29th May, 2019 by Edith Hancock

As one of its top wine labels celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Rioja producer Ramón Bilbao is taking inspiration from the world of spirits to bring in a fresh audience.

Rioja producer Ramón Bilbao takes inspiration from spirits to draw in new consumers

Earlier this month, Rioja producer Ramon Bilbao celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Mirto wine brand.

Not content with a vertical tasting of Mirto, a blended Tempranillo from La Rioja, Spanish consumers, sommeliers, buyers and a small group of journalists were shipped to a historic townhouse in Madrid’s upmarket Salamanca district to be immersed in the producer’s brand philosophy.

The winery throws you in at the deep end. A woman dressed in late 1920s style answered the door to her “office” and chided us for coming over without an appointment. Don Ramón, she warned, “is a very busy man.”

Once our coats were checked and our bizarre English fashion sense sent-up, we were led through different rooms representing the evolution of the winery. We were led to the ‘real’ Ramón Bilbao, who was indeed too busy pouring over a map to see us at first, but he graciously interrupted to lead us through the La Rioja winery’s entire history, from its origins with him, to the present with the current director, Rodolfo Bastida.

Rioja producer Ramón Bilbao takes inspiration from spirits to draw in new consumers

The experience saw the appearance of the “real” don Ramon.

The tour ended in a tasting of four Mirto vintages, but not before we were led to another room and asked to sit blindfolded, and wait.

Before long we were blasted with the scents of vanilla and myrtle, the sound of crickets, fed squares of bitter dark chocolate invited to fondle the grainy soil and stones of Rioja Alta, each element designed to showcase Rioja’s terroir and the flavours that Bastida’s team claim makes Mirto, Ramón Bilbao’s premium, limited edition serve, special.

‘Experiential’ marketing is nothing new, but it is a word we’re more used to seeing in the world of spirits. In 2016, Jose Cuervo wanted to update their consumer perception by showcasing the versatility behind their spirit. To do this, they used a campaign that was designed to drive a higher rate of sale, through a pop-up sampling event that engaged with consumers across ten different Walkabout venues over a five-week tour. The aim was to embody the ‘rebellious spirit’ that Jose Cuervo encompass using music, dancing, and Mexican mules.

More recently, That Boutique-y Gin Company went down the multi-sensory route at the launch party for its four new perfume-inspired expressions, part of a collaboration with Lizzie Ostrom of fragrance specialist Odette Toilette. In Scotland, Diageo’s Johnny Walker whisky is in the process of converting a historic building in Edinburgh’s city centre into a seven-floor “visitor experience” as part of the firm’s £150 million investment into Scotch tourism.

But Bastida, speaking to journalists after the surreal tasting, told us the producer “wanted to do things differently.”

“Everyone does tastings for a new release,” he pointed out “we try to do things differently.” In the past, ‘doing things differently’ has meant stunts like partnering with Spanish classical musician Ara Malikian and third-generation violin maker Fernando Solar to craft a violin from one of Ramón Bilbao’s disused red wine barrels, but wineries don’t often take their inspiration from spirits launches.

Rioja producer Ramón Bilbao takes inspiration from spirits to draw in new consumers

There is a reason for this. Between paying the actors, renting the props and sourcing the tech, these kinds of experiences are costly to produce, and are therefore far more rare in the world of wine. Owing to the amount of money that needs to be set aside for oak barrels, land, vineyard workers and the winery itself, many wine businesses don’t always have as much money left to spend on marketing as, say, a gin brand.

The subject has been brought up before. Jean Claude Mas, the head of Paul Mas in France’s Languedoc region, once told db that wineries should be trying to sell an “emotional experience” to prospective drinkers, but lamented that many simply don’t have the means to do so.

But the winery, which was snapped up by spirits giant Zamora Company 20 years ago, has an advantage here.

One of Spain’s largest family-owned drinks companies, Zamora counts brands like coffee liqueur Liqor 43 and Martin Miller’s Gin in its portfolio. The company recently said it expects its sales to reach €256 million euros by 2020, 47% more than in 2018. To do that, bringing in new consumers is essential.

The apartment was rented for an entire week, with troupes of consumers and keen somms treated to tours across three days, all of which ended in a light lunch accompanied by piano music. Every minute detail from lighting to historically-accurate dress was taken care of, impressive given that, despite Ramón Bilbao spent a few months planning it, the whole thing was put together in a couple of days.

Remi Sanz, Zamora’s global brand manager who was also on hand to give his insights at our day out in Madrid, stressed that the event was designed with consumers in mind.

“We actually didn’t invite Spanish press,” he told db. “They already know what we do. It was very much something we did for the consumers.”