The Work Behind Wine Label Design

The Work Behind Wine Label Design

The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague recently covered the effort that goes into making wine labels. The most effective labels are as much about strategy as aesthetics.  Get the full scope below:

WHAT GOES INTO WINE LABEL DESIGN?

 

Ask someone the kind of wine he prefers and he may or may not be able to describe it; ask someone what kind of wine label he (or she) likes and you’re guaranteed to get a reply. From occasional imbibers to serious oenophiles, just about every wine drinker I know cares about labels—and even employs them as a buying guide. For example, my friend Robert likes labels with silver type but won’t buy a bottle if there are “snakes, frogs or shoes” as part of the design, no matter how good the wine inside may be.

 

A wine label with wide appeal is a winery’s single greatest sales tool. It can make a good wine more desirable and a bad wine more salable. It is the sole emissary on the store shelf and perhaps, as Corey Miller hopes, a source of great wealth.

 

Dr. Miller, a San Francisco-based M.D.-Ph.D. turned wine entrepreneur, just launched a label-centric wine company, Bare Bottle, that matches top American design talent with first-rate winemakers from the West Coast. He has partnered with graphic designers, engineers and tech entrepreneurs to form a company whose offerings will be marketed largely through the designers’ social-media accounts. “We think there is a lot of power in these artists and designers,” said Dr. Miller. “They have tens of thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers.” By comparison, he added, most winemakers have small or nonexistent social-media profiles.

 

A younger generation of drinkers represents great untapped buying potential, according to Dr. Miller, and it is one he is determined to access. “I felt like the wine industry wasn’t saying anything to younger professionals,” he said. “They say young people don’t have money, but they [young people] will buy $200 jeans.”

 

The first Bare Bottle release is a 2012 Cabernet made by star Napa winemaker Aaron Pottfrom a vineyard in Napa’s Coombsville region. The label is the work of Don Clark, one of the two principals of Seattle-based design group Invisible Creature. It is an arresting image of a black crow on a purple and silver background, produced in part because Mr. Clark likes crows and thinks crows and grape vines go together. He did not taste the wine but doesn’t think this is a problem, noting he often buys wines based on labels alone. And while he hopes his label “resonates with wine fanatics,” he thinks the buyer is likely to be a casual wine drinker like himself. The wine sells in two-bottle sets for $149.

 

The next Bare Bottle release, out next month, combines the talents of Erik Marinovich, a San Francisco-based lettering artist, and winemaker Helen Keplinger, of Napa. The wine is a rich blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from Sonoma, and the label is a veritable pop explosion of blue and gold foil letters, on a neon pink background, that announce, “Rain or Shine I’m on Your Side!” The look is Warhol-esque, in-your-face fun. Mr. Marinovich, who did taste the wine, said he wanted to create a label that spoke to wine’s enjoyability whether consumed with friends or alone. He also wanted the label to be, in his words, “annoying loud.”

 

The label commands attention, although to the conventional wine world, its playfulness might seem out of place on a $50 bottle (the wine will sell for $99 per two-bottle set). I haven’t seen many comical or “look at me” labels—as veteran label designer Bob Johnson called them during a recent chat—in this lofty price range. I think that comedy tends to work best on much cheaper wines, as with Goats do Roam, a South African take on “Côtes du Rhône,” and 7 Deadly Zins, a play on an abbreviated form of the grape, “Zinfandel.”

 

Unlike the Bare Bottle designers, neither of whom has ever produced a wine label, Mr. Johnson has designed labels for over 40 years, including some of the look-at-me variety. Based in Healdsburg, Calif., Mr. Johnson said that in today’s competitive wine world, designers have to work harder than ever at their jobs. Producing a great label isn’t just a matter of a terrific design but the right typeface, paper quality and even label color. For example, Mr. Johnson thinks blue can be problematic because “blue isn’t a color found in food.”

 

A memorable hue is probably the easiest way to get a buyer’s attention, and the most successful ones—such as the orange of the Veuve Clicquot nonvintage Champagne label—are practically iconic. The Veuve Clicquot shade is actually trademarked, and its parent company, LVMH, has threatened a number of wineries with legal action over perceived infringement.

 

Sometimes it’s good to have an anonymous label, and not just to avoid legal action. Mr. Johnson told me cheap wines often do better with simple, even banal, labels because their buyers are mostly focused on price. An overly fussy or complicated label might get in the way of a person’s decision to buy a wine.

 

The same is true at the opposite end of the scale: A simple design is best suited to an expensive wine, too, though the quality of the other elements, such as paper and printing, needs to be appreciably higher than with cheap wines.

 

During my trips to a few wine shops in metropolitan New York, I reflected on all I had learned from Mr. Johnson. For a change, I went looking for labels not wines. At Garnet Wines & Liquors, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, manager Jack Battipaglia, aka J.R., doesn’t think his customers much care about labels if the wine is cheap. (And no, he doesn’t think blue labels are a problem.) But if the wine is expensive—over $20—the label needs to look the part, he said, elegant and preferably traditional. He especially prefers white or cream-colored labels. One of his favorites, and one of mine too, is the label of Paolo Bea, a top producer in Umbria whose labels are classic and traditional with a twist, if unintelligible to those who do not read Italian. A description of the 2009 Paolo Bea San Valentino Umbria Rosso ($35), all in Italian, covers the front label.

 

For Ian Dorin, wine director of the Wine Library, in Springfield, N.J., the epitome of a simple, classic label is that of Carter Cellars, a top Napa winery. “And the wine is great, too,” he said. In fact, the Carter label is so beautifully produced it attracted the attention of Cartier, the French company, who insisted the branding looked far too much like its logo. The winery has altered its typeface, although one can still find the old logo with current releases on the market, such as their terrific 2012 Hossfeld Coliseum Red Blend ($80).

 

I found other labels that proved Mr. Johnson’s points and turned out to be good wines as well. The 2014 Grooner Grüner Veltliner from Austria ($11) features a cartoon of a woman holding a hand to her face and calling “Grooner,” which happens to be—helpfully—the pronunciation of that grape. It’s fun and educational. The 2012 Veramonte Chardonnay, an $8 Chilean wine, features a simple and perhaps forgettable, but at the same time pleasant, pattern. More important, it was a bright, clean, very drinkable wine at a very good price.

 

As for the Bare Bottle selections, I bought both the Aaron Pott-Invisible Creature wine and the Helen Keplinger-Erik Marinovich bottle and tasted them with friends. The Pott Cabernet was soft and approachable, if a bit at odds with its bold and powerful label, while Ms. Keplinger’s white blend was rather rich and lush and a little high in alcohol—a better match to its exuberant label. Both wines were good, but their labels garnered the greater share of attention, which was definitely unusual for wines at that fairly high price range.

 

In my own tiny experiment it seemed Dr. Miller had succeeded in turning the attention from the wine to its label—at least for a while. And indeed, a great label can probably convince people to buy a bottle once, but only a great wine will inspire them to do so over and over again.

 

See the original article here.