If you're anything like me, you have quite a few wine bottles in your home, and not all of them are full. A quick tally in my apartment came to nearly two dozen empties on display or in storage. Some are special-occasion mementos, but most simply serve as art.
It's no coincidence that so many wine labels are suitable for hanging. Product packaging is as important to sales as the product itself. For a collectible competing against other products that bear the exact same size, shape, appellation and vintage, it makes sense that most vintners enlist the help of artists and marketing firms when creating a wine label.
This is not a new concept. The most famous, and perhaps most collectible, of the artist labels is that of Château Mouton-Rothschild, which has enlisted world-renowned artists to create its label since 1945. For the 2010 vintage, Mouton tapped American Jeff Koons.
As a Bordeaux first-growth with serious name recognition, Mouton's process is simple: 1) Recruit artist; 2) Place art on label in exchange for 10 cases of wine; 3) Profit. For the other 99 percent, particularly those wine brands hoping to make a splashy debut, it's not that easy.
"Wine is a pretty saturated market, especially when you consider a wine lined up in a retail space against 101 other wines. The packaging has to work hard to be noticed," said Dom Roberts, creative director at Mash, an Australian design and art-direction firm that has created label concepts for more than a dozen different wine brands, including Two Hands, Jacobs Creek and Yalumba. "For us, this doesn't mean make your logo bigger than everyone else's. We are more about creating a sense of curiosity and drawing the viewer in. We feel this is a lot more powerful than doing the expected."
One of the most successfully launched brands in the past decade is Australia's Mollydooker. With the renowned winemaking couple of Sarah and Sparky Marquis behind it, classic ratings for its top cuvées and a trio of consistently outstanding wines priced at $25 or less, the brand was likely to flourish with or without its distinct lineup of labels. But Mollydooker's beloved lefty-themed illustrated labels have helped elevate the brand to icon status in its short existence.
That didn't happen by accident. "I looked around for a graphic designer that was designing things outside of the box—quirky, different, eye-catching," said Sarah Marquis, who turned to Roberts and Mash. "I spent a good few hours telling them our story," she said. She and Sparky, both southpaws, had already come up with the name Mollydooker. ("Aussie for left-hander," as the label would read, "we left-hand craft our wines with 'wow' specially for you.")
Mash came back with three concepts, one of which was the whimsical character theme that we see today. (Click on the thumbnails below for a slideshow of Mollydooker's full lineup.) "They felt that our story was like a fairytale and they wanted to express that in the labels," Marquis said. "They came up with the fun 'Lefty' label idea, telling stories about being left-handed, and we were asked to come up with some ideas and names for what the labels could be."
That first vintage (2005 for reds and 2006 for white), Mollydooker introduced the Lefty lineup: The Boxer and The Violinist with two left hands; Two Left Feet with a dancer; The Maître D' who tripped. "Sparky is proudly left-handed and even goes so far as to use the left-handed handshake," said Roberts. "It's a reflection of doing things a little bit different, standing out from the crowd."
The Mollydooker "Love" cuvées debuted the same year. "[Mash] gave us the concept of Enchanted Path," Marquis said. "We then created the Carnival of Love label by getting our illustrator to draw all the Lefty characters at the Carnival of Love. We always tell the story of these aptly named 'Love wines,' that they are about Sparky and I riding on our Enchanted Path together to the Carnival of Love. ... These wines are a pair and, if you put the two bottles side by side, the two labels become one, just like the old Mad magazines."
"The inspiration for the series came from old advertising illustrations and cartoon characters going as far back as the 1920s," explained Roberts. "We also drew upon old books, their covers and inside page patterns. We loved creating the hand-drawn text, including the Mollydooker logos. The idea was to keep everything hand-done, scratched up and fun."
Fun is the operative word for the Mollydooker portfolio. The illustrated labels are by no means "fine art" in the traditional sense of the term, but the traditional sense has been obsolete for decades: Arguably the most important artistic work of Koons—he of the lofty Mouton label and "the most successful American artist since Warhol," as shouted by a recent New York magazine cover—is a shining supersized balloon animal. Mollydooker's Lefty illustrations pick up the mantle of comics and cartoons like Popeye, Blondie and Steamboat Willie, adopting the same knowing wink of a Tex Avery or Chuck Jones character. The Lefty labels may not be think pieces, but they are clever.
If you're a fan of the Lefty illustrations and fancy a darker, grittier take, check out the Jean-Michel Basquiat-meets-the funny pages stylings of Canadian artist Gary Taxali featured on many Bonny Doon and Wines of Redemption labels.
It's hard to pick a favorite among Mollydooker's cast of characters, but Sarah is partial to The Violinist and, naturally, Carnival of Love. Roberts is most fond of The Boxer, which is among those I have saved.
Do you have favorite bottles on display at home?