helped Honig get placements across the country and not just limit the winery to a select few. Honig has also kept up his mentality of when he started with the family business in 1983 at the age of 21 going door to door to sell his wine. He still is a salesman for the brand, traveling to meet new accounts and connect with familiar and longtime buyers alike.

“I really tried to use that model of being as close to the market as possible with our national presence,” he said. “A lot of wineries, I think, take their approach as, ‘Okay, we made it, we’re the producer. We’ve sold it to a distributor, now it’s your problem, you have to go sell it.

“Because I’m so close to the marketing side — and we’ve never used agents or brokers or any of that type of intermediary — I’ve tried to really go out in the market. I travel all the time to try to help sell it and get to know the buyer for local grocery chains, or get with the buyer for restaurant groups, and create my own relationships and use the distributor more as a delivery service.”

Honig doesn’t mean that in a bad way. He explains that he gets along great with his distribution partners. But as consolidation in the wholesale world continues to happen, Honig sees less and less selling and more fulfillment of products to buyers from distributors because product catalogs get larger and larger.

“When I first started, distributors actually did help, they were good at marketing, they helped build brands,” he said. “Now, I don’t know if that’s their function. Their function is really to move a 35-pound box from point A to point B.

“Because I’ve created my own relationships, I try to be as close to the market as possible. I think that’s lent and helped us build the brand because we don’t have to rely on distributors.”

Honig says those relationships he has built over the years does help the distribution partner as he can help a commission-based rep get a new placement.

“And the next time they’re looking at another account … they’ll remember me helping them, see the account is doing well and present my white to a new account,” Honig said. “So it’s a snowball effect. It’s a very slow process, but I think it lends itself to our generational aspect of just creating your own relationships and not relying on someone else to do the work for you.”

And with just the two varietals in stock, Honig can put a laser focus on certain accounts for each wine.

“A seafood restaurant is not a big Red house. The Capital Grille doesn’t do much White,” Honig said. “They’re really two separate demographics and two separate segments, but they come together.”

It might make sense now, but when Honig began selling three years of backstock Sauvignon Blanc in the early 80s, it was a tough sell.

“​It was Chardonnay, Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and I’d walk into these restaurants and stores and I have my little bottle of wine, and I do my little sell​,” he said with a smirk, “​and after people stop laughing, they would say​,​ ​‘​Wait, you’re in Rutherford​? Caymus is there, Grgich …​ you’re surrounded by all these great Cabernet vines and producers, and you’re making Savenugn Blanc? No wonder you guys are failing.​‘

“It was a really tough story.​“

But what finally started to resonate with ​buyers was Honig’s story ​that he shaped.

“I ​was like, you’re right. Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t sell, I get it. But you, Mr. ​Retailer, will have one or two on your ​shelves. And you Mister or Misses ​Restaurateur, you’ll have a few on your list. Doesn’t it make sense to put someone’s wine who’s focusing on that one ​varietal, versus someone who’s making 10 different things, and just one of them happens to be ​Sauv Blanc​, on your shelf or in your list? And that started to resonate.

​“Because of that, I realized early on the best thing for us and why I think we could be successful is if we focused.​“

​​As ​Honig ​started learning more about the area ​and viticulture​, and the ​relationship between ​Sauvignon ​Blanc​ and Cabernet Sauvignon​, he chose his​ Red.

​“​I think it really​ has made us successful because we’re not trying to be all things to all people.”

T​hat meant Honig​ could have a marketing plan that was concise, focused, and piercingly straight.

​“​Not only from getting it to the buyers but also for the consumer to understand​,” he said​. ​“​The other thing is it really benefited our production team, because ​[Winemaker] ​Kristin​ [Belair]​ and her whole team and all of our viticultural practices are based on two things​.​​ The whole winery set up to make Sa​u​v Blanc and Cabernet​. It’s not set up to do Chardonnay or Zinfandel.

​“There’s so much inefficiency in the wine business​ anyway​. When you can have two different things​: Sa​u​v ​Blanc comes in early​,​ Cabernet comes in late​.​ Sauvignon Blanc drinkers are not Cabernet drinkers​. Cabaret drinkers​ ​use Sauvignon Blanc to clean their glasses.”

Since Honig isn’t about new product lines, being “new” or “exciting” has to come in other areas. That is something the winery thinks a lot about as well. Finding, attracting, and retaining a base of consumers means being able to tell a 40-year-old story a new way and not rely on an older generation that knows what they want to drink.

So Honig is vocal about being welcoming to a Millennial crowd. A crowd that is having children, cares about the environment, and understands family.

“Allow children,” Honig asks in fake exasperation for effect. “Yeah. I mean, it seems pretty obvious. Of course, they’re not drinking, but we allow them on the property.

“I have four little kids, I got remarried. We are a family business, and we’re generational. So a couple years ago, we talked about the tasting room. My manager says, ‘Michael, do you want to keep allowing children? I’m like, why wouldn’t we allow children?’

“I was told people who want to spend a lot of money don’t want the kids running around. And I’m like, wait a minute. So you, you’re telling me that you want to take a demographic that’s having children and tell them that we don’t want them? … that’s who we want. That’s the demographic we need. And that’s the demographic that is going to create our business success in 20 or 30 years. Of course, you want them. Let them bring their kids or dogs … I don’t care what they bring. I mean don’t serve them. You’ll give them juice or whatever, but let them come because you’re giving that experience to a demographic that we need as a consumer base.”

As someone who lives on the same property he works at, Honig is still in a farmer mentality and he said that farmers understand the value you have is your land.

“You have to protect it and create a healthy environment,” he said when it comes to sustainability.

The winery does little things, like lowering insecticide use by adding housing for birds and bats and having bees to help pollination. A little bit more on the expense side is housing solar panels for electrical uses and deficit irrigation to help minimize the impact on the local aquifer.

“At some point, sustainability costs,” he said. “But my contention is at the end of the day, it’s actually cheaper. Oftentimes, they may appear to be more expensive just on the surface, but you peel the onion a little deeper and you realize, oftentimes the cost to create a sustainable environment is really — in the long run — is cheaper. And you get a better output and a better product.”

And these practices also help the winery​ see the quality levels improved with the techniques used.

“If I can start with a grape that’s more flavorful, more concentrated, and has more character … and we do our little magic to turn it into a bottle of wine, that has a better outcome,” Honig said. “And that resonates with people. It’s all about the qualitative side.

“I do it because I think it’s important to protect our environment and create a generational property and leave a small footprint for the next generation to step into.”

The goal for Honig is to be affordable and be the bottles that people drink every day.

“These are really simplistic concepts sometimes,” he said. “But if you’re a wine that people are collecting, well collecting is like saving a baseball card. I make a perishable product. It’s consumable, and I want people to open the bottles and drink them.

“One of my neighbors who made a lot of money in a different career said, ‘I love your wine. I drink your wine during the week, and I saved my other more expensive bottles for the weekend.’ I’m like, thank you. Think about that, he’s drinking my wine, five days a week. That’s what I want. So I’m okay with that. I think a lot of my neighbors really are more, put [the wine] on a pedestal, make it unobtainable. People should really beg for it. And I’m like, great, let them beg for your wine for Saturday night, because they’re gonna drink my wine five days a week. And that gives me an opportunity to make more.

“I think where people get lost in this business is they forget, if your bottles aren’t getting open, at some point, people have 10 vintages of your wine in their cellar, they move to something else. And if your wines are in a cellar and not getting poured at a dinner party, again, at some point, it stops.”

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