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Which Came First, the Label or the Wine?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 22, 2009 12:03pm ET

One label consists of the word “evil,” printed upside-down. Another is just called “Bitch.” A classier one presents an Escher-like perspective-defying drawing, and nothing else. Yet another imprints a vellum-textured label, featuring an image of a antebellum woman with a parasol, with a cryptic saying. “POOR THING,” it reads in all caps, “EXCLAIMED SOUTHERN BELLE TO DIDDLEY BOW, WHILE GUT BUCKET AND WHIMMY DIDDLE PLAYED ON."

If those labels knock you off balance, that’s the point. American Dan Philips and Australian Chris Ringland are trying to shake up their customers with such out-there wine labels. It would be a sideshow, except that the wines inside are generally very good. Philips and Ringland might be creating a whole new art form, a synergy of wine and art.

In two videos accompanying this blog, Ringland explains how developing new wines can not only suggest new labels, but how particularly creative labels can inspire new wines. Ringland makes wines in Australia for Philips, who works with Ringland on the concepts and imports them through his Grateful Palate company.

“We are both strongly driven by breaking down preconceptions, that there is only one correct way to tell a story,” Ringland says. “Some people say they don’t like kitschy, gimmicky labels. Maybe it’s just that (the labels) challenge conceptions of what goes into making a good wine.”

Philips has always been creative with labels. In the 1990s he joined with Sparky and Sarah Marquis (who went on to make Mollydooker) to create Marquis Philips, and festooned the labels with an arresting image—the roogle, a fanciful creature with the body of a kangaroo and the head of an American eagle. After an acrimonious breakup with the Marquises, Philips ended up with the brand, and now dresses up the roogle in various garb to pose on the labels for different wines.

“Dan had always been fired up by working with designers and artists to bring wine concepts to a different level,” Ringland explains. “We need to find an identity and meaning to the wine to work with the art.

“It’s an exploration of what wine means,” he continues. “How do we visualize wine? What do we take for granted about wine? If we look deeper into it, what is it that makes it special? How can we, using our expertise, push the limits of what we can do with wine?

“We take for granted we want to make a delicious bottle of wine. All of the designs don’t mean a thing unless we do that.”

In a way, these ventures remind me of how some of my favorite music originated. Some are obvious, such as Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Strauss’ tone poem, Don Quixote. Others are more obscure. The dissident Soviet composer Shostakovich feared surprise visits from Stalin’s henchmen, whose ominous nighttime knocks on the door permeate several of his late string quartets. More prosaically, a thrilling ride in a sports car led to John Adams’ wonderful orchestral fanfare, Short Ride in a Fast Machine.

These pieces all function as legitimate, even great, music, with or without knowledge of their origins. Applying the same standard to Ringland’s wines, it’s clear that no one need pay attention to the labels. After all, I review them blind. I don’t see the labels. I don’t even know who made them or imported them. The wines indeed stand on their own as something worth drinking.

To bring me up to date on some of his current projects, Ringland opened a morning’s worth of wine for me on his recent visit to California. Aside from the projects in Australia, he has also been working in California with Philips on brands such as Red Lion, Green Lion, Amaze and Amazed, and  independently in Spain at Bodegas Alto Moncayo.

For this tasting, though, we focused on his Australian Grenache project, called Chateau Chateau (a play on Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is primarily made from Grenache). The wines are single-vineyard wines, chosen because each one represents a different soil type, mostly in Barossa Valley, with a few in McLaren Vale. Tasted side-by-side, it’s easy to discern their different personalities. Some show more perfume and elegance, others density and power. It’s not surprising that the range of flavors expands broadly, too.

The labels use the black-and-white drawings of the Hungarian artist Isztvan Orosz, a student of M.C. Escher. The wines are named after the drawings, mentioning the vineyard source in the small print. The wines are good, and the labels are too much fun.

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