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The Feminine Mystique

A peek at the women--from Mona Lisa to Marilyn Monroe--who appear (nude and not) on wine labels

Most people paste pictures of their relatives in family albums. Greg Costello puts pictures of his great-grandmother in wine shops and restaurants all over New York.

The picture, a profile of a handsome young woman sporting an elegant red hat, appears on labels of the Costello family's Madame Costeau French wines. "She's better looking than my great-grandmother actually was," Costello admits, noting that her image was placed on the label because she was the first family member to be involved in the wine business. As for accuracy, well, who would take issue with this sort of artistic license? After all, his great-grandmother is on the bottle as much to sell wine as she is to honor family history.

A Bluer Nun
Great-grandmother Costello is only one of many women who have been chosen for label decoration. The most famous is undoubtedly the Blue Nun, though it's hard to think of her image as an icon at this point, as she has undergone so many changes of late. In fact, the newest Nun is no longer middle-aged and frumpy but, frankly, rather young and--dare it even be said--sexy. And while I have to admit that the first Nun wasn't much to look at, in my formative wine- drinking years I found that there was something rather reassuring about her and her stolid brown-habited sisters standing in the fields nearby. They made it seem like you weren't buying a bottle of wine blindly but trading on the credibility of an entire convent. The new Nun (sans sisters, who were eliminated in an Eighties label cleanup) looks less trustworthy, maybe even a bit unpredictable--in short, she's a lot more like Sally Field (The Flying Nun) than mother superior (The Sound of Music).

Quady Winery in California also features a religious figure on one of its wine labels, although the dewy blonde angel adorning its Electra Orange Muscat has little in common with the Blue Nun. Furthermore, I'm not sure how much blind trust in a wine she could inspire, looking, as she does, as if she just graduated from the high school section of heaven. (The robe she's wearing definitely owes more to Donna Karan than it does to divine provenance.)

The woman on Kenwood Vineyard's Cabernet Sauvignon offers attractions that are anything but angelic. The label features a painting by David Lance Goines of a completely naked woman reclining on a hillside of grapevines. Deemed obscene and indecent by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1975, the winery was forbidden to use it--although 50 cases of wine were sold before the censors clamped down. Some 20 years later, less prudish or perhaps more artistically minded government officials allowed the same label to appear on Kenwood's 1994 Artist Series Cabernet. (Don't bother calling the winery: the entire production has long since sold out.)

Many more wine producers use paintings of women, clothed or otherwise, on their labels. Woodley Wines of Australia puts a portrait of England's Queen Adelaide on its bottles. Her husband, William IV, was on the throne when the Australian city of Adelaide was founded. (Better a picture of an English queen, I guess, than an English convict.) Closer to home, Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon puts a passel of paintings to work, seemingly on the theory that if one painting of a woman can help sell wine, then lots of women can move lots of bottles. Every Adelsheim bottle, from Pinot Noir to Pinot Gris, features a different lissome blonde or brunette, all real-life friends of proprietor Ginny Adelsheim. And in its bid for retail attention, Tyfield Importers simply settled on the single most famous female in art history when it introduced a new wine. What do you say to Mona Lisa Sangiovese?

Art Matters
As someone who's logged considerable time at art museums, I say it makes some sense to place paintings of women on labels. Indeed, there are many more paintings of good-looking women than there are, well, ones of men. In museums, portraits of men seem to feature the same jowly squires accompanied by hunting dogs or some bristly colonel on horseback surrounded by his regiment or in the midst of a bloody battle scene. And who really wants to buy a bottle of Beaujolais with a bloody battle scene or, for that matter, a man and a beagle on its label?

An ad-exec friend of mine contends that women appear on wine labels because they connote aesthetic refinement in a way men never could. And while this sounds plausible enough when applied to Mona Lisa and any one of the Adelsheim girls, I'm not sure it's the only factor at work when it comes to Kenwood's naked lady Cab or Nova Wines' Marilyn Merlot. This California wine, which debuted in the Eighties, features portraits of the famous actress (who was more frequently associated with barbiturates than Bordeaux, but never mind) in all manner of guises--Marilyn as ingenue, Marilyn as movie star. And although the Merlot may be a big-selling wine on Ebay, I can't say that I believe the attraction is altogether aesthetic.

Selling Sex
I think Marilyn (and Kenwood's lady) are meant to give wine what the actress gave subway gratings in The Seven Year Itch. In two words: sex appeal. While this seemed obvious enough to most men that I spoke with, not all agreed that a sexy woman on the label would be sufficient reason for them to buy a bottle of wine. "Depends on what the woman looks like," one demurred. But only one man claimed that a vamp on the label would be the reason he would not buy the wine. That man was my husband, I'm happy (I think) to report. He said, "It would make me wonder about the quality of the wine. I'd think that the winery was hiding something." As a footnote, I should add that every one of the women I spoke with on this topic seemed to think that sex was the only reason that a woman would show up on a wine label, though they tended to curl their lips a bit and drop words like sleazy and cheesy.

Madame Clicquot, who took over the Clicquot Champagne house when her husband died, somehow seemed to know this; she never allowed a picture of herself to appear on the label. (It took a marketing team many years to put her face on the cap of the cork.) This reluctance couldn't have been because she was so modest, since she had no trouble putting her name all over the label. By the way, there does seem to have been a history of this tendency among Champagne producers. Another woman, Jeanne-Alexandrine Pommery, who headed the Pommery Champagne house, did the same thing.

As for me, call me a traitor to my sex, but I think that pictures of women, whether naked or nuns, chosen for reasons of aesthetic appeal or something more salacious, are a great way to decorate wine labels. Women and wine are, after all, two of the three things necessary for perfect happiness, as the poet would have it. And, besides, wine has belonged exclusively to men for so long that I think the more often women and wine are brought together, the better--even if it's just to move a few bottles of Merlot. And I have an idea that Greg Costello's great-grandmother would agree.

Published October 1999
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