Looks can be deceptive

At the beginning of the year, British supermarket Sainsbury’s quietly introduced a new Chilean wine brand.

A brand, it turned out, that was just like the old one – so similar in fact, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that it didn’t want its customers to notice the change.

Certainly, when I went into my local branch of Sainsbury’s, it took me a moment to realise that the retailer’s own-label Camino del Angel brand was not, in fact, Casillero del Diablo. Both have white labels with calligraphic black and red script and gold on black details. Both have Spanish names with a strikingly similar number of syllables, riffing on a celestial/fallen celestial being. Both specialise in classic single varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay.

The differences are rather telling, however. One is a brand that has been steadily building for years so it is now by far the biggest-selling Chilean wine in the world, based on the sort of consistent quality that has made brand owner Concha y Toro a regular feature at the top of this magazine’s list of the World’s Most Admired Wine Brands. The other is… well, let’s just say that it looks like it was made by the people who brought you the Ralex watches or Addiddas trainers proffered by the sort of trader who carries his stock from site to site in a holdall, all the better to do a runner when the cops come. And it tastes like something one of those traders would sell in a bottle marked Channel No. 6.

Will Sainsbury’s get away with what feels like a blatant infringement of intellectual property laws? According to my contact at Concha y Toro, the supermarket can expect a battle. “They’re taking it very seriously… they’re not happy at all. If they’d wanted to piss off one of the biggest wine producers in the world, they couldn’t have gone about it a better way,” he said.

Concha y Toro will no doubt be looking at legal precedent, such as the famous chocolate biscuit case some 20 years ago, in which United Biscuits got the Asda supermarket (now part of Wal-Mart) to stop making its Puffin biscuits after convincing the judge that they were rather too close to the firm’s Penguin brand.

But beyond any impending legal shenanigans, what’s really interesting about this case for the wider world is what it says about the strength – or otherwise – of wine brands.

After all, despite it being one of the most recognised wine brands in the wine world, Sainsbury’s clearly feels that loyalty to Casillero only goes so deep – that its customers, most of them casual rather than engaged wine consumers, are basically just buying “that one with the white label – Cassi? Cami? You know the one I mean”.

It’s a gamble that has no doubt been inspired by the success – all over the world – of discount supermarkets, where brands are just not a part of the mix.

The way Sainsbury’s has gone about it suggests it doesn’t quite have the confidence of its own convictions. But the way consumers respond will show just where the power between retailers and wine’s brand owners really lies.