Message in a Bottle

Full disclosure: I come from a line of viticultural vulgarians. In the early 1970s, when my family was still living in London, my parents took it upon themselves to develop what they called an “informed palate.” They bought a book on the art of wine-tasting and would sit at the kitchen table sipping and swirling a salutary selection of bottles recommended by the author. The final exercise in the book was a blind taste-test in which they were to sample three vintages: low-born, mid-range, and high-end. I was only in first grade then, but I remember them dressing up for the occasion and speaking in appropriately affected accents about attacks, bouquets, and finishes—and how they howled with laughter afterwards when they discovered they had both chosen the Algerian plonk as their favorite.

Now I am living proof that the grape does not fall far from the vine. Perhaps because of this I have come to rather embarrassingly depend upon wine labels to determine which purchase to make. This started early on, in college in upstate New York, when my favorite bottle of red was the unconventionally titled Love My Goat by Bully Hill Vineyards. Sure it was cheap, but more important to the nascent design critic in me was the fact that it featured a quirky drawing of a carrot-colored animal with loop-de-loop horns and type that was entirely hand-drawn. I have no recollection of how it actually tasted but remember feeling like a badass walking into a dinner party with such an obviously alternative offering for the table.

While my palate has hopefully developed a little more since then, so has the art of wine marketing—all of which is to say that an unconventional label still gets my vote (if not my goat). Of course labels have been around for centuries—at least since a 17th-century French monk named Dom Pérignon first decided to tie a piece of parchment around a bottle neck with a piece of string to remind people where their favorite quaff came from. I was reminded of this last week when my boyfriend and I were in Seattle visiting his family. We were responsible for buying wine for a three-day trip to the Olympic Peninsula and found ourselves at a store by the ferry terminal having to make a last-minute purchase. The only problem was that the store’s selection was limited to Washington State varietals.

As could be guessed, I was immediately attracted to a non-standard $10 brand whose label featured a naïve black-and-white illustration of a house flanked by the all-cap hand-rendered words “House Wine” and nothing else. My boyfriend, a photographer of more exacting aesthetic standards—not to mention better taste in wine—was drawn to a $25 bottle called Hedges whose label spoke a distinctly high-end language of heraldic shield, artful script, and thick paper stock.
 
 
 
 
Photographs of House Wine, CMS, and Hedges by Ira Lippke.
 

With ten minutes left to choose before our ferry left, we grabbed both bottles and a third called CMS that, at $15, fell somewhere in between. Thus emerged the idea of using the family as an impromptu focus group. Would this cross-section of American society that included three people in their twenties, one in his thirties and two in their sixties be able to match the graphic to the grape?

Three nights later we gathered around an enormous table to taste and talk. While there’s no space to give a precise transcription of that cacophonic coming-together, I can share some of the evening’s most revealing comments, including the following:

“I definitely feel like this is for inexperienced wine drinkers. Like you’ve just turned 21 and say, ‘Oh, let’s get this bottle.’” (Josiah, 20, on House Wine)

“This would appeal to a younger generation that would spend a lot of money on a perfectly crumpled-up work shirt because it’s understated.” (Ira, 34, on House Wine)

“For a romantic evening, I’d probably bring the CMS because it’s fancy but not trying too hard. Like me.” (Samuel, 24, on CMS)

 “Let’s hurry up, I want to drink this!” (Charlie, 60, on Hedges)
 
 
 

When it came to matching label with price point, my panel had a perfect score. The blind taste-test proved to be far more confounding, however, with virtually no consensus on which bouquet belonged to which bottle.

All of which leads me to wonder whether labels are at best labile communicators of a wine’s true quality. I decided to pose this question to a friend of mine named José Conde—the only person I know who has been both designer and wine maker. Once an award-winning art director in New York, he is now a highly respected vintner in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa with two brands to his credit: the high-end Stark-Conde and the more mainstream Man. (Conde, a self-described “design curmudgeon,” created the labels for both wines with a vintner’s mind. “I wanted the designs to age well,” he explains.) “A wine geek may respond to an ugly, handmade label, because it captures their imagination,” says Conde, “but generally speaking, your average consumer may judge a wine just slightly better than the same wine, for the same price, but with an uglier label—and that can make all the difference. In the wine business, 1 percent of difference can mean 100 percent more in sales.”

According to him, there’s a phenomenon that could best be called the Yellow Tail Effect, referring to the great success of the Australian Yellow Tail brand. “The Casella winery and their U.S. importer had launched a different brand previous to Yellow Tail and it never took off,” he explains. “Then they changed the label and it exploded.” Ironically, though, the Casellas didn’t custom-design their hallmark yellow kangaroo, but rather chose it from a portfolio of stock images. So while artfully designed labels can boost the bottom-line, sometimes the barbarians still get through the gate first.

“Far more common, of course, is when the label sucks, but the wine is totally gorgeous,” says Conde. Wise words indeed for a blogging wine-bibber like myself who is always tempted to judge a bottle by its label. Can you say “cava emptor”?

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