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Does the Label Fit?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 13, 2009 11:38am ET

I admire a good wine label, and for me, the more fun it is, the better. Nothing wrong with a classic graphic label, but anything that takes the starch out of wine appreciation and gets me in a good mood is just fine. I admit it. I get a kick out of funny labels.

Not so much some of my fellow tasters. As a I mention in my video, every time the bags come off after a blind tasting, someone will have a critique that goes beyond what’s inside the bottle to comment on the impression the outside makes.

For most of us, I venture to say, what the label says in word and image doesn’t matter. But for commercial success, it does. We righteous wine drinkers may only buy wines we know by experience, reputation, or because one of our favorite critics says it’s good. But most people shopping in a store get a visceral reaction to a wine first from the packaging.

That’s why we see so many big, heavy, energy-wasting, oversized bottles. The winery obviously doesn’t care if it won’t fit in my wine rack. But the label communicates “I’m important,” as do many serious-looking labels.

When the look of the label doesn’t fit the reputation of the wine, do you experience some sort of cognitive dissonance?

Not to pick on Washington, but I encountered an instructive run of offbeat labels on the wines I tasted from there this week. Now that I am doing my tastings in the Napa office, there’s a whole new cast of passers-by to comment.

There were a lot of snickers, for example, over the comic book art label for Cayuse Syrah Bionic Frog. I love the frog label. It depicts a loopy green amphibian hopping off a garishly colored background. Audience reaction made we wonder if that really was appropriate for a $75 bottle. Another Cayuse wine, the Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend Flying Pig ($70), depicts a delirious pink pig with wings. Fortunately for Cayuse, the winery sells both wines entirely on its mailing list, so the labels need not lure customers in the store.

Using similarly wild labels hasn’t seemed to hold back Mollydooker, an Australian winery that has built a rabid following in the U.S. despite the circus-like label for its Shiraz called Carnival of Love (a Wine Spectator Top 10 wine two years running).

Although labels that tilt to the risqué are more common to Australia (think of the va-va-voom figures on Some Young Punks’ Passion Has Red Lips, Naked on Roller Skates and Quickie), at least one Washington winery has a wine that fits the category. It's called Lick My Lips. The label features a big pair of puckered-up shiny rosy lips. Would you pay $27 for it?


One label that made us all smile was a fruit-forward, easy-drinking red priced at $10. The label depicts a cherry, its stem sizzling like a fuse. It’s called “Fruit Bomb.”

Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon would never do something called “fruit bomb” (he’s a terroir guy, not a fruit guy) but I’m sure the mind that started the trend for witty labels and created the craziness of Big House Red, Cardinal Zin, Le Cigare Volant and Old Telegram appreciates the word play.

But what if the wine does have to attract shoppers but the price doesn’t match? On the Lone Canary wines, which are pretty good, the rudimentary sketch of a little bird says, “I am a $10 bargain wine” to me, but the price is in the mid $20s. Does it bother anyone that the label doesn’t jibe with the price?

Just wondering.

Jon Bonne
San Francisco, CA —  March 13, 2009 10:41pm ET
The Bionic Frog label rocks. Anyone who doesn't grok it also probably won't appreciate Christophe's zeitgeist, to which ... all the more for the rest of us.
Todd Shreve
March 14, 2009 3:02am ET
How about Two Hands and the different labels? And I think the Meeker Handprint is just genius.
Alex D Rot
Elkhart, IN —  March 14, 2009 10:07am ET
Interesting post Harvey! I like to soak and save my labels after I've finished the bottle, so I really like having a wide variety of labels from classic to eccentric. Not that the label has any bearing on whether I enjoyed the wine, and I don't think I've ever consciously bought a wine because of the label, but it's still fun to see some creative ones.One thing that is annoying is when the label is so "minimalist" that it doesn't include any relevant information (i.e., producer, appelation, etc.). Sure, I could just turn to the back label, but I like my info on the front for some reason.
Brad Dubner
Jupiter, FL —  March 15, 2009 5:13pm ET
And so we'll just ignore the Sine Qua Non, Marcassins and Orin Swift wines as they say nothing about what's inside? Labels are just that. Labels. I don't find them pulling me towards or pushing me away from any wine. I just use them for identifiers so I can tell one bottle from another. Rather simplistic, I know, but let the wine speak for itself.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  March 15, 2009 5:23pm ET
There you go, Brad, being reasonable. I wish everyone buying wine were so rational.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  March 15, 2009 8:30pm ET
Every time I buy a bottle of Rosenblum Zin, I groan... no matter how many times they change the label it's always polar to my own artistic taste... but I know the wine inside is going to be very much right ontop of my taste. By coincidence, I love the Mollydooker labels and the wines. And I'm sure I have a "man-crush" on Frederick from Spring Valley. The wine, too! ;-)
Jeff Johnson
Costa Mesa Ca, —  March 15, 2009 10:47pm ET
Harvey, Two words Victor Hugo. In restaurants there are times when a label will effect my buying. We can all claim it doesn't but that is not the reality.
Catharine Holtan
Bellevue, WA —  March 15, 2009 11:55pm ET
Very funny post Harvey. On a side note, does this mean that the reviews for the '06 Cayuse wines will be coming out soon?
Jeff Yates
Napa, CA —  March 17, 2009 7:55pm ET
I have definately had label issues. I have had problems selling wine that were $40 with a $10 label. I have also said no to great tasting wines because I knew that my customers would not get past the label. On the other hand once a wine is known for what is inside the bottle, it can overcome its label.
Sumit Sharan
Sudbury, ON, Canada —  March 18, 2009 11:03pm ET
Very interesting article Harvey! I must admit I do like what Australia, Spain and Argentina have done with labels. I strongly believe the labels not only represent the wineries but also the countries' entire culture and vibe. Don't get me wrong, not for one second am I implying that the French may be a touch boring! Regardless, a good/interesting label always makes for fun conversation regardless of how good or bad the wine is!

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