They say a good quality product can sell itself. Hogwash! In an era marked by crowded marketplaces, big data, and hyper-dynamic marketing practices, selling a product requires deft strategy. In many cases, the fine line that separates success and failure lies upon a brand’s ability to consistently deliver on message for ever changing marketplace. For Tim Martin, co-founder of Gauge Branding and owner of Immortal Estate – previously Hidden Ridge Vineyard – his latest passion project is a testament to the power of rebranding: reviving a stagnant vineyard into a luxury wine brand.
As a child, Martin worked as a prep cook for his Italian grandfather. His penchant for all things culinary led him to two accomplished decades in restaurant and hospitality management. After working in Napa Valley for a decade with legendary Robin Lail and her wine project, Lail Vineyards, in addition to launching his own project, Tusk Estates, Martin launched Gauge Branding with partner Mark Wiegard. At Gauge, Martin focuses on cultivating brand DNA and crafting marketing strategies for emerging winemakers, cold-brew coffee makers, and bourbon distillers. In 2017, he fulfilled his lifelong dream to own a vineyard and thus became the new owner of Hidden Ridge Vineyard, now known as Immortal Estate.
In its original incarnation, Hidden Ridge Vineyard was a small vineyard with a cult-like following. Its 2013 Impassable Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon received a coveted 100-point score from venerated wine critic Robert Parker, who described it as a “quintessential example of what perfection is.” The brand’s only other wine, the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon 55% Slope, also received a laudable 97+ score. Yet despite such critical accolades and high remarks, the vineyard and its compelling wines went largely unrecognized. The problem wasn’t the wine, but rather the branding or lack thereof.
To say the vineyard’s unique location is off the beaten path would be an understatement. Located on 150 acres of land on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains, the secluded vineyard runs the ridge between the Napa and Sonoma valleys. West of St. Helena, the estate’s 50 planted acres span the slope of Spring Mountain. What makes the vineyard unique is its 55-degree slope, a deviation from the county’s set 15-degree maximum. Since the area was originally developed by Lynn Hofacker and Timothy Milos in 1990, the estate is grandfathered in.
With its extreme slope and mountainous terrain, the area is an anomaly compared to typical auspicious properties. After initially purchasing the land, Hofacker spent years learning the land and developing the vineyard. This distinctive terroir provides unique soil and light conditions for the mountain fruit used to produce the vineyard’s acclaimed cabernets. The property’s exposure to the early afternoon breezes from the Russian River compounded with the area’s climate keeps the wines natural acidity and nuanced flavors. Rich, dark, and full-bodied, the wines boast a complex range of palette notes like cassis, dense cocoa, sweet spice, and truffles. “These mountain fruit are incredibly delicate,” said Martin. “The wines produced here are unlike anything else you can find. It really speaks to just how special this location is.”
While Hofacker proved to be accomplished in producing remarkable cabernets, his tenuous efforts in establishing his brand and marketing his creations kept the Hidden Ridge name a little-known secret. Today, Martin has made it his mission to change that.
When reimagining Immortal Estate, Martin had one goal in mind: to create a world class cabernet from Sonoma, which no one has ever seen. “I was intrigued by this idea that we have drawn lines and said, ‘Napa does this well, Sonoma does this well,’ but these are arbitrary lines we drew on a map. Mother Earth didn’t do that,” said Martin in an interview with Napa Valley Register. “So when I tried this wine for the first time it opened up my brain, I felt like I learned something, because this is a Sonoma cabernet that you don’t expect to have these kinds of profiles. I was blown away and sort of accepted this challenge of communicating to the world that Sonoma can make amazing cabs.”
For Martin, the new Immortal Estate was launched as an evolution of Hidden Ridge Vineyard. Rather than disregarding the past, Martin aims to honor the original vineyard by building upon its legacy of winemaking and transforming the brand into a prestigious name that will stand the test of time. “I love the fact that every day I get to work on something that I hope will outlive me,” said Martin. “Lynn, the founder of the vineyard, he’s part of that spirit. Here’s a man who crafted this amazing property. He passed away, and yet, this vineyard lives on; it’s like the spirit of his is there.”
If ever there was a symbol to represent endurance and eternal life, the immortal jellyfish would be it. As the only immortal creature on the planet, the jellyfish is able to reset itself and transform back into an adolescent state to essentially start over. With this in mind, Martin made the mysterious creature the focal point of the vineyard’s new branding. “Like the immortal jellyfish on our labels, we want clients’ memories with Immortal Estate wines to live forever,” said Martin in a press release. “We believe the way to do that is to deliver a truly luxurious wine experience through incomparable wines. We believe something special happens when people come together around good wine. Our goal in everything we’re doing is to create these immortal moments for people.”
With investors including Kate Upton and her husband, Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, Tusk Estates’ Martin unveils his new wine brand, Immortal Estate, this month, boasting wines from a stretch of the Napa-Sonoma border known for its top-rated Cabs. “We’ve dedicated ourselves to excellence in our pursuit of a wine that pairs infinitely well with life’s finest moments,” quoth Martin, encouraging oenophiles to “create your own immortal moments.”
Few people have heard of Spring Mountain’s Hidden Ridge Vineyard, even though its 2013 Impassable Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon — a Sonoma cabernet, mind you — received the coveted 100 points from Robert Parker.
The problem isn’t in the wine; it’s in the branding and marketing, which up until now, have been essentially nonexistent. Now with new, experienced ownership and a complete overhaul of the brand from Hidden Ridge to its new identity, Immortal Estate, these wine’s won’t be Sonoma’s best kept secret much longer.
The Hidden Ridge
“If you want to show off to a winemaker friend and really blow their mind, that’s where I take them,” said winemaker Timothy Milos, a consultant winemaker who has worked with Hidden Ridge Vineyard since the first vintage in 2002, was produced. “There’s really very few places like it in California. You take people up there just to show it off; to say, Guess what I get to work with?’”
Hidden Ridge vineyard is just as it sounds: hidden and on a ridge. About a 25-minute trip from the base of Spring Mountain, the final mile is like driving deep into a jungle. The nearest winery is over a mile away.
The 50 planted acres are on a little ridge on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain, looking over into a dramatic bowl. The top of the vineyard sits at 1,700 feet, but its most distinctive feature is its incredible slope. At 55 degrees, it’s an anomaly, for the county has since set a 15-degree maximum. Planted in 1990 by original owner Lynn Hofacket, Hidden Ridge is lucky enough to be, as they say, grandfathered in.
“If you saw this piece of property, it doesn’t look like anywhere that you’d attempt to build a vineyard,” said Tim Martin, co-owner of Immortal Estate, who is spearheading the transformation of the Hidden Ridge label. “Lynn studied for about three years what the best of the best was doing. He was in construction by trade, and figured out how to create this amazing vineyard —the sloping, the terracing is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Hofacket brought Milos in and they started making wines from the vineyard as a side project, with the intent to eventually sell the property. He didn’t put much investment into the business side of things, and by a stroke of luck, Robert Parker stumbled upon the Hidden Ridge wines at a Sonoma County Vintners Association tasting. He consistently awarded them high-90s scores, until most recently granting the Impassable Mountain 100 points. The 2013 Hidden Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 55 percent Slope, the brand’s only other wine, received a commendable 97+.
So what makes Hidden Ridge special?
In addition to the extreme slopes, Milos attributes much of the complexity in Hidden Ridge fruit to the vineyards’ exposure to the Russian River breeze in the early afternoons, resulting in cooler temperatures sooner than the St. Helena side of the mountain. This, combined with warm days, preserves the wines natural acidity and diverse fruit flavors.
Moreover, Hidden Ridge fruit is unlike anything else you’ll taste on Spring Mountain. While wines from many AVAs have a specific, identifiable style, Spring Mountain wines can’t be so easily placed.
“Take Pritchard Hill, for instance,” said Martin. “I love Pritchard Hill fruit, but it all has a very similar style, a style I love, but most of Pritchard Hill could be one thing. It could be owned by one person, it could have one brand, and there are very similar themes. But you line up a bunch of Spring Mountain wine, and you’re going to get all kinds of things; it’s all over the map.”
Look up “terroir” in the dictionary, and from Martin’s view, you could find Hidden Ridge as the definition.
“This wine represents this exact place. There isn’t a neighbor, there isn’t something close. It’s us, in the middle of the jungle, in this one place that truly represents itself,” he said.
Hidden Ridge wine had Martin’s interest at first sip, but another point of sale for his involvement was the fact that these outrageously great wines were Sonoma cabernets.
Martin has 20 years in the Napa Valley wine industry under his belt. His first gig was studying under Robin Lail and helping to launch Lail Vineyards, and he’s since worked on many other winery launches, in addition to starting his own project, Tusk Estates. But he also has family in Sonoma (Sebastopol, specifically), and has never felt pressured to pledge his loyalty to one side over the other.
“I was intrigued by this idea that we have drawn lines and said, ‘Napa does this well, Sonoma does this well,’ but these are arbitrary lines we drew on a map. Mother Earth didn’t do that,” said Martin. “So when I tried this wine for the first time it opened up my brain, I felt like I learned something, because this is a Sonoma cabernet that you don’t expect to have these kind of profiles. I was blown away and sort of accepted this challenge of communicating to the world that Sonoma can make amazing cabs.”
If you think he’s in for an uphill climb, Martin says ‘bring it.’ In fact, he’s already doing it.
How many Sonoma cabernets, if any, do you know selling for $300? Martin came in and took a big risk, raising the price of the Impassable Mountain significantly to $303. Fully expecting some backlash, he offered it to Hidden Ridge’s mailing list. Then it sold out immediately with hardly a whisper in protest.
“I thought for sure all these people were going to tell me to take a hike. The fact that it sold out like that, that’s a tribute to the wine, and the fact that the people who had been buying the wine knew what they had,” said Martin.
“For me, this is my next Mt. Everest. I love challenges, and all these years, people are like, ‘Well, it’s Sonoma.’ I used to hear that, and this is the kind of wine that’s going to change people’s ideas about appellations in general, and the silliness of it.”
Hidden Ridge 2.0
This April, Martin and his team will release the 2014 vintage of Hidden Ridge wines as Immortal Estate, and Milos seems to think that these wines are even better than the 2013s.
Martin’s decision to give the brand a new name stemmed from the fact that it simply wasn’t working from a consumer perspective, even reminding some people of Hidden Ranch, the salad dressing.
But when Martin got the idea for Immortal, it came from someplace quite unexpected: a 1905 bottle of sherry he had at Torc in Napa.
“It was unreal, like ‘stop everything’ unreal. Then it hit me, that everyone who made this is gone. I realized in that moment that there’s something about what we’re doing here that we hope will live beyond us,” he said. “Most of us in wine, there’s something pure about working with your hands to create something that someone’s going to enjoy years later. You’re not around at that moment at Christmas or amongst friends, but you’re hopefully creating a happy moment, and here I was trying something that someone created in 1905.”
As the idea evolved, he found a more personal connection to Immortal as well: his father.
“The reason I got into this industry is because my father was a big believer in going for it. He always pushed me to take chances, to never settle, to be an entrepreneur and find your own way, and my father is really the reason I started all of this,” said Martin.
“My father passed away this year and part of Immortal is that I realized when my father died, there are people in our lives that have imparted part of their spirit on you, and they live on in a way through you. My father lives on in a way through me, and I hope to be able to give back to the world so that when I’m gone, I live on through someone too.”
While searching for the right graphic or imagery to represent the new name, Martin happened upon the perfect subject to grace the new labels: the Immortal Jellyfish.
Yes, it’s a real, living thing.
“It’s the only animal on the planet that can live forever. When it gets to its adult cycle, it reproduces itself and basically changes itself back into an adolescent and it starts over. In a way, it’s sort of imparting itself on itself, which goes with our theme,” he said.
“I love the fact that every day I get to work on something that I hope will outlive me. Lynn, the founder of the vineyard, he’s part of that spirit. Here’s a man who crafted this amazing property. He passed away, and yet, this vineyard lives on; it’s like the spirit of him is there.”
Toast the season with a cult favorite. Hidden Ridge's Impassable Mountain Reserve 2013 is made from 100% Cabernet and makes for a marvelous wine for rich winter feasts. Its focused aromas of blackberry, clove, and dried rose are followed by mocha, black cassis, and black tea. Layered and dense, the palate of Hidden Ridge's Impassable Mountain Reserve seduces with hints of baking spices and black fruit. One sip and you'll understand why Robert Parker awarded it a perfect 100 points. This is an incredible wine for gifting that picky wine lover on your list ($399.95).