Creekside introduces some wines of the times

Look, it’s no secret many of us have been drinking a little more than usual these days (I know I’m filled with a deep—but mercifully fleeting—sense of shame every recycling day).

We rationalize that extra cocktail or glass of wine as a much-deserved reward for everything from having to spend all day every day with our significant other and kids, to being forced to cope with choppy #@%&’ Zoom calls, to the sheer monotony of every day being just like the one that preceded it.

Niagara-area winery Creekside has bottled all of those sentiments in a new product called The Pandemic Pack, a six-pack of wines bearing clever appellations like “Remote Schooling Sauce,” “Fuzzy Face and Furry Legs Acceptance Tonic,” and “Spousal Tolerance Enhancement Beverage.”

Developed by Toronto agency veterans David Crichton and Bob Shanks (who were founding partners of Grip and are part-owners of Creekside), The Pandemic Pack’s product descriptions reflect the belief that fine wine can also be fun wine, a sentiment borne out by the winery’s slogan: “Serious wines from an irreverent bunch.”

The label descriptions are equally humorous, with the label for “Fuzzy Face and Furry Legs Acceptance Tonic” informing the drinker that “[T]o be human during isolation is to be hairy,” and the “Remote Schooling Sauce” label reading, in part, that having kids at home all the time affords parents “the extra chance to bond over arguments about why they can’t do their classes from bed. Or to lovingly gaze at their mouth-breathing expressions while they watch TikTok during a lesson.”

“It’s packaging done right,” said Andrew Howard, president of Creekside parent Equity Wine Group. “Wine can be super snobby, but most of the people drinking wine aren’t wearing cravats.

“I think the Pandemic Pack is one of the more creative things I’ve seen in wine in years. If we can push the limits a little bit, and have some more fun, we seem to be getting rewarded for it.”

Creekside has already sold 300 of its 1,200 Pandemic Packs, all consisting of VQA wines, and expects to achieve total sell-through of the $125 boxes within a month to six weeks.

It will (hopefully) be a one-off, given the time it takes to bottle the wine and the end of the pandemic (theoretically) in sight. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and then we’ll go on to the next cheeky thing,” said Howard.

The company is supporting the Pandemic Pack launch with messaging to its email database, as well as a series of social ads featuring a picture of the product accompanied by messages like “Get your vaccine, here. Kinda,” and “Available for a limited pandemic only.”

A former marketing director with Labatt who has spent the past decade-plus in the wine industry—first as senior VP of marketing with Vincor Canada and since 2010 with Equity—Howard said that the Pandemic Pack stems from a 2020 partnership with Taco Bell Canada which saw the winery create a product called Jalapeño Noir to pair with the QSR’s Toasted Cheesy Chalupa.

Creekside produced a limited run of bottles based on historical response to programs of that nature, but Howard jokes that it underestimated the enthusiasm of Taco Bell fans. What was supposed to be a six-week program saw the wines sell out within one hour.

Creekside received 400 emails enquiring about the wine, and it was featured on U.S. outlets like CNN, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. One person even offered to pay $5,000 for a bottle. “Taco Bell fans are rabid,” said Howard.

“[Crichton] has been really interested in helping us dial up Creekside’s personality,” he added. “When we did the Jalapeño Noir program, he recognized that it was probably more in character for Creekside—very irreverent, fun, tickling people’s funny bone, not treating wine too seriously, but making it really good. It clearly resonated with people.

“He said maybe we can start creating wines that pick up on what’s happening in the world,” he added. “As a client I get the bad ideas, and I said to David that maybe we could have a ‘Reintroduction Pack,’ [focusing on] how to shake hands, how do you hug or do all those things we haven’t done in over a year.”

Crichton “groaned a little,” at Howard’s suggestion, but it led to a discussion about creating a product that referenced the pandemic in a lighthearted way. “They’re all things we kind of joke about, but Dave figured out how to say them in a funny way,” he said. “We’re not going to solve COVID, but we might help people a little bit with some humour.

“I’m a client who appreciates good work and I think I’m good at choosing good work,” he added. “We’re a good client in that we get a little bit of what we deserve. It’s really hard to damage your brand [through marketing]: If you do something that’s bad, it just gets ignored. If you do something that’s on strategy and boring, it just gets ignored.”

Located in Jordan, Ont., Creekside produces about 25,000 cases a year, with its pre-pandemic sales roughly equally divided between winery sales (including online), retail such at LCBO and grocery, and wholesale.

Howard said that the company has managed to maintain its revenues during a challenging year. “I was very intimidated at the start of COVID—I thought we would lose about 30% of our revenue. Licensees went away, tourism went away, so traffic to the winery was down.”

Instead, Creekside achieved what Howard describes as “outrageous success” with its online sales, which went from comprising 10% of Equity’s revenue pre-pandemic, to 45% in the past year. “[They] saved our bacon,” he said.

That seems like cause for celebration. Perhaps even a glass of “Remote Schooling Sauce.”

Chris Powell