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stirring the lees with james molesworth

No Wine Is Complete Without Its Label

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 7, 2009 11:49am ET

You know when someone tells you they simply choose a wine by the label? Part of you wants to laugh at this nearly clichéd statement from a wine beginner. But part of you knows it’s also true for all of us, from a beginner to any overavid wine geek. Yes, I'll admit it—I still choose wine by the label sometimes.

Of course, I usually have a little more knowledge about the wine ahead of time than just the label—perhaps I’ve been in the vineyard, tasted in the cellar, or bought the wine for years. But in the end, the label is important. It should provide both raw information—vintage, appellation, producer—but also impact the aesthetic sense as well. A great wine label should stick in your mind: You know you love a wine when you can spot a bottle of it across the room, with just half its label showing.

A great label makes you want the wine even more than just the thought of tasting the wine itself. A great wine label speaks of the wine inside the bottle, and it augments the whole experience. Like the right frame for a photo or painting, no wine is complete without its label. And some are better than others.

Some of my favorite labels include the Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr bottling. The simple etching depicts the steeply sloped vineyards in the background and the sundial that always lets you know what time it is (time for Riesling, of course).

I like Clos des Papes’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape label as well, both the red and the white. The label is simple and pure at first glance, but increasingly elegant and complex the more you gaze at the lettering and crest. It nearly oozes sophistication and class.

Some labels like Prüm’s and Clos des Papes’ have long histories behind them. Others have shorter but no less interesting histories. David Trafford’s Shiraz has, in just a few short years, become one of the best wines being made in South Africa. The label for it is a sleek black-and-white design with a strip across the top. At first glance, it looks like a trendy abstract picture, but as it draws you in, you realize it’s an architectural rendering of the de Trafford winery. (Architecture was Trafford’s previous profession before starting the winery.) In addition, Trafford's wife, Rita, is an artist, and her colorful work adorns their Chenin Blanc bottling, making a nice contrast in styles.

Some labels make your mouth water just looking at them. For example, the late Didier Dagueneau’s Silex bottling from Pouilly-Fumé, with its simple, lone jagged chunk of rock. It’s severe and lean, but also alluring at the same time. It’s the perfect enunciator for the wine in the bottle.

To reach exalted label status, it’s also important for a label to be consistent. I find design tweaks over the years to be a distraction, while outright redesigns can be a disaster. Anyone remember the old Tollot-Beaut labels? This Aloxe-Corton-based Burgundy domaine's label had a beautiful gilded grape leaf scrolling across the top with an elegant, slightly blurred soft orange border, but a few years ago they changed to a stark, minimalist label and jarring flange top bottle. I almost can’t look at it now ... ouch.

Making a great label is no easy task either. I know first-hand how difficult it is coming up with a label for a new wine. I had to don the design cap myself when coming up with a label for my own Syrah, a wine with zero history of its own. No family crest to lean on. No starkly idiosyncratic piece of terroir to help define it.

Of course, label aesthetics are highly individual, and everyone will have their own personal favorites. What are some of yours?

Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr

Didier Dagueneau's Silex

de Trafford Shiraz

Tollot-Beaut, before ...

... and Tollot-Beaut today.

Jared Wagner
Seattle, WA —  January 7, 2009 2:28pm ET
James,The Cayuse Impulsivo just may be the most elegant and cool label around. If you've never seen it, search it out. I think you'll dig it!
Andrew J Grotto
January 7, 2009 2:48pm ET
I really like Clos Saint Jean's labels, which, not unlike the CdP that's inside, artfully blends modern and traditional elements. This website has some pictures of their labels: http://www.chateauneuf.dk/en/cdpen56.htm
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  January 7, 2009 3:36pm ET
Cumulus wines from Australia has some real funny labels.
Other nice labels:
Poully Fum¿uv¿Majorum and the Pouilly Fum¿aille Pierre from Michel Redde
Beaune Gr¿s Vigne de l'Enfant J¿s, from Bouchard P¿ & Fils
Montes Alpha
Kanonkop Pinotage
Mouton Rothschild, of course
Art & Vin, Luxemburg's humble answer to Mouton Rothschild, labels designed by local artists
Michael Green
San Diego, CA —  January 7, 2009 3:49pm ET
James, there are certainly a handful of labels that I love because of their simplicity like Lynch Bages, Ch. Beaucastel, Ridge and Navarro but I also enjoy those that feature art and artists like those from Eric Kent, Owen Roe and Orin Swift.
Brad Jones Jr
Richmond, Va. —  January 7, 2009 3:55pm ET
Le Vieux Donjon, Tignanello, Pichon-Longueville-Baron... my favorites.
Marissa Ocasio
Connecticut —  January 7, 2009 4:01pm ET
Educated Guess
Robert Dwyer
Wellesley, MA —  January 7, 2009 5:04pm ET
Cakebread's regular Napa Cab label is one of my long-time favorites. I remember a Napa winery kindly offering to ship wines I'd purchased from other vineyards back home to me (along with a case of their own) and when I handed over the Cakebread he said "Man, Cakebread has a great label don't they?" That's saying something. More recently I've been impressed with the way the Zepaltas label aligns with their messaging and most importantly what's in their bottles. Great stuff.
J Richard Brown
Alexandria VA  —  January 7, 2009 5:17pm ET
Valdicava Madonna, Celler del Roure Maduresa, Nido Juan Gil Monastrell, and all of the Vietti Barolo labels are fantastic.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  January 7, 2009 5:53pm ET
Can you beat Sine Qua Non's labels and bottles??? Those are the most unique and memorable of all. Only issue is that they are always changing, so you can't get used to a familiar look.

For the labels that stay consistent, I would say that Caymus's Special Selection, Heitz' Labels (including the Martha's Vineyard bottling), Turley (for the simplicity and shape of bottle and lip), and Haut Brion (for the best overall packaging including their label, bottle, capsule, date on top and dated cork). These are all favorites of mine as they all have aspects that speak of quality, familiarity, simplicity, function, history, etc.

Great topic that is original yet fluffy enough for us to chime in...
James Molesworth
January 7, 2009 6:29pm ET
Andrew: Good call - Clos St.-Jean is a great combination of old and new school.

Michael: Ridge is another great label - eye catching but not too busy. Lots of info but well laid out. And I've always found Paul Draper's tasting notes and drink recommendations on the back label to be spot on.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  January 7, 2009 7:13pm ET
I like many different labels for many different reasons . . . variety is the spice of life.Harlan is class with a capitol C. The Grand Dame should look so good. Like Claude, I also appreciate a good laugh, and Randal Grahm used to be the bomb. Artist labels are often beautiful, but I doubt that it really pays for itself since next years wine is someone elses art. Even careful detail with a family name is beautiful in its own right. Like Rombauer and Rochioli, they are not flashy, but you certainly recognize them when you see them. There is another thing of beauty that is reflected in the label that is at least somewhat subliminal, and that is the thought given to the name of the wine, like Opus, or Etude, or Reverie, or Goats do Roam, or A.S. Kicken. One thing I've learned to appreciate over the years is not even visable, but I could tell you the wine inside were a thing of beauty even if I were blind: a bottle with a very deep punt! Like Etude Cab.
Brian Koller
New Cumberland —  January 7, 2009 8:18pm ET
Quixote. One glance transports you back to the winery. The whole experience is Dr. Seuss like.
Fred Brown
January 7, 2009 9:09pm ET
Great topic! A few different thoughts based on a quick scan of our cellar:



*Catena Alta - simple but unique, and such darn good wine!

*Columbia Crest's Walter Clore - etched bottle is classy, and the wine is consistently good for the money.

*Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta - the bottle weight and shape are perfect, and are nicely complemented with the bold blue of the top label and foil, and the stylish font of "Apalta".

*Chateau Leoville Barton - how cool is the symbolism of the partially open gate - "you who enter here, enjoy the noble lifestyle of the home befitting a king shown just beyond"!

*Mollydooker Carnival of Love - the label as big, bold, and as over-the-top as the wine inside.

Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  January 7, 2009 9:30pm ET
Front label: Giuseppe Quintarelli. Nothing comes close for me.Back label: Calera. Let the information flow. The more the better for consumers.
Richard Robertson
January 7, 2009 10:17pm ET
A few for consideration, Orin Swift Mercury Head, Andrew Will Sorella, Ken Wright, Luca, Petrus, and Mollydooker (especially Velvet Glove).Great Blog Post!!!
J J Gallagher
Near Napa, Ca —  January 7, 2009 11:29pm ET
James- I really loved many of the 'private' labels I saw on display at CrushPad. It's too bad most people will never get to see many of these beautiful and clever creations. I am daunted by the task ahead and find myself examining every label I see. Will you preview your label for the public? As for me, I love the labels of Eric Kent. They use an original piece of art for each vintage. The 2006 Stiling Pinot label art is whimsical and stunning. I hate to throw the bottle away.
Arnd Baersch
January 8, 2009 7:17am ET
My top list would be:
1) Mollydooker Velvet Glove and everything from Mollydooker anyway
2) Goul¿(Wine made from the Cos d'Estournel crew in Northern-M¿c)
3) Impulsivo from Cayuse
4) The Relic from the Standish Wine Company

5) Clos des Papes

6) Quilceda Creek

7) All red wines from Favia
James Molesworth
January 8, 2009 7:57am ET
J J: Yes, there are lots of fun labels made by the folks who use Crushpad...I posted my label on a previous blog post - hit the link in the posting above if you want to see it...
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  January 8, 2009 8:55am ET
Not a classic wine but I have always loved the Chateau La Pointe Pommerol label. I also find Pian Delle Vigne brunello, classy,a little mysterious and original.After that...there are numerous Chateauneuf du Pape lables that are classics.Marc
Glenn S Lucash
January 8, 2009 8:58am ET
My favorites are my 1924, 25 and 26 Mouton Rothschild with the Jean Carlu label. All the same except for the date. The true beginning of label art and a fabulous example of Cubism.
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  January 8, 2009 1:02pm ET
Owen Roe has the sexiest labels in the wine world.Someone mentioned Cayuse...Bionic Frog super fun!
Ashley Potter
LA, —  January 8, 2009 6:33pm ET
Ken Wright;Dover Canyon ... love that painted dog!;Long Shadows' "Sequel";Darioush;Four Vines' "Anarchy";Orin Swift's "Prisoner";Numanthia Termes' "Numanthia"
Gerry Stuart
Calgary —  January 9, 2009 11:53am ET
Brancaia and Feudi di San Gregorio for more modern design that reflects the modernity of the wines. Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello for the classic. I really enjoy the artistry of Sandro Chia on the Castello Romitorio bottles too. I also agree with others for Numanthia, Ken Wright and Juan Gil. Similar to Leoville Barton is Artadi Vina El Pison.
James Molesworth
January 9, 2009 3:16pm ET
Morgan: I agree. Back labels are woefully underutilized in the business - that's where a lot of useful data can go, without cluttering up the front label.

Ashley, Gerry: Good to see Spain getting some votes here...personally I love the ornate, almost baroque like labels of Lopez de Heredia's Riojas...
Tullio Panarello
Montreal —  January 10, 2009 1:19pm ET
My favorite is Torres' Mas La Plana. I'm mortified that you did not think to mention it! The design is very classical, yet they manage to subtly update it on a regular basis without sacrificing its basic visual statement. This is the first wine I ever bought purely on the visual appeal of its label alone. And what a wine...
Shawn A Clifford
Orlando, FL —  February 10, 2009 3:46pm ET
I agree that Cakebread has a classic label.I also like Schrader's "Old Sparky" label, with the wyvern on it.

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