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Winemaker takes aim at millenial peers

As a millennial working in the wine industry, Dylan Steeves perceived his generation was an overlooked audience.

"Traditionally,  wine was marketed and pitched to an older crowd as well as wealthier demographic," Steeves said. "Of all the alcohols, wine was this kind of pretentious, stuffy industry, or it was a bottom-of-the-barrel $5 kind of thing."

Millennial palates are more sophisticated than they're given credit for, he said. They also account for half of present wine consumption.

"If you're not targeting that demographic then you're kind of missing the boat," said the 28-year-old Ashland High grad, who produces wine in California but whose industry roots trace to several Rogue Valley locations. "Millennials are out there now, they have a few bucks in their pocket, they're going to wineries and tasting rooms, they're developing a more sophisticated and educated palate."

Even the presentation seemed to miss the mark for his generation.

"There was a discrepancy, between sleek and youthful packaging of a quality wine that isn't going to totally break the bank," the Ashland native said.

So the young winemaker developed a wine label in 2014 he could market to peers. The first of his Riché releases is a red blend of 60 percent zinfandel, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent petite sirah with three more in the works. It's available at the Ashland Food Co-op, Harry & David Country Village and Old 99 Road Wine Shop on Stewart Avenue in Medford.

The brand and label ultimately turned out better than he could've wished, but it took some quick thinking. He mocked up four or five versions on his computer, got together on Skype with a former business partner, and decided on Riche — French for rich. When Steeves contacted the trademark office, there was a new twist.

"They said it doesn't matter if it's in Swahili, whatever it translates to in English is what you are trying to trademark," Steeves said. "Trademarking rich is like trademarking milk — you can't, it's too generic."

Then came the inspirational moment, when Steeves suggested putting an accent above the E.

"It doesn't make it a real word in any language, either in English or French," he said. "He said, 'Well, you have to provide a definition.' I happened to have my slogan in front of me, which was: Status regardless of wealth. Essentially he said 'OK.' So we were able to define the word as well as trademark it. It really worked out so much better and organically."

Steeves began working at South Stage Cellars when he was 18, put some time in at vineyards while in college and worked for Quail Run Vineyards and bottled wine at Pallet Wine Co. before moving south to do production work in San Diego.

With an eye on capturing a younger demographic, Riché bottles carry more than the usual information on the back of the label.

"We're pushing social media aspect and icons," he said. "If you look at most labels in a wine shop, it will be hard to find any with social media content."

To go with a new word in the wine drinkers' lexicon, Steeves hopes to redefine the status quo.

"The packaging is 24-karat gold leaf, it's sleek, it looks good," he said. "We went for a sexy, minimalist design; at the same time if you've got $25, $26 in your pocket you can get a bottle of wine."

He's now the head winemaker for Carruth Cellars, a boutique winery in San Diego, where bottles sell for $45 to $65.

"The $8 bottle market didn't resonate with me," he said. "At the same time I didn't want to sell a $45 bottle or $65 bottle to a 20-something. I wanted to hit that mid- to lower-20s range and provide something unique, and pretty good."

Riché, however, is produced and bottled in Paso Robles on the central California coast.

Steeves followed his mother into the industry, but it wasn't on his radar when he left Ashland for the University of Oregon, where he studied cinematography and philosophy.

"I got into it kind of accidentally during college, he said. "Then carried it through," he said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Dylan Steeves talks about his new wine label at the Old 99 Road Wine Shop & Specialty Foods in Medford on Friday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch