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HOW A KANGAROO-LOGOED WINE HOPPED UP TO NO. 1 IMPORT

Don't expect to hear Yellow Tail boast in any ads that it's the best-selling imported wine in the United States.

It wants to preserve the image of a hip, undiscovered Australian brand even as it expects to sell 10 million cases (120 million bottles) in the United States this year. Yellow Tail exploded on the wine scene in 2001 -- and is still the most successful introduction in the industry's history.

Yellow Tail is the most popular bottled wine in upstate New York, one of the first places it was introduced.

But no one, not even Yellow Tail importer W.J. Deutsch & Sons, expected a wine with a colorful kangaroo on the label to sell so well. W.J. Deutsch figured it might sell 25,000 cases in the first 12 months. It ended up selling 1 million.

"This brand is one of the great success stories of the wine industry," said Michael Moaba, editorial director of Market Watch, which writes about the alcoholic beverage industry. "In four years, it has sold more wine than the entire Australian wine segment sold in 1999. It has really just taken over the category."

Yellow Tail now sells more wine than the next three Australian brands combined -- Lindemans, Black Swan and Rosemount.

But a trendy label and cute kangaroo (technically a wallaby) were only part of what made Yellow Tail the No. 1 imported wine.

"The Australians, in general, have been more market oriented than many U.S. wineries, which have been production oriented," said Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly. "U.S. wineries make a wine and expect that you're going to buy it. Australians find a segment of the market and decide to make the best possible wine for that segment."

And that's the philosophy embraced by Casella Wines, the maker of Yellow Tail. Casella Wines, a family-owned business founded in 1965, is about 450 miles west of Sydney.

In keeping the wine's trendy image, Casella prints the name using brackets and lower-case letters: [yellow tail].

"The label is very attractive, but also reassuring," said John Casella, head of Casella Wines, who was in Buffalo last week with his wife and four children to vacation in Niagara Falls. As usual when he represents the company in public, he wears a mustard yellow tie with a tasteful kangaroo pattern, visible only up close.

He gives some thought to the question of why Yellow Tail did so well before slowly and deliberately saying, "It looked good. It tasted good. And it wasn't going to waste your money."

Casella made sure that Yellow Tail didn't have the dry, sometimes bitter taste that some people associate with wine. Casella doesn't age its wine and it eliminated much of the tannins and acidity. To make it sweeter, Casella added fruit and sugar.

And because it costs $7 a bottle -- but tastes twice as expensive -- consumers confidently recommended it to friends.

Famed wine critic Robert Parker had this to say about Yellow Tail in the August 2003 edition of the Wine Advocate: "In some wine circles it is fashionable to criticize wines of this genre, but, if the truth be known, these are surprisingly well-made offerings."

Yellow Tail has an especially strong presence in upstate New York because its importer, W.J. Deutsch, is in White Plains.

Locally, Yellow Tail is the No. 1 wine by dollar volume, said Peter Korrie, regional director of sales for upstate New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut for W.J. Deutsch. It knocked Beringer into second place a few years ago.

But nationally, California-made Beringer is still champ, having sold $262 million worth of wine in 2004, according to market research firm AC Nielsen. Yellow Tail sold $220 million.

But while Yellow Tail sales rose 45 percent last year, Beringer's sales fell 2.6 percent.

"We anticipate on surpassing Beringer during our upcoming year," Korrie said. "It was introduced in upstate New York before the Midwest and Western States because our company is in White Plains, N.Y. Yellow Tail is what propelled us to national distribution in 2003."

Yellow Tail is the most popular brand at Prime Wines on Delaware Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda, with 10,000 cases going out the door last year.

"You have a very up-to-date package," said owner Burt Notarius. "The product is consistently good. It's got a little bit of fruit to it. For 98 percent of the population, it's exactly what they want."

Competitors have quickly copied Yellow Tail.

Southcorp, Australia's largest wine maker, introduced Little Penguin. California's E&J Gallo created Red Bicyclette, a French wine, and Black Swan, an Australian wine.

While it may be what 98 percent of people want, it's not what connoisseurs of Warm Lake Estate on the Niagara Escarpment seek when they purchase a $40 bottle of its pinot noir. Three of the leading wine publications recently wrote about Warm Lake, which has the largest planting of pinot noir grapes in the state.

"We're actually at the opposite ends of the spectrum," said founder and managing partner Michael J. VonHeckler. "We're shooting for the person who has to have the best, whereas Yellow Tail is more of a beverage as opposed to a wine."

And there's room for both. Sales of wine rose 30 percent in the past five years to an estimated $23 billion, according to the Wine Institute.

"The reason they can all coexist and all grow is the wine category is a category in which consumers like to experiment and try new things," said Penn, editor of Wine Business. "Something like Yellow Tail might be for everyday, where a wine from Warm Lake Estate you might save for a special occasion. People might start with a wine like Yellow Tail and then move up."

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com