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Invivo: the virtual vintners

Friendship, creative sponsorship and a new way of marketing wine

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Lightbourne and Cameron with Gregor Kregar’s Piercing the Clouds (2008)

collaboration

Mixing business and friendship can lead to tricky territory. But for old school friends Rob Cameron, a winemaker, and Tim Lightbourne, a marketer, it’s been a formula for success. The two co-founded Invivo Wines in 2007 and have quickly established a footing on the world stage.

“I don’t tell him how to make wine. He doesn’t tell me how to market,” says Lightbourne. “And we both come to the table for negotiations.”

What’s different about it? Rather than growing its own grapes, the company operates as a virtual vineyard, targeting a specific global market.

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Like many good ideas, it all began in a bar. Cameron and Lightbourne were working in the UK, but decided to strike out on their own when they returned home—although timing was not on their side.

“We launched at the start of a global recession, in a wine glut. There were 600- plus other wineries in New Zealand,” Lightbourne says.

The two spent the subsequent weeks travelling the country selling the brand, kipping on friends’ couches as they went. While Lightbourne’s marketing contacts helped pave the way, it is sheer determination to get the Invivo name out there that has proved crucial.

“Rob and I live and breathe this business,” he says. “We are on the go seven days a week.”

Lightbourne says that, while they’ve achieved what they set out to do with the label—to create a boutique brand that also supports the creative industries—Invivo’s rapid growth has still come as a surprise.

In the last 12 months, Invivo wines have received six gold medals, and in 2009 it won the New Zealand Innovation in Marketing Trophy. Requests for creative sponsorship arrive every week, and partners include Fashion Week, the World Music Expo, the Fitness Industry Awards and the Venice Biennale.

Invivo also sponsors individual artists, including visual artist Gregor Kregar and musician Eru Dangerspiel. “They don’t have to be household names,” says Lightbourne. “We choose artists we can work and grow with.”

One of the company’s main strengths, he says, is its agility. “‘Anything goes’ is the strategy,” he laughs. “If someone approaches us to do something crazy, we have the flexibility to do it without having to go through head office.”

While it doesn’t own a vineyard, Invivo purchases grapes from five growers in the Marlborough and Otago regions, and currently produces sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, pinot gris and rosé. “The virtual winery model is not a new one,” says Cameron. “The proliferation of contract facilities around the country is proof that a decent portion of New Zealand wine is not made in estate wineries.”

It also enables the pair to play to their individual strengths and match production to the market, while focusing on international development. Invivo already exports to nine countries, but their latest deal with Grupo Codorníu—Spain’s largest wine producer and one of the biggest producers of sparkling wine in the world— has given them an exclusive agent in the UK and Ireland for on- and off-traders.

Founded in 1551 and still privately owned by the Raventos family, Codorníu is a name that carries plenty of heft in the industry.

“They liked our approach, the marketing, the accolades,” Lightbourne says. Significantly, it’s also a unique contract because this marks the first time Codorníu has taken on a foreign brand.

The deal offers “significant” potential for growth; Codorníu produces nearly 70 million bottles a year, in comparison to around 250,000 for Invivo. “They have very strong distribution networks and opportunities for us. We will still need to work hard with their sales team, though, in a tough global wine market.”

Nick Mantella, managing director of Codorníu UK, says its aim is to build a premium range of wines from around the world. “Invivo has built an incredible pedigree of quality in a very short time, and fits perfectly with this strategy,” he says.

Given the growth of New Zealand wines in the region, the timing could be perfect. In fact, Invivo recently had to temporarily halt local sales of its low-alcohol sauvignon blanc, Bella, to ensure enough stock could be sent to the UK.

Next they’ll be turning their sights to America, something the Codorníu deal may help facilitate. But ultimately, they are their own best ambassadors— no-one lives and breathes the brand like they do.

–Esther Goh