15+ min read
The year 2020 has been a year that demands wine.
Erica Blumenthal and Nikki Huganir expected this. They didn’t expect the reason, of course — the horrible stress, the terrible tragedies, interminable lockdowns. Instead, they were envisioning pool parties, summer getaways, and the other carefree activities that have lifted them toward the top of the summer’s hottest wine category. Blumenthal and Huganir are the founders of Yes Way Rosé, a brand that was born out of a catchphrase on Instagram but whose silly name has led to serious sales: It’s the no. 1 French canned wine, the no. 2 sparkling French rosé, and the no. 4 French rosé in America.
Back in March, just days before the nation spiraled into crisis, I visited them as they prepped for what was supposed to be a booming summer. It was 10 a.m. on a freezing morning, inside a photo studio in New York’s garment district, and a photographer and a food stylist were on hand to make summertime marketing materials. They’d whipped up a punch that really did look delicious: watermelon juice, vodka, and, of course, Yes Way Rosé, in a bowl that deserved to be the centerpiece of a party.
The two founders toasted each other before glancing my way and becoming acutely aware of the morning hour. “We have to test the product to know that it’s good,” Huganir said coyly. The team on set laughed, then got to work. No one had any idea what was coming.
But as the world changed in the coming months, and many industries were shaken or destroyed, the alcohol industry held on and, in some cases, thrived. In-store sales across all alcohol categories were up 21 percent year over year across America, and online alcohol sales were up 234 percent. Yes Way Rosé’s prominence held steady.
If you were being uncharitable, you could say that Covid-19 was just one more piece of dumb luck for a brand that’s been made possible by 56,000 Instagram followers. Because the thing is, Yes Way Rosé never even set out to become a brand. It began as a joke, just three words repeated infinitely between two friends who spent years promoting other people’s wine before ever thinking to make their own. Yes Way Rosé is a happy accident, you might think. A fluke of social media. But that view misses the point.
The real lesson of Yes Way Rosé is this: Sometimes the best way to build a business is to build a trusting audience. Relate to them. Become meaningful to them. Don’t hawk products to them. And then listen, and let your communité show you the way.
Image Credit: Sara Kerens
Blumenthal and Huganir have a long history of shared obsessions. They met in high school in Baltimore and bonded over their love of Beverly Hills, 90210 star Brian Austin Green. (“Everyone else had crushes on Brandon and Dillon, but we were all about David Silver,” Blumenthal says. “He was an underdog!”) After briefly losing touch in college, they reconnected when they both ended up living in New York and found that the easygoing rapport of their teen years transferred to young adulthood. They built careers in adjacent industries, Blumenthal as a fashion writer and editor, Huganir as a graphic designer, growing a shared network of friends and creatives in the city.
“Erica was invited to a lot of fashion events, and I was her permanent plus-one,” Huganir says. These events are typically overflowing with free booze (one perk of underpaid creative jobs), but the duo was rarely enthused. “I wasn’t that into drinking besides just having a drink in my hand when I was out,” Huganir says. Blumenthal felt the same. “If you asked me what I wanted to drink, I’d labor over the decision,” she says. “I just didn’t know anything about spirits.”
Then they discovered rosé. The light, crisp, easy-drinking wine had spent a decade or so as the summer drink of the summering class — popular in places like the Hamptons and Nantucket. By the time Blumenthal and Huganir found it in the late aughts, rosé was on its way to being a cultural marker. Much like cosmopolitans had defined evenings out in the ’90s and early 2000s, rosé was becoming the drink of choice for 20-something women today.
“We couldn’t believe how beautiful it was, or how much we loved drinking it,” Blumenthal says. “We wanted to wear the color! It just cracked us up how much we liked it.”
These are the moments that trend-hunters are paid to find — those things in the ether, just ready to be claimed and owned. Blumenthal and Huganir weren’t thinking that strategically, but they instinctively went down the path. They developed a shorthand between them, with evenings out punctuated with wine-based jokes. Rosé all day. Where there’s a will, there’s a rosé. Everything’s coming up rosé. Clear eyes, full hearts, rosé. Their friends joined in, regularly texting puns and pictures of their own pink-filled glasses to the rosé ringleaders.
“After a couple of years of obsession, I just felt this really strong force, like we had to do something productive with it,” Blumenthal says. She pitched an Instagram account to Huganir, who agreed, so long as she could make it “look really good.”
In 2013, @YesWayRosé was born, a mix of silly jokes and shots of the beverage against a sunset or a cityscape. “It was definitely lo-fi,” Huganir says. “We’d post, like, a picture of Jennifer Lopez with her pink engagement ring,” she says, as Blumenthal jumps in: “Jenny from the block with her rosé-colored rock!”
They were giving voice to the drink of their demographic. An audience started to build of people who, like them, loved rosé…and loved to love rosé.
They were also hitting upon a problem that has vexed the wine industry for years — because although this new audience loved rosé, it didn’t really know much about rosé, and it didn’t feel an affinity toward any particular brand. “We knew we were drawn to dry French rosés from Provence, and we also knew that all these old-fashioned labels with names you could never remember didn’t speak to us,” Blumenthal says. Silicon Valley Bank’s 2020 State of the U.S. Wine Industry report echoes this more broadly: “Millennials don’t trust the rich, are skeptical about inauthentic and opaque marketing, and don’t care about your family’s name on the bottle.”
But as their following grew, the two friends felt they needed an education. “We wanted to really know what we were talking about,” Blumenthal says. So they started hanging out at local wine stores, chatting with winemakers and sales reps. When they found a rosé they loved, they’d share it on Instagram. “We’d hear from those local shops and winemakers that some of the wines we posted went viral and would really sell,” Blumenthal says. “We were lifting the category.”
This got them thinking. What if this Instagram joke of theirs was actually the seed of a brand? But if that was the case, then…a brand that sells what? “Having our own wine had really seemed unattainable to us — it felt like something you’d need to own a vineyard to do, which we did not,” Blumenthal says. So to bring the project into the real world, they asked a friend to print 50 tote bags with the words yes way rosé emblazoned on one side. They gave away most, sold a few, and used the money to order more. That cycle repeated itself until the tote was a sought-after accessory for in-the-know New York millennials.
Over the next two years, the friends brainstormed ways to go bigger. They still assumed it was impossible to launch their own wine and started to envision Yes Way Rosé as a lifestyle brand. “I wish we could say we had a grand plan,” Huganir says. Instead, what they had was enthusiasm. They made sweatshirts and tees, and they turned their apartments into fulfillment centers. At an industry party, Blumenthal introduced herself to Tenoverten nail salon cofounder Nadine Abramcyk and suggested a collaboration; a Yes Way Rosé nail polish launched that summer.
In 2015, a partnership with the wine subscription service Club W (later rebranded as Winc) introduced a Yes Way Rosé–branded wine to the market — just 300 cases of Napa rosé that the startup had to spare. “We tasted it and liked it,” Blumenthal says, so they agreed to put their branding on it. The wine sold out. The experience made the friends think differently about their future: Maybe they could create their own rosé after all.
The moment was ripe. In 2015, exports of rosé wines from the Provence region of France to the United States soared 74 percent in value over the year prior—and in a nod to its new ubiquity, Josh Ostrovsky, the internet celebrity known as the Fat Jew, launched a mocking wine called White Girl Rosé. (It would later be acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev.) Meanwhile, Vanity Fair published an online story that summer titled “When Did Rosé, Like, Become a Thing?” and attributed the drink’s modern boom in part to Yes Way Rosé’s Instagram page. A few months later, Wine Enthusiast put Blumenthal and Huganir on the magazine’s cover, a spotlight on “tastemakers influencing what you drink now.” And most meaningfully to Yes Way Rosé’s pop-culture-obsessed founders, they looked at Instagram one day in 2015 and saw a post from actress (and wine lover) Drew Barrymore, to whom they had no connection. “Having a glass of rosé and tipping my hat to my friends at @yeswayrose,” it read.
“It was such a vote of confidence that she wanted to support us,” Blumenthal says. The friends decided to go all in. By 2016, they’d quit their jobs. Their partnership with Club W produced one more release, this time selling 25,000 cases of wine they helped develop, rather than simply market. “It gave us confidence that we could have success with a namesake wine,” Blumenthal says. It also gave them a mission: “We knew enough to do it ourselves.”
It was time for Yes Way Rosé to actually become a rosé.
Image Credit: Sara Kerens
There are, roughly speaking, three ways to create a wine brand. You can own a vineyard — an option generally reserved for the ultra-rich and generations-deep wine families. You can white-label a wine — essentially slap your name on someone else’s product, the way Yes Way Rosé originally did with Club W in 2015. Or you can create a constellation of partnerships — find a wine manufacturer that will create an exclusive blend, and various distributor and retailer partnerships that can help bring it to the masses.
Years ago, Blumenthal and Huganir had no idea that last option was possible. Now they imagined a unique French wine that was accessible in price and availability, and they set out to make it. “We talked to a lot of different people, asking for advice on how to do this profitably, with control over what we’re making,” Huganir says. “We knew our strengths, and we knew that in order to have the wine be widely available, we’d need help with distribution,” Blumenthal adds. “So let’s find the way that lets us focus on what we’re good at rather than what we’re not good at.”
They began with who they knew. They’d already been in touch with Target because they’d planned to pitch a line of lifestyle products. Now wine seemed like the bigger opportunity, so they asked their Target contact to connect them with the retailer’s head of adult beverages.
That call was illuminating. “First, we learned that Target sells wine,” Huganir says, laughing. “In 27 states! Just none that we’ve ever lived in.” They also learned that Target might be interested—but that the first step wasn’t really the retailer; it was the distributor and supplier. They walked away with a small Rolodex of companies who might be interested in working with a young brand with a built-in audience. One was Prestige Beverage Group, a Minnesota-based supplier that’s been building adult-beverage brands since 1974.
Blumenthal and Huganir set up a meeting with Prestige’s execs, and they came in with an assured vision.
“I had a mockup of the bottle, and it looked exactly like what it looks like on shelves today,” Huganir says. “It was really important for us, in choosing a wine partner, to find a company that would trust us to know what we’re doing with this brand and its voice, and to let us make the creative and marketing decisions.”
Prestige liked what it saw and helped connect Blumenthal and Huganir with a winemaker in France. On their initial trip there in 2017 — “a life highlight,” Blumenthal says — the founders tasted 12 different blends, slowly narrowing it down until they and the winemakers all agreed upon what would become Yes Way Rosé’s premiere product: a Grenache-Syrah blend with notes of strawberry, citrus, and peach. Target officially signed on as a partner, and Yes Way Rosé hit shelves in 2018, priced at $12.99. The promotional photos were shot on Huganir’s iPhone in a makeshift photo studio set up in the basement of a WeWork.
The brand’s tagline: “The qualité rosé that doesn’t take itself too seriouslé.”
Celeste Norlin, Yes Way Rosé’s national account manager at Johnson Brothers, their distribution partner that works with both Prestige and Target, says she sees many young brands stumble after this part. They get the product, they line up the retailer, and then…they overreach. “A lot of brands will strike when the iron is hot, launching eight varietals quickly to keep sales going,” Norlin says. To Blumenthal and Huganir’s great credit, she says, they played it differently. “They’re launching products with intention and really thinking about who is purchasing their product.”
In the two years since launching their debut wine, Yes Way Rosé has created just a handful of new products. Norlin explains them in the voice of the consumer. “Here’s a rosé I can rely on as an everyday drink,” she says. (That’s the standard Yes Way Rosé.) “Sometimes I want to go out on the boat, and it’d be great to have my wine in a can.” (They launched canned rosé.) “Today we’re celebrating, and that calls for sparkling.” (Now there’s sparkling Yes Way Rosé.) And there are a few more. To move upscale, they created a premium Côtes de Provence blend. To compete with trendy canned hard seltzers, this summer they introduced canned fruity wine spritzes. All this meets Target’s needs: By 2018, alcohol had become the retailer’s fastest-growing food and drink category, and it’s working to roll out the offering through even more locations. Of the Target stores that carry Yes Way Rosé, 95 percent carry every single item produced by the brand.
As the Yes Way Rosé founders think ahead, they now want to balance their ambitions with the patience to get there. “I think we’re in a really good position to be the number one [in every category we sell in],” Huganir says. “But we have to make sure we don’t try to take on more than we can handle.”
Image Credit: Sara Kerens
Instagram is often known as the land of the influencer — the person whose brand is built around their face, and whose selfies are a perpetual product. Yes Way Rosé was different, of course: It was all about the voice and the wine, and Blumenthal and Huganir intentionally kept themselves in the background. There were no photos of them on the Instagram account in those early days; they wanted the voice they created to speak for itself.
But now they understand how they fit into the brand they’ve built. Their outsider status is something to celebrate — and something to relate to. “We didn’t come from wine families,” Blumenthal says. “The traditional ways of getting into wine? We are very much not a part of that. And we want people to connect to that, and be inspired to try to tap into something that might seem completely unattainable. We worked and backed into where we were until it did seem attainable.”
To this day, they are Yes Way Rosé’s only full-time employees, and they share ownership 50-50. Their partnership is the kind that can communicate effectively with a single look, and that best-friend shorthand is a powerful tool they’ve come to rely on.
“There are a couple ways we make decisions, but one of them is that if we’re not aligned, we don’t do it,” Huganir says.
As the brand has reached new heights in the past two years, the women have started grappling with the mounting responsibilities. Just as they knew they’d need distribution help to launch a national beverage, they’re now identifying what they’re going to need to take Yes Way Rosé to the next level. Managing a rotating team of project-based freelancers, being the voice of the brand, and running the business is starting to feel like too much for two humans.
That’s why, back when I visited them at that photo studio in March, they were excited to start working with a digital agency to help them grow their marketing efforts. “We have been very blessed with free advertising, but we can’t stay within our Instagram bubble,” Blumenthal says. “We have all this incredible content and art, and we aren’t putting the money behind what we’ve created as much as we should be, or reaching as many people. And we need to reach as many people as possible, because the wine is in every state — and parts of Canada.”
In mid-March, they put an immediate freeze on 30 percent of their marketing budget to protect themselves against the coronavirus crisis. They’d been looking forward to having more support in 2020 but found themselves relying on their own skill sets more than ever to get two new products — the Côtes de Provence wine and the canned spritzes — out into the world.
“I art directed my first remote photo shoot over Google,” Huganir says. “We just had to figure it out, how to get photography and get this launch ready.”
More change — and more firsts — are undoubtedly ahead. Blumenthal had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles, and COVID-19’s presence in New York accelerated those plans. That means the cofounders are now bicoastal, and they’re not entirely sure how that will impact their work. But no matter what, they feel secure knowing their guiding force is unshakable. Their brand isn’t about a product; it’s about an idea that sparked a community, and a cultural moment they defined themselves.
“We know our customer; we are our customer,” Huganir says. “We’re speaking to them and creating what we would want.”
“Had we rushed into it,” Blumenthal continues, “we wouldn’t be as strong.”