Bernkastel-Kues, a small town in the Mosel valley that is famous for its white wines, has a depressing air at this time of year. Its cobbled alleyways are deserted and its hotels – in compact, brightly painted half-timbered Fachwerk houses – are shuttered. Rows of leafless vines line the slopes above the town.
But from May onwards, the valley is transformed by swarms of tourists, especially Swedes and Norwegians who fly in with budget carrier Ryanair from Stockholm and Oslo to nearby Frankfurt-Hahn airport. The visitors admire the river and visit the ruined castles. They also take advantage of what, for Scandinavians, is astonishingly cheap alcohol. Few of them realise, though, that they are in the home town of a Nordic cult.
Indeed, what should be flagged as the greatest attraction for the northern visitors – and its fans in the US and Japan – gets no mention whatsoever in any local tourist literature. But then Germany as a whole has never learnt to love what is Bernkastel-Kues’s most extraordinary export: a white wine called Happy Cat.
The headquarters of Moselland eG, a 300-member wine-growers’ cooperative, is a functional 1960s building that has been tactfully modernised. Yet there is nothing to indicate that it is the home of Happy Cat: no road signs, no 10m replica of the famous feline-shaped bottle. There are no bottles for sale on the shelves of the factory shop. Are they ashamed of their large, and admittedly kitsch, litter?
On the contrary: Martin Henrichs, the company’s head of marketing, talks with pride about the success of their cool katze. No one had dreamt it would generate so much business. But, he admits, he fears that the Happy Cat could cause controversy in Germany.
The Moselland cooperative’s core business is supplying wholesalers and importers around the world with semi-sweet Rieslings. The annual output for all its labels is 30 million litres, generating sales of about €56m. For many years, one of its marketing strategies has been to develop bottle designs to appeal to specific target groups, including non-traditional wine buyers, and in 1995 Glaswerke Ernstthal, the cooperative’s bottle-maker, suggested using the cat bottle.
Originally commissioned by a cosmetics company as a container for bubble bath, the bottle was used by Henrichs in a trial run to market Riesling in Japan. The brightly coloured receptacles were a hit: 800,000 sold there in the first year. Women in particular were attracted by the bottles’ playful design. The Japanese custom of sending a bottle of wine along with wedding invitations proved useful for Happy Cat, too: cats are a symbol of good fortune in Japan.
Although the launch was a triumph, Henrichs says that the cooperative madea mistake that first year. “We supplied the cats in a range of colours to represent different quality wines – for example, there was a golden cat that contained a particularly good Riesling. We had five different cats on the market at the same time. That was too much for the customers.” The boom proved to be a fad, and trade stagnated after 18 months.
Henrichs came up with a new strategy. From now on, the bottle would be available in only one colour in each country, and each bottle would contain the same wine, a light Riesling. Importers in the various countries were consulted on colours, and the result is that Moselland now sells a consistent 500,000 Happy Cats every year.
In Scandinavia, it is imported for sale in state-monopoly off-licences, which account for the bulk of alcohol sales in Norway, Sweden and Finland. This is a stroke of luck, because the range of drinks sold in these shops is strictly regulated and the candy-coloured cats acquired a cult following. These three countries make up Happy Cat’s largest market. This year they will be drinking the wine from violet-hued bottles.
But despite the wine’s international succcess, Bernkastel-Kues is not ready to make more of its famous creation. “When we introduced Happy Cat to Sweden, the press knocked us mercilessly,” Henrichs explains. It wasn’t the bottle they were lambasting but the supposed lack of value for money; while wine bottles normally contain three-quarters of a litre, the cat holds only half a litre and costs about €7. “The criticism in Sweden did somewhat tarnish our reputation, although even the negative press was good for sales, because for weeks all the newspapers ran pictures of the bottle,” says Henrichs. But fearing that press criticism at home could damage the reputation of Moselland, he has not marketed Happy Cat in Germany. In 2000 he offered a small quantity to the German QVC shopping channel, but this is as far as he has dared to go.
Henrichs acknowledges that Happy Cat is unlikely to cut it in the traditional wine market: “It’s more of a collectors’ item, a present.” That’s why the annual consultation about bottle colours emphasises regional lifestyle trends. When the Iraq war broke out, the “Patriot Pack” of three bottles – red, white and blue – was a hit in the US. “Generally speaking, Americans prefer the brighter colours.”
The UK, one of the largest and most hotly contested wine markets in the world, is also Happy Cat-free. “The British drink an enormous amount of wine but they won’t buy cat bottles,” rues Henrichs. At least, that is what he is told by the buyers from Tesco, Oddbins and Majestic, which have the British wine business in a Scandinavian-style stranglehold, albeit non-state controlled.
Henrichs reckons that British consumers have nothing against cat-shaped bottles, “but you’d have to place Happy Cat somewhere outside the wine section – then they would snap it up. But so far we haven’t managed to sneak Happy Cat on to UK shelves.”
Only time will tell whether the British will one day finally be able to join the Scandinavians and Japanese in a toast to Bernkastel-Kues’ secret creation.
Lose the Blue Nun habit
The beer-drinking German is a well-known stereotype. But Germany also has a long tradition of wine-making, which can be traced back to the Celts and Romans. High-quality, dry German wine is rarely sold to the Germans, however – it’s reserved for smart restaurants. The mass market is dominated either by cheap semi-sweet or sweet wine such as Liebfraumilch from large producers, or by medium-quality New World wines.
History and the anti-freeze scandal
In the postwar period known as the era of the Wirtschafts-wunder, or economic miracle, German wine-growers made the fatal choice of opting for quantity over quality. The resulting wave of poor-quality wines destroyed their reputation within Germany. The industry also lost credibility after the glycol scandal in the mid-1980s, when Austrian and German wine-growers were caught trying to pep up their bitter wines with an anti-freeze agent containing glucose.
EC subsidies and New World competition
The industry faltered again when many wine-growers decided that, rather than keep struggling away in the mountains, it would be better to be paid a set-aside subsidy by the EC: leaving land idle to avoid a wine glut. Like the French wine industry, German wines have lost out to mass-produced wines from the New World. Nowadays, the average German wine-drinker is far more likely to opt for a Chardonnay from South Africa than a local Riesling.