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robert camuto: letter from europe

Charlie's Labels

The terror attack in Paris also took the lives of three of France's most outrageous wine label designers
Photo by: Photo by Stéphane Klein
Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe holds up a Château Renaissance wine bottle with a label designed by the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist known as Tignous, killed in the terror attack.

Posted: Jan 14, 2015 9:00am ET

This past week, the words "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") have traveled the world in sympathy with the victims of the deadly jihadist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, for which Al Qaeda in Yemen is now claiming responsibility.

Among the slain were five of France's most celebrated cartoonists. Three of them were also among the country's most outrageous wine label designers.

"They were my friends," explains Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe, 65. For more than 40 years, Descrambe commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that varied from drunken to suggestive to sexually explicit humor. "Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the biggest bullshit in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bullshit."

The cartoonists' careers as label designers began in the early 1970s, when Descrambe and his brother, Christian, took over from their father at Château Barrail des Graves, in the St.-Emilion appellation.

Descrambe was then a young communications graduate; he had never planned on a career in wine—until his father's health failed. Bordeaux was in crisis, and he looked for ways to distinguish the family's estate, in the town of St. Sulpice de Faleyrens, where his father had cultivated the land organically since 1954.

"It was the early 1970s, and no one was into organic. Organic was nothing," Descrambe says.

"The only people I knew who were into the ecology were at Charlie Hebdo," continues Descrambe. So he penned a letter to one of Charlie's founders, Georges Bernier ("Le Professeur Choron"), in which he proposed that if Bernier placed an order for wine, he (Descrambe) would post the order in the winery latrine.

Bernier placed the order.

"And that," says Descrambe without irony, "was the start of a beautiful love story."

One after another over the years, Charlie Hebdo contributors joined the ranks of a total of 18 French cartoonists who helped create more than 50 bawdy Rabelaisian labels.

Descrambe has used a selection of the labels every year for about half the bottles he produces. (The other half feature traditional Bordeaux labels.)

"It was always my philosophy to have fun with wine," Descrambe says. "There are too many people in Bordeaux who don't know how to have fun with wine. They make it too serious. Like a rite."

In 2008, Descrambe sold his St.-Emilion vineyards, but he and his son, Olivier, still produce about 3,300 cases per year of Bordeaux appellation wine under his Château Renaissance label (also featuring cartoons). His wines are exported within Europe and to Japan but not to the United States. ("Too complicated," Descrambe sighs.)

On Jan. 7, Descrambe was at home when he received a text message from his son that read "Gunfire at Charlie Hebdo."

"I knew immediately what happened," Descrambe says. "They had had death threats for seven or eight years" from Islamic militants.

Three of the friends who had designed labels for him—Charlie Hebdo's editor-in-chief, Stéphane Charbonnier (pen-name Charb), Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous)—were among the 12 killed by the terrorists.

Reflecting on the carnage, Descrambe says, "I hope their deaths will change something."

Charlie Hebdo continues to publish, encouraged and financed by international support. For Jan. 14, seven days after the attack, the paper printed 3 million copies (it normally sells about 60,000 copies) with a cover depicting the prophet Muhammad, with a tear running down his cheek, holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the headline "Tout est pardonné" (All is forgiven"). After many retail locations sold out immediately today, the publisher upped its print run to 5 million.

Descrambe will continue to use their artwork on his wine bottles. "Humor is indispensable—it's what makes despair disappear," he says. "It is people who don't digest well who become constipated. That is why they can't smile."

Wine Label Gallery

Below are five examples of the humorous, outrageous and risqué labels that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists created. Click each image for a larger label view.

Château Barrail des Graves wine label by Georges Wolinski Château Renaissance wine label by Tignous Château Barrail des Graves wine label by Charb

Château Barrail des Graves wine label by Tignous Château Renaissance wine label by Tignous

 

Robert Lapolla
san diego —  January 14, 2015 1:04pm ET
Now this is TRAGEDY.
Richard Runyon
Sammamish, Washington USA —  January 14, 2015 1:30pm ET
In support of Charlie Hebdo, it would be nice to have the labels available as full size posters for purchase.
Jolene Patterson
Sonoma County California —  January 14, 2015 2:16pm ET
Without humor we fail to be able to examine ourselves and our own shortcomings. Thoughts and prayers to all effected by the outrage at Charlie Hebdo.
Palmer B Emmitt
San Francisco, CA —  January 14, 2015 7:11pm ET
Great idea Richard Runyon! I would buy the set!
John Frey
Sun Valley, Idaho —  January 14, 2015 9:34pm ET
I would buy the set as well. They are spectacular.
Robert Camuto
France —  January 15, 2015 5:11am ET
Good idea Richard. For those who appreciate this kind of illustration, Descrambe's cellars are a veritable museum of the genre.
Andres Trevino
Mexicali, Baja California, México —  January 16, 2015 10:38pm ET
It is definitely sad to know that there are people out there that can reach this point of madness just because somebody has an opposing view of the world. My respects to the artists.
John Callaghan
Rhode Island —  January 19, 2015 3:48pm ET
We would certainly sell at Bellevue Wine and Spirits
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 19, 2015 10:30pm ET
It boggles my mind that more wine labels don't contain original/changing/provocative artwork, even clever pop art. If I have to buy one more white bottle with cursive script and a picture of a vineyard I think I'll go numb. You can't please everyone, so don't try; instead, try pleasing SOMEONE. The labels shown above are timeless and really embody an artistic spirit.

In the recent past, I thought R Wines had a great approach to their visuals (clearly problems existed elsewhere, or they would not be defunct), but I'm not comparing artistic merit, exactly... they were nice though. There are Artist Series wines from some labels, mostly very conservative in tone, but these days Sine Qua Non (who can afford or even find those wines, outside their club? not even seen in retail shops!) seem to have a monopoly on inventive art (or so I imagine...).

Wine itself tends to loosen tongues, so why not let the label loose a little, too?
Nicholas Smart
Atlanta GA USA —  January 20, 2015 2:39pm ET
We had a label similar to these with excellent juice but it never took off in the US. Label was done by a local Atlanta creator. Smart Import,Inc.
David Gummer
Edmonton,Alberta,Canada —  January 21, 2015 5:35pm ET
The sad part is that these 'humourous" labels would be seen as indecent, scandulous and pornograpghic by the ATF/Canadaian provincial monopolies and refused entry.
In every state and province in North America, wine is considered an adult beverage so please ATF and governement monolpolies, quit interfering!
William Nassau
new york —  December 31, 2015 8:59am ET
Are these available anywhere as posters?

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