Hard yards behind wine label's rise

An approach by Invivo's Tim Lightbourne (left) and Rob Cameron (right) to television show host Graham Norton, who likes New Zealand wines, got Invivo on to his BBC prime-time show as the 'house wine' for guests. Photo by The New Zealand Herald.
An approach by Invivo's Tim Lightbourne (left) and Rob Cameron (right) to television show host Graham Norton, who likes New Zealand wines, got Invivo on to his BBC prime-time show as the 'house wine' for guests. Photo by The New Zealand Herald.

It is not every New Zealand wine company whose product is served up on prime BBC viewing, The Graham Norton Show, every week.

Co-founders of Invivo Wine, Rob Cameron, winemaker, and Tim Lightbourne, marketer, approached Norton when they read in an interview that he liked New Zealand wine.

The BBC does not let the label show, but each guest is given a bottle of wine, as well as a glass or two, at the show. As a result, Sir Bob Geldof ordered it for the wedding of his daughter, Peaches.

Back home, the two ex-Auckland Grammar boys also provide their wine at Grammar old boys' functions, at Zambesi fashion events - Zambesi is a shareholder - and for Creative New Zealand, among others.

Thanks in part to a number of international and national awards and accolades along the way, especially for its Invivo Sauvignon Blanc and Central Otago Pinot Noir, Invivo recently came 24th in the Deloitte Fast 50, reporting growth over the past three years of 255%.

The fact remains, however, that both Mr Lightbourne and Mr Cameron have had to do the hard yards since forming the business in November 2007 and releasing the first wine in August 2008.

''At that time it was the start of the global financial crisis and it was the largest vintage that year,'' Mr Lightbourne remembered.

In that first year, the founders would set themselves up in shops to promote the unknown wine label.

They were doing four or five tastings a week, starting out in some New World supermarkets, Farro Fresh stores and Glengarry outlets.

Mr Cameron makes the label's Central Otago Pinot Noir and the newly released Invivo Riesling at the Lochiel Estate Vineyard and Winery in Mangawhai, which he established. Invivo has 13 growers in the country.

''For our wines from Marlborough we lease space in a winery where Rob travels to Blenheim and spends time there,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

Mr Cameron, a Lincoln-qualified viticulturist, learned his craft with Raupara Vintners and Villa Maria Estate, then working throughout Europe including Cyprus, France and Slovenia.

Mr Lightbourne, who has had an international career marketing everything from Heinz baked beans to L'Oreal's Garnier products, said: ''We're targeting a different consumer, a wine drinker who is not interested in the old French chateaux.

''They approach wine the way they approach food.''

In the past year, the company has developed a low-alcohol range in Sauvignon Blanc and Rose, which has been well received.

''It's all about picking the grapes a bit earlier,'' Mr Light-bourne said. The Invivo Belle Sauvignon Blanc has collected three medals already in 2012, in the same category as normal-alcohol wines.

''The key with Invivo Belle, through work in the vineyard, is we keep the residual sugar down to a standard level, around 5g per litre residual and still balanced,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

A glass of the low-alcohol wine has 30% fewer calories than regular wine. The company is seeing a lot of growth in Australia for this category, Mr Light-bourne said.

Invivo's main markets are Australia, Britain, Japan, China, New Zealand and Canada at the moment.

''We sell in about 13 countries and focus on these markets,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

One of its most enthusiastic export markets is Japan, where both founders have been actively promoting the brand.

''Invivo has been the fastest-growing New Zealand wine in Japan over the past 12 months,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

With 10% to 15% of sales allocated to marketing, the founders give distributors marketing funds, have local PR agents and promote in-store themselves.

In Britain, in the first few years they had well-known supermarket wine buyer Angela Mount as their brand ambassador.

In New Zealand, restaurants are one of Invivo's strongest points.

''We're in around 350 to 400 retail and restaurant/bar outlets in the country, including about 150 restaurants like Prego, The Foodstore in the Viaduct and Britomart bar Tyler St,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

He emphasises it is not all glamour.

''We've stayed on mates' couches in London. We are intentionally not paying ourselves very well. We reinvest in the business.''

There are four shareholders, Zambesi and a Northland business person having minority shareholdings, while the founders hold the key ownership.

The pair have new product launches planned in 2013 and are also talking to distributors in emerging markets such as South America, Africa and Asia.

Invivo is expected to have a turnover of $4 million to $5 million next year and could be three or four times the size, but the pair are cautious.

''We have to be careful about our growth, making sure it's sustainable and not overproducing volumes as well as keeping it profitable,'' Mr Lightbourne said.

He takes his marketing cues from brands outside wine, such as Red Bull and Innocent Drinks in Britain, he says.

''We try to do our own thing, but the early guys - the Villa Marias, Cloudy Bays - opened the door for us.''


THE NUMBERS
• 255% growth in the past three years
• 24th in the Deloitte Fast 50
• Its low-alcohol wine has 30% fewer calories than regular wine
• $4m-$5m turnover next year