Log In / Join Now

The Wine Label as Art: Mollydooker, by Mash and the Marquis Family

For the best-designed brands, the bottles outlive their contents
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 15, 2013 11:50am ET

By Robert Taylor

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?

Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker Courtesy of Mollydooker

Lawrence Newcombe
bay City , MI —  August 16, 2013 12:03pm ET
Manfred Krankl ..... Sine Qua Non
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  August 16, 2013 3:15pm ET
Since the state of Alabama banned the Cycles Gladiator label, I imagine the won't like the 2010 Mouton label either. A couple of my recent favorite labels are Merry Edwards sauvignon blanc and Tuck Beckstoffer Melee.
Robert Taylor
New York —  August 16, 2013 3:47pm ET

Thanks for pointing out the Tuck Beckstoffer Melée label! That was created by illustrator Nate Williams. Most people will have seen his work in newspapers and magazines, and he does some wonderful children's illustrations, including a great series on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Robert Taylor
New York —  August 16, 2013 3:57pm ET
And yes, Lawrence, the Sine Qua Non labels (which Manfred Krankl illustrates himself) are stunning. They are definitely on my list of artistic wine labels I'd like to spotlight in the future.
Noah Sevillia
Santa Cruz, California —  August 16, 2013 4:10pm ET
The artwork on the bottlings from Sans Liege are very nice.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 17, 2013 11:52pm ET
I've saved a few Mollydooker bottles as well (love the spirit of them), but the primary "collectible art labels" I've hoarded come from the (in receivership? defunct? re-emerging in Spain?) R Wines: Chris Ringland & Dan Philips (perhaps others). Some highlights:

My absolute hands-down favorite are the Chateau Chateau Grenache series feature etchings by Istvan Orosz, a student of M.C. Escher. Yes, they're eyeball benders/optical illusions and wonderfully old-fashioned! The best part: no words at all on the front label; just the art. Magic Window, Columns, Greek Columns, Pergola, David & Goliath, The Mirror, Triumphal Arch, My Sun Is Your Sun, Island... all beautiful (and every bit as mind-bogglingly delicious and compelling as the best Grenaches Clarendon Hills has to offer, e.g.).

R Wines also had 3 "bottle trios": Southern Belle Shiraz, Poor Thing! Grenache, and Diddley Bow Riesling all had 3-bottle "triptychs" which make for nice displays, too, in exactly the same way you demonstrate the Enchanted Path & Carnival Of Love bottles joining.

For the sheer humor of it, I adore the "Luchador" Shiraz series. Last year, as I was scrounging around the US looking for last remnants of these wines, I found out I'm not alone among label-seekers trying to complete our collections which feature the Mexican style wrestlers, each with different designs, names, and some pretty humorous "profiles". Each year they released different Luchador personalities than the previous year, so it was a challenging series to try to collect (regrettably, I'm missing more than I managed to save).

The R Wines "Anamorphosis" Shiraz bottle was in my estimation the pinnacle of optical illusions, however. The standard glass bottle was wrapped in a perfectly mirrored sleeve. The package (a box for each bottle) contained a poster (Istvan Orosz again) which had a spot onto which the bottle would be placed. Upon placing the bottle on the poster, the image from the poster "un-morphed" (anamorphed) onto the mirror on the bottle, revealing a beautifully detailed etching of an elderly man (which was not evident by looking at the poster alone). Just incredible artistry, and YOU BET I bring that out to show people on every occasion I can!
Robert Taylor
New York —  August 19, 2013 10:46am ET

We have similar tastes. I have an R Wines Southern Belle and a bottle of Luchador on display at home. I had to look up the Anamorphosis - very cool!

Thanks for contributing your favorites from R Wines, a lesson that a beautiful bottle isn't all it takes to succeed in the wine business...

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 20, 2013 2:01am ET
Rob - agreed! And even "great wine in a beautiful bottle" wasn't enough, in their case. Something else was wrong... who knows.

But it's wines like Melee and Shatter that have made me stop trying wines with nice bottles altogether. Seeming aimed at my pocketbook, pretty bottles with subpar wine inside is the worst way to "reward" people willing to try your product.

P.S. I've always liked Spring Valley Vineyards and Owen Roe's bottles, as well. Beautiful, and fantastic wine inside keeps me loyal to both of them.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  August 27, 2013 2:18pm ET
Among the most effective labels in recent years are the black-and-white stunners from Charles Smith Wines of Washington, including Kung Fu Girl, Eve, Boom Boom, Velvet Devil and the ever-scary Royal City Syrah.
Bryson Gappa
Texas —  August 29, 2013 1:42pm ET
You got that right Harvey! I sold plenty of the Royal City - despite the pricey tag - just because people LOVE the label! And of course, cult favorite, Orin Swift. Everyone asks for 'the knuckle one'. They never know the name.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.