Label Savvy

As viticulture goes truly global—when they start making wine in England, you know something is really going on—and competition stiffens, every aspect of marketing comes under scrutiny, including the way a bottle looks. For the most part, what retailers call shelf appeal has greater impact on mass-market wines than top-of-the-line offerings. If you wander the aisles at Costco or Trader Joe’s, you’ll notice the tightrope that big producers, such as Turning Leaf and Woodbridge, are trying to negotiate. Their labels use warm, pleasant colors—golden yellows, soft greens, earth tones—with strong, clear graphics to catch the wandering eye of the average shopper.

Broadly speaking, European wineries tend to stick to convention when it comes to labeling. The French section of just about any wine shop is invariably the most stately and visually subdued, in contrast to the kitschy Hansel and Gretel–esque landscapes often found on German bottles or the pseudo-Renaissance pomposity of Italian varietals, with all those crests and shields and armored condottieri on horseback. It’s the New World winemakers that, for better and worse, tend to be the most adventurous. Look no further than the ubiquitous Australian producer Yellow Tail’s cloyingly contemporary brackets around its name, lowercased (of course) and set against catchy colors. It’s an aesthetic targeting style-conscious yet budget-minded buyers, many of whom are no doubt turned off by what they perceive as wine’s stodgy associations.

At the higher end of the pecking order, a more sophisticated approach is to associate wine with art and, by extension, equate those who drink it with art patrons. The idea isn’t new, but given the international art boom it’s hardly surprising the concept is now being mined more vigorously than ever. In fact, the artist-designed wine label was the brainchild of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who took over his family’s legendary Château Mouton Rothschild vineyard as a 20-year-old in 1922 and set off on a successful half-century crusade to have its wine elevated to premier grand cru classé status.

The old chestnut about not being able to tell a book by its cover must be one of the least listened-to aphorisms of all time. Surface impressions, and first impressions especially, are crucial in how we evaluate things—often with good reason, as scientific studies have shown. In winemaking the label is the equivalent of the dust jacket in publishing. Ostensibly an informational aid to the consumer, it has become (increasingly so in recent years) a carefully considered sales tool.

Two years later Rothschild asked the graphic designer Jean Carlu to redo the Mouton label, and Carlu’s jaunty Cubist emblem—juxtaposing the five arrows of the family’s crest and a cute stylized mouton, or sheep—remained in place until 1945. After World War II the baron shifted his upgrading drive into high gear and hit upon the idea of commissioning a different artist to design the label for each new vintage. (An exhibition of original works created for Mouton was held at Sotheby’s in New York earlier this year to drum up publicity for a sale of rare bottles from the château’s cellars.) The results of the project have been a decidedly mixed bag, with many of the big names in 20th-century art included but few of them represented by anything close to their best efforts.

Rothschild’s daughter, Baroness Philippine, who assumed management of Mouton following her father’s death in 1988, is, if anything, an even shrewder marketer than he was, and her most recent coup was to have the label of the 2004 vintage based on a painting by Prince Charles. When she approached the avid royal watercolorist during a trip to London with the wife of French president Jacques Chirac, his response, she reports, was "Let me send you one of my awful watercolors." When they arrived, she says, they weren’t awful at all. Well, I’d argue that the prince is a better critic—of his own work, at least—than he is a painter. At first sight of his 2004 label, I thought to myself, Ah, chanterelles. Not bad. The problem is, the scene is supposed to represent a landscape of pine trees, not an array of expensive fungi.

Far better was Ilya Kabakov’s 2002 Mouton label, featuring a black-and-white line drawing of angelic wings converging on a celestial oculus. And I’m crazy about the one from 1998, which uses Rufino Tamayo’s image of a grinning, slightly demonic figure lifting a glass beneath a glowing sun. Alas, the poor baroness was less well served by that jack-of-all-trades Robert Wilson. His depiction of her on the 2001 vintage can only be described as warmed-over Warhol, whose 1975 Mouton label featured twin likenesses of Baron de Rothschild. It’s not just that Wilson’s weakly outlined mirror-image portrait is backed by swaths of sixties Pop colors, but he also managed to make his subject look like a bloated Roman emperor.

From time to time vintners have taken a leaf from the Mouton book and used works of art to underscore the notion that winemaking is an art form in itself. Bedell Cellars, on Long Island’s North Fork, asked South Fork resident and eighties SoHo wunderkind Eric Fischl to design the label for its 2001 Merlot Reserve Magnum. He obliged with a watercolor of a female nude viewed from behind, a limp effort recalling the endless aquarelle studies of Isadora Duncan churned out in the 1910s by Abraham Walkowitz. A stronger commission is the one by Barbara Kruger that Bedell has been using on its Taste Red and Taste White wines since the late nineties, although the punchy black-and-white close-up of an Anna Nicole Smith type does make it seem that she’s ready to bite your head off.

Perhaps the most successful pairing of an artist and a wine in recent memory was Roy Lichtenstein’s 1990 packaging for the 1985 vintage of the Taittinger Collection Brut Champagne. Lichtenstein had al-ready been mining the world of advertising im-agery in his work for three years, so in a way he was an ideal choice. After 1970 he became increasingly interested in classicism and Art Deco, and he put that enthusi-asm to excellent use for Taittinger.

Wrapping the bottle in a blue plastic film, Lichtenstein had the surface silk-screened with an undulating flow of vine tendrils, grapes, grape leaves, Champagne bubbles, and a classical mask in profile— all in whites, greens, blues, and just enough yellow to link the composition to his signature primary-color palette. But the artist may have done too well for his client. Were I given a bottle today, I’d hesitate to pop the cork. It’s worth much more filled than empty. Besides, tampering with the blue skin seems almost like an act of cultural vandalism.

Celebrated artists are not a prerequisite for coming up with a good-looking bottle, of course. One of the handsomest newish labels is that of the estimable Almaviva Winery in Chile (a joint venture with Mou-ton Rothschild). Its array of asymmetrical roundel logos above the winery’s name, written in 18th-century-style script, is dignified enough for any setting. Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate has shown a shrewd grasp of what works at every price point. The label of its flagship meritage blend is a subtle homage to the most classic étiquette de vin of all: the 1855 Lafite Rothschild label. Even though the Rubicon format is vertical and Lafite’s is horizontal, both display line engravings of the respective châteaux against off-white backgrounds. And Coppola’s Edizione Pennino Zinfandel has a unique barbell-shaped label inspired by his maternal grandfather’s immigrant experience, with a Naples scene on the left and New York Harbor on the right.

To be sure, there are wines I don’t want to see in our dining room. (Even when I decant, I like to put the bottle on the table for guests interested in having a look.) I shudder when I think of the labels of Toasted Head winery in Esparto, California, which feature a rearing bear that’s probably meant to look as if he’s breathing fire but appears to me to be vomiting. Gravity Hills, a maker in Paso Robles, California, juxtaposes graphics and backgrounds in colors that vibrate so violently, the labels give me a headache. And somebody please tell the doubtlessly fine folks at L’Ecole No. 41, in Walla Walla, Washington, that artwork by schoolchildren is rarely as charming to anyone else as it is to the little Picassos’ parents.

In the end, however, I am never deterred by the way a great bottle looks. For example, the labels of many German Rieslings are impossibly corny, with scenes of castles and forests and rivers little better than what you’d find on a cheap box of chocolates. So what? It’s not keeping me from hoarding every bottle of a certain 2001 eiswein I can possibly get my hands on.

Specialty wine dealers agree that their clients typically come with a specific purchase in mind, making the label a moot point. Falling somewhere between the rarity merchants and the big-box sellers is one of my favorite New York shops, PJ Wine. Dominique Noel, PJ’s buyer, says that labeling has varied effects at different levels of the market. "I first noticed the Australians playing with color five or seven years ago," he notes. "At the bottom end is Yellow Tail, which you can put anywhere in the store and people will see it. In the middle range, a funny or whimsical label tells the consumer this is a modern wine. But at the very top, if you changed the Latour label, people would go crazy, fearing there had been tampering with the wine." Noel thinks some of the best labels now are coming from Spain, especially the Priorat region. He cites the bottles of Celler Vall Llach, describing them as "attractive without being too contemporary and traditional without being old-fashioned."

One thing is certain. As the lucrative wine market continues to grow worldwide, we have seen only the beginning of the novel ways in which vintners will use creative labeling to enhance the allure, the prestige, and the price of their wine, even if the true artistry will always be found inside the bottle.

Martin Filler wrote about zinfandel in the March/April issue.

Artful Drinking: the Good, Bad, and Ugly

Classics: Don’t Ever Change

Dom Pérignon
This is my favorite Champagne bottle design. Everything’s perfect, from the slope-shouldered 18th-century profile to the shield-shaped label with elegant engraved lettering. 1999 vintage, $170

Château d’Yquem
Nothing’s more vulgar on a wine label than too much gold, but here its discreet application enhances the color of this greatest of all Sauternes, visible through clear glass. The coronet of the counts of Lur-Saluces is throwaway chic. 2003, $400

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
The Chanel No. 5 of wine packaging, the protomodern graphic design used by this legendary Burgundy maker shows how nothing is stronger than clear black typography set against a white background. The label for La Tâche works the best because it has the fewest letters. 2004, $1,300

Misfires: What Were They Thinking?

Ken Wright Cellars
Bloggers have had a field day justly dissing this Oregon Pinot Noir producer’s infamous "potato famine" label. It features a creepily stylized vineyard scene that channels Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters via the macabre illustrations of Gahan Wilson. 2005 Abbott Claim Vineyard, $60

Nicolas Feuillatte Palmes d’Or Vintage
Quel dommage that this respected maker put such a lovely premium cuvée into a bottle whose knobby surface is so reminiscent of a hand grenade’s. Striking? Yes, but your first impulse after uncorking might just be to throw it and duck rather than pour. 1997, $135

Sine Qua Non
You’d think the law of averages might ensure a few inoffensive labels from this southern California winery, but no. It’s hard to imagine the countless ways wine packaging can go wrong until you contemplate the disaster typified by the 2004 Poker Face Syrah. $115