Galen Struwe lives in Minnesota. But it wasn’t always so. Traveling with business colleagues from Florida some years ago he found himself in a Minneapolis restaurant for dinner. Their server was very attractive.
Typical, Struwe says of his dinner companions, the married guys were flirting with her. “They did this all the time,” he says. “I was the single guy, and they were always the ones hitting on women.”
The next day, sans companions, Struwe goes back for lunch. As luck would have it, the same server is there. He asks if she remembers him, and she says, “Of course I do Galen.” He asks for her phone number.
The company sends him back to Minneapolis, this time by himself. “I remember saying to a buddy, I don’t know anyone in Minneapolis, I’ll have nothing to do but sit in my room.” Then he remembers, hoping he still has the number. He makes the call, “‘Look, I’m going to be in Minneapolis again, and I wondered if you might want to meet for breakfast?'” Struwe says he chose breakfast, because breakfast “isn’t a date.” He wanted something casual so he could get to know her better.
“I’d been single for 13 years,” he says. On purpose. He had a son in Florida. “So many guys get married again and devote all their resources to their new families,” he says. “And I didn’t want to do that to my son.” But his son was almost out of high school now. And Struwe says, he figured if God wanted him to meet someone he would.
The company sends him to Minneapolis again. This time he asks her to dinner.
“Do you know how sometimes people just show up in your life?” Struwe says. “I think it’s no coincidence. They’re there for a reason.”
After a lot of trips between Minneapolis and Florida, Struwe decided to move to Minnesota. His son was graduating, and he was ready to make a life with Jaci, the woman he admired and had grown to love.
The French Connection
Eight years after the move, one of Jaci’s daughters brings her fiancé, a man she met while visiting France, to meet the family. During the weekend, the fiancé notices the Struwes are really into wine, and says, “I have a friend who just inherited a winery.” He asked Struwe if he might know how to bring the wines to the United States. At first Struwe thought he couldn’t help. But then the wheels started turning. Although he didn’t know much about the business side of the wine industry, he says he knew three things:
1. There is more wine produced than there are people to drink it.
2. If he imported yet another French wine, it would probably be met with lukewarm enthusiasm.
3. The U.S. wine industry was pinning its hopes on millennials.
“When I was in college, I knew Budweiser wanted me to drink their beer,” he says. But in the 1970s, the only wine commercials Struwe remembers were Orson Welles intoning “We will sell no wine before it’s time.”
So Galen Struwe decided to take the plunge. First was the matter of the name.
“I was struggling for some time to come up with a clever name for the brand but nothing was really resonating, just a lot of dumb stuff,” says Struwe. “Then one day in my office I look down at the floor at a copy of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.” The paper is open to the editorial page. “I do my pre-caffeine early morning gaze, pick it up and I see an editorial cartoon of Voltaire with this look of dismay on his face,” he continues. “The bubble caption above it had him exclaiming in bold print ‘Sacre Bleu.'”
It was like a light bulb going off, says Struwe. So the Sacre Bleu brand was born.
Building the Brand
Building a brand equity usually starts with the product. This one started with an attitude. “All of us have a certain amount of attitude that needs attention,” says Struwe, now president of Minnesota-based Struwe Desnous Imports.
Toward that attitude he went about building an on-line presence. Starting with My Space (Facebook had not yet exploded) he began gathering intelligence on where millennials were getting their information, and what they were talking about. The best part of what was going on at My Space carries over to the brand’s website.
When I first saw Sacre Bleu’s website, I assumed it was something that was so hip, that I was too married and too old to know about it. Designed by graphic artist Adam Yale, it is very graphically appealing, with pictures of attractive young adults in fun activities. It reminds me of the days when I watched American Bandstand, and read Glamour magazine from my small boring life as the daughter of a couple of school teachers. As a young woman I wanted to BE those people in the pictures. But unlike the material I had available to consume as a young woman trying to find her way, there is no drivel in these posts. No, “what to wear to get the guy” nonsense.
What is there are thought-provoking articles, “musings” and interviews; like this one about Houston’s own 2007 James Beard Award Nominee, Chef Monica Pope. Or this one with singer/songwriter Ari Herstand that includes some incredibly prescient comments about the music industry from Frank Zappa.
The writer behind the musings is “Ashley Lauren” Struwe’s beautiful 20-something stepdaughter, who also designed the wine brand labels with the help of Yale. Ashley also occasionally posts to the Sacre Bleu wines twitter account.
“We bottled Sacre Bleu for a couple of years in Languedoc but by 2008 the eroding dollar and seemingly tired French category suggested that we could and should do better. Chile has always been one of my favorite wine regions and it became apparent to me that we could go from being a good wine to being a terrific wine with an even more attractive consumer value by making such a transition,” says Struwe.
The first market for the Sacre Bleu Chilean wines is Texas. One of the few places that hasn’t been gutted by the economy, Texas has an abundance of millennials in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Enter Central Market, the gourmet grocery store chain owned by San Antonio, Texas-based H-E-B Grocery Company.
Originally the wine was slated to hit stores in June. But the Maule Region of Chile was still recovering from the 8.8 earthquake that had hit just a few months before. Luckily the Sacre Bleu winery wasn’t affected. But there were issues with shipping, bottling and getting the labels just right. Product debut was pushed back. Wine bloggers waited for samples, so we could taste the wine before it hit the market shelves. And as with most things that take a while to get there, the delay in arrival increased anticipation for Sacre Bleu wines.
It wasn’t just the bloggers making the trip to Central Market every few days to ask if the wines were in yet. Early reviews said the wine was good. Far better than the modest price of just under $10 for a 750 ml bottle, word-of-mouth marketing was sending lots of people into stores looking for the wine. There has been very little advertising. No in-store promos. Nothing one can point to other than the power of social media, and the quality of the wine. Not only is it popular with millennials, but boomers and tweeners are buying it too.
Is Struwe surprised? He recalls October 2008 when the economy tanked.
“My goal,” Struwe says “is to be standing at the other end (of the economic downturn) when it’s over. I might be bruised and bloodied, but to still be standing.”
For Struwe, it’s all about perseverance. And having a dream. “The day you wake up and don’t have a dream, will be the worst day of your life.” He continues;
“My presence in the wine business as a brand owner was quite accidental and unexpected. I laugh sometimes because I’m not sure why anyone would stay up late and plan consciously to be in this business. But here I still am.”
The transition to Chilean wine was obviously a smart move. Popularity of Chilean wine has grown rapidly in the United States, where Chile is now the fourth-leading wine exporter, behind Italy, France and Australia. Not only are Chilean wines inexpensive, but their predictable good quality makes them an excellent value.
“That’s how successful brands emerge,” say Struwe. “There’s a value-to-quality ratio that can’t be denied.” Struwe says he also thinks they’re very fortunate to have Central Market as their retail destination in Texas.
Even with luck and perseverance, Struwe says, he could not have done it alone. He counts his family’s ‘warm hearts and big smiles all around him’ as some of his greatest blessings.
“I don’t think I could have done this without the wife I have.”
Finding Sacre Bleu
For those in Texas, you can find Sacre Bleu in the wine department of Central Market. It’s also available in all A&P Stores in New Jersey and Connecticut. If you live in Houston, you can taste Sacre Bleu as a part of the second annual Houston Wine Conference on Sunday, November 21st at the Four Seasons Hotel. And watch the blog, for our upcoming review.
Hint: We liked it!