Art of the Wine Label

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Label ensures that a wine bottle gets noticed. 

By Michelle Franzen Martin

shutterstock_19291762.aIn the heart of California’s Sonoma Valley is Imagery Estate Winery, home to a large collection of artwork ranging from vibrant oil paintings to three-dimensional sculpture. The more than 400-piece art collection is rotated frequently in the winery’s adjacent gallery, with some work on loan to museums, as 25 to 30 new pieces are added each year.

It’s certainly not unusual to find artwork displayed in wineries, but there is something unique about it at Imagery Estate: Each piece that is housed in the gallery has appeared on one of the winery’s wine labels. The artists commissioned to produce work are given no creative restrictions, other than making sure they follow government-imposed regulations (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau prohibits nudity as well as references to the U.S. Armed Forces and American flag). And unlike other wineries, Imagery Estate changes its labels every year on each wine, putting as much emphasis on the artwork as the wine itself.

“Each year, the wine will change, so we feel the label should change as well,” says Bob Nugent, curator for the Imagery Estate Winery Artist Program, who commissions original artwork to appear on 25 to 30 new Imagery Estate wine labels every year. “We think art connoisseurs are the same people who want great wine.”

A label can determine the success of a wine, so it’s not surprising that wineries are spending a lot of time and attention outside the bottle.

Laws of Attraction 

It’s a concept that goes back more than 100 years. Although wine labels have been around longer than paper—the ancient Egyptians painted and carved them onto clay vessels—winemakers didn’t start incorporating artwork onto labels until the early 20th century. One of the best examples was Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A., a winery that began commissioning famous artists for the labels of its French wine, Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

“Rothschild wanted to involve artists, like Dali, Picasso and all of the famous artists of Europe,” says Nugent, who in 2005 was curator for “Beyond the Pour: Pairing Art and Wine Label Design,” a special exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design. “Rothschild asked them to do labels, and they were the first to commission serious artists for that purpose.”

Today, Northern California is home to many wine label design houses and production facilities. And for good reason: Research has shown that if a consumer isn’t familiar with a particular wine, 60 percent of the time he or she will decide whether to try it, or not try it, based on the label alone, Nugent says.

Keith Wallace, president and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, a nationally renowned institute that offers programming for sommeliers, winemakers and enthusiasts, has spent years crafting wines, creating packaging and developing business platforms for wineries. He says there only are two reliable factors that sell wine: rating systems (the 100-point scale for judging wine) and wine labels. But as the rating systems are growing unreliable—critics argue that the 100-point system, introduced in 1978, tends to favor certain varietals—labels will become even more important.

Imagery Estate Wines - Glamour Shot

“Labels are typically designed for a specific demographic,” says Wallace, who also runs Vinology Consulting group, which develops branding for wines. “Sometimes it’s gender specific; for instance, Yellow Tail (from Australia) packaging was designed to appeal to women, while Sterling (from Napa Valley) was designed for male consumers. Sometimes labels are geared to an age or financial bracket. Like most things in advertising, the label has to speak to the buyer on an emotional level.”

Imagery Estate Winery’s target demographic is men and women from age 25 into their late 40s—people who usually are interested in change, Nugent explains.

“The group that we appeal to doesn’t limit itself and always wants to try something new,” Nugent says, adding that the winery produces some fairly unusual wines such as lagrein and mourvedre, both reds.

Wallace, who describes wine labels as “art in the service of selling wine,” has a few favorite labels, including Laurus Gigondas from Gabriel Meffre in Rhone Valley.

“This southern France winery balances classic label typography with a vibrant color scheme,” he says. “It looks and feels old school, but the grid format and white space are very modern.”

He also likes the modern-looking labels from Gramercy Cellars, based in Walla Walla, Wash.

“It holds onto the traditional, but roughens it up in a fantastic and exciting way,” he explains. “In fact, it does the opposite of the Laurus bottle: It looks modern, but at its heart, it has a hand-wrought sensibility that makes each bottle appear to be unique and special.

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Works in Progress

The time spent designing—and often redesigning—a label can vary considerably. Imagery Estate Winery doesn’t make changes to its artists’ work, and its only creative requirement is that the artists incorporate the winery’s pantheon image somewhere on the label. But at some wineries that employ commercial artists, it’s often an exercise in branding—and patience, as the process can take a year or longer.

“They’re constantly revised and done by committee,” Nugent says. “That’s why we chose to give our artists full freedom to do what they’ve done. We tell them, ‘You’re an artist.’ We work with famous artists, [as well as] unknowns. The notoriety of the artist is not the main thing for us. It’s that it has an interesting quirk or edge to it.”

Allison Rick, owner of Gravity Winery in Baroda, Mich., a small town along Lake Michigan, says it usually takes one to two months to create a label for her winery. All of Gravity’s labels incorporate the winery’s logo and the letter V in the design. Rick sketches the designs, which are sent to a graphic design firm in Indiana to be digitized for the final label.

“We generally have three to 10 revisions per label,” she says. “We want the bottles and labels to have a modern aesthetic and an element of fun because that reflects the attitudes of our customers.”

For Rick, after a label is finalized, it usually doesn’t change the next year, except for font and vintage year.

“The only label we have changed the design completely on [was one of our red wines],” she says. “It originally was a guy being pulled to the Earth, going with the theme of gravity, but that one wasn’t as thrilling as a new version of a redhead sitting in a glass with her dress looking like the wine in the V of gravity.”

At Napa Valley’s Cakebread Cellars, not much has changed on the winery’s label in more than 40 years, and that’s just fine with owner Dennis Cakebread.

“Over the years we’ve seen a lot of different styles come along: ornate, imitative, bold, modern, complex geometry, silly, knockoffs, humor,” he says. “I think it is important for each winery to decide what makes them unique or portrays their character best and then develop a label that projects that idea.” For Cakebread, that design is a simple sketch of grapes.

Imagery Estate’s labels are designed to blend into the color of the bottle, so the first thing consumers will see is the artwork.

“I’m a painter and make my living as an artist,” Nugent says. “I knew nothing about wine when I started with Joe (Benziger, Imagery Estate’s winemaker), and he knew nothing about art. I use the wine label to get people to come to the wine. Joe is responsible for what’s in the bottle.

“I often tell him, ‘I bring them to you. If they don’t like the wine, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is.’ ”

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