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Why Labels Matter

A great wine label should stimulate a conversation. Wine Editor Lettie Teague talks back.

I don't spend much time looking at wine labels. Neither do most of the people I know. Some of them even take pride in this fact. "I don't pay attention to labels," said my friend Suzanne. "They don't make a difference in the wines that I buy." My friend Amy told me much the same thing, though she acknowledged she might be "subliminally" influenced by a nice typeface from time to time. The Collector reacted as if the idea were preposterous: "I don't need to look at a label. I know what I want."

Unlike my friends, who seem to rank people who look at labels just above those whose lips move when they read, I don't scorn wine-label art; at some point, I just stopped noticing it. Now, if I study the front of a bottle at all, it's because I'm searching for facts like grape varieties and alcohol content, not for nicely rendered family portraits or pastoral landscapes. I guess in that way I've become a bit of a bore—more interested in how a wine tastes than in how it looks. Better, you might say, than the reverse, but somewhat lacking in romance and glamour.

I realized this while looking through ICON, a new book by California-based label designers Jeffrey Caldewey and Chuck House. In this collection of their greatest hits, each wine label is accorded a lush Scavullo-style photo and a paragraph detailing the history of the design—many conceived in collaboration with the winemaker or vintner.

In California, for instance, winemaker Mia Klein contributed the Japanese playing card that became the focus of her label, Selene, while Bonny Doon winery's Randall Grahm contributed his sense of humor and literary punmanship to the label for his Pacific Rim Riesling: An Asian woman sits mermaid-like in a seashell and pieces of sushi float on the bottle, which House has designed as "an aquarium." Meanwhile, winemaker Gary Farrell contributed...himself. The plain brown-paper label (think grocery-store bag) was inspired by Farrell's no-nonsense approach to winemaking. Tom Eddy's Cabernet label has an even closer connection to winemaking itself—to create it, Caldewey actually took paper and, ICON reports, "impregnated" it with dirt and bark from the vineyard.

Reading these stories, I knew that I needed to look at wine labels anew. Yet where was the best place to begin? I decided to start at the source, so I called Chuck House and asked for his guidance.

House suggested we meet at the Santa Rosa coffee bar he calls his office. By the time I arrived, he was already seated and checking his e-mail. He doesn't have a very modern computer setup at home, he explained, as he isn't technologically minded—an unsurprising admission from a man whose every label looks as if it were handmade. We chatted for a while about typefaces and colors. House professed admiration for the Australian style: "They have lots of interesting graphic images, not to mention some really cool names, like Woop Woop, and the Stump Jump."

But what, I asked House, did he think made a label truly worth looking at? He thought for a minute and replied, "A wine label is all about getting someone to ask a question. A great label should stimulate a conversation." With a wine-shop clerk or a waiter? I asked. Not necessarily, House replied. "It could be a conversation between you and the bottle." I pictured myself muttering to the Merlots at my local retailer. "But most importantly," House added, "the label has to suit the wine. The wine has to be at home in the bottle." That sounded like a pretty tough thing to gauge, but I was willing to try. Maybe I wouldn't start chatting up Chardonnays, but at least I'd try to pay the labels more mind.

My first foray into this newly heightened state of label awareness was at Manhattan's K & D Wines and Spirits, a Madison Avenue wine store whose windows were filled with bottles of Champagne. Unfortunately, Champagne labels aren't particularly fascinating; aside from variations in color and typeface, they're pretty uniform. The bottles are much more interesting; some are made from different types of beveled or dimpled glass. But far too many seemed to be covered in plastic. How could a wine be at home shrouded in so much Saran wrap?

There wasn't time to dwell on such things; I was on a mission. I went into the store and began studying labels, starting with the Burgundy section. This was another place where almost every label looked like the other ones. Some were cream-colored while others were white, but nearly all had the same (considerable) amount of type. Because Burgundians are obligated to cram so much information onto their labels—the names of producers, vineyards, villages and type of cru (premier or grand) not to mention importers or négociants—there really isn't room for much art (though the Germans, with a similar problem, often manage a picture or two). Looking at the array of word-dense bottles, I thought about House's idea that a label should inspire a conversation; in Burgundy it seemed to be more of a monologue.

There seemed to be more conversational possibilities with the wines of Bordeaux. At least there was more to look at. Nearly every bottle boasted a château on its label (Burgundy winemakers' homes aren't half so flashy—maybe the reason they're rarely depicted), and matching the architectural style with the wine was its own challenge. Especially since even a minor property like Château de Marbuzet had a pretty nice piece of real estate to show (think Tara in Gone with the Wind). In this regard, Bordeaux can be deceptive; great architecture doesn't guarantee a great wine. In fact, it's often the opposite case; for example, the label of Château Latour doesn't even have a château—just a tower. In fact, with this reverse real estate principle in mind, I bought a bottle with a homely house on its label. (There was even an ungainly garage on one side.) Alas, the 2000 Château Pouchaud Larquey was as ugly inside as it was out.

My next stop was an even tonier Madison Avenue shop, Carlyle Wines, just up the street from the very posh Carlyle hotel. Here the store clerk gave me a suspicious look then promptly ignored me, having apparently concluded that anyone who spent so much time gazing at Pinot Grigio labels likely wasn't worth his time or attention. Looking over the Italian selection, I was surprised at how conservative the labels have become; after all, Italy has long been the home of cutting-edge design. For example, the Italians were the first to employ odd-size labels (the postage stamp—size Terre di Tufi label made it one of the most talked-about wines in the country when it debuted 15 years ago). But the simple black typefaces set against plain cream or brown backgrounds (a few augmented with discreet drawings of castelli) make the Italian labels look awfully, well, French. Now that Barolo costs as much as Bordeaux, I wondered if its producers thought their labels should look like Bordeaux's too. On the other hand, I had to admit the Italian wines certainly looked at home in their bottles, though maybe just a bit...smug.

Still, as formal as the Italians seemed to have become, the look from California was downright severe. There were exceptions, to be sure (Bonny Doon can always be counted on for dazzling color and design, as can Rosenblum and a few other Zinfandel makers), but overall, muted colors and sober engravings seem to be the order of the day in label design. When did black become the color of Napa as well as New York? Why were so many California winemakers so somber? Was it the grape glut that was getting them down? Or was it the prospect of three years with Arnold at the helm? In any case, the message from these wines was perfectly clear: A conversation with them would be a weighty affair.

The Australian labels promised a more frivolous time. With bottles ablaze in primary colors, often augmented by pictures of animals like kangaroos and lizards, the wine section looked as if it had been transferred directly from Toys "R" Us. The names of the wines were just as much a juvenile's delight—Lost Wolf, The Footbolt, the Ball Buster—promising something that would be easy to like. The conversation these labels promised, though not profound, certainly made wine drinking seem fun.

I mentioned my findings to some retailers I know. Jeff Zacharia, the owner of Zachys in Scarsdale, New York, told me he thought a label mattered only if a decision had to be made "between three very good wines." Todd Hess, the wine director of Sam's Wines & Spirits in Chicago, said a good label could get his attention if it was a wine he was thinking of buying. "If we're dealing with an inexpensive wine of good quality, we'd be more inclined to purchase it if the packaging was good. However," he hastily added, "we don't base our decision on the label's looks." I mentioned my surprise at how subdued so many of the (non-Australian) wine labels seemed. "The more expensive the wine, the darker and richer the colors of the label will be," Hess said knowingly. "Wine is, after all, a conservative beverage."

After weeks of scrutinizing wine labels and trying to see them the way a designer like Chuck House does, I found myself noticing a lot more besides—like the bright blue awning of a store, a child's fuchsia winter coat, the orange tulips sold by a sidewalk vendor. It was as if I'd suddenly remembered to look at the rest of the world. Maybe I won't start buying wines just because they have pretty flowers on their labels (the bottle decoration most women prefer, according to one wine merchant I met), but at least now I understand why someone would.

Published February 2004
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