Or at least that what they hope you will do.
To understand wine labels you need to understand the history of wine brands or how the wine industry has evolved over time. I recently saw an article in the Globe and Mail by Christine Sismondo who takes a stab at trying to understand wine branding, but spends most of her time on the crass attempt some wine brands are taking to stand-out through lewd and vulgar language. I am not sure sex sells wine. Maybe it’s the other way – wine sells sex. Or least that’s how I remember it.
Old World, Old Ways
Legend has it that back in the 17th century a French Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon was the first to craft a sparkling wine by the so-called méthode champenoise in the region called Champagne but also was the first to hand craft a wine label that was tied to the neck of the bottle. However, it wasn’t until 1936 that the Dom Pérignon label was placed on a cuvée de prestige bottle when it was first commercialized – an icon brand today.
Wine has been around for centuries. The biggest constraint in label development was technology. It wasn’t until 1798 that lithography was invented that allowed the ability to print a label in mass quantities. Glass bottles improved and the printing press was invented in the 19th century in Germany. People began to recognize the importance of different winemakers, grape varieties and vineyards. They also began to understand the importance of aging their wine.
No surprise the wine label purpose is to inform the customer about the qualities and the origin of the wine, which is strictly regulated and standardized. It’s fair to say that the bulk of the labels are formal and functional providing consumers with such information as: year of bottling, locality of vineyard, years of aging, alcohol level, certification and varietal.
France is notorious for producing some of the world’s great wines and approximately 8 billion bottles per year. That’s a lot of labels – actually a lot of boring labels. Since the culture of wine is based on knowledge and traditions (of which, the French have many). The buying process relied on word-of-mouth and familiarity, rendering the labels to be all about the facts. The label’s purpose was to inform the consumer of the bottle’s content and reassure them of its authenticity. One of the world’s most famous French wines, Château d’Yquem from the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux, declares that “More than four centuries of history are summed up in the words ‘Château d’Yquem Lur-Saluces’ found on every bottle of Yquem.”
The Art of Wine
But that hasn’t stopped some wine brands from breaking out of the mold. As one of the world’s greatest wines and one of only five Bordeaux Premier Cru, Château Mouton Rothschild has a history of commissioning famous artists to design their label for each new vintage. Such artists include Pablo Picasso (vintage 1973), Andy Warhol (vintage 1975), Francis Bacon (vintage 1990) and more recently, Miquel Barcelo (vintage 2012) all have created an 8 cm x 4 cm piece of art. A great wine has no difficulty in attracting great artists.
You also don’t need to be one of the world’s top wines to feature original creations. Vietti Wines of Italy has also been supporting artists since 1970, who design one-time original works of art that are displayed on one wine vintage. Alfredo Currado, husband of Luciana Vietti and head of Vietti Wines, says wonderful wines “deserved to be graced with labels unlike any other: labels designed by Artists.”
New World Changes the Wine World
But the biggest turning point was in 1976 when the legendary blind tasting of French wines against California wines put North America on the map as a serious producer of great wines. France was no longer the only place in the world that made connoisseur wines. Since then the world’s wine market has flourished both in production and consumption. U.S. leads the way in consumption followed by France, but China’s market is the fastest growing. In 2013, Vineexpo estimate that over 38 million bottles of wine were produced world-wide with 58% coming from Italy, Spain, France and the United States. Canada, where I reside, is less than 0.24% of the world’s production or 91,200 bottles. A drop in the barrel, if you will.
“The wine market has become a real global market. Despite increasing competition, very few brands have succeeded in really imposing themselves at [an] international level,” says Benoit Léchenault, Head of Agrifranc.
European wines had the luxury of history, pedigree of terroir, and a stately Château to boot, to sell their wines on mystic at a princely sum. But the new world had none of these characteristics and focused on producing a top-quality single-varietal wine. No longer was geographical knowledge required (left bank vs right bank) nor historical significant important or required to understand the wine’s lineage.
Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, founder of Brandever agency who specializes in wine branding in Canada, says the grape became the star. ‘The pedigree and history of the winemaker, the location of the vineyard and the age of the chateau all became irrelevant.’
Standing Out Doesn’t Mean Outstanding
A typical wine store can have anywhere from 1,500 different wines on its shelves to 3,300 different wines. Standing-out above the crowd becomes a perquisite for wines that don’t have the budget to build awareness outside the store shelves. A joint 2008 study in US and Australia, revealed that wine label attractiveness is important in the decision making processes for over 75% and 62% respectively.
The label characteristics that were perceived to be desirable are: eye catching, attractive, interesting, unique, stylish, creative, clever, colorful, sophisticated, artistic, and elegant.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that USA and Australian wines started revolutionizing the snobby image of the wine industry. In 1986, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey started Barefoot Wines with the slogan “Get Barefoot and have a great time!” A slogan more fitting a beer brand than wine at the time but it was the exclusive beer drinkers who were attracted to this brand. “Our initial fan base was folks who didn’t like wine,” says Houlihan. He says Barefoot Wine success was built on a brand image that was fun, friendly and approachable. Barefoot Wines is now the largest wine brand by global volume sales in the world.
In 2001, Yellow Tail Wines followed a similar path but more strategic if you believe the mythical tale known as the “Blue Ocean” strategy. To make a long story short they designed their wine to attract a new customer outside the traditional wine market. Focusing on the U.S. market they crafted a wine to suit the Coca-Cola tastes of the American consumer. They also made sure the label stood out from the crowd with a bright yellow wallaby in the center and neon colored bars to distinguish different grape varietals. “We did some testing and the label came back with mixed results, people didn’t like the animal on it,” says Peter Deutsch, CEO of Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, and part owner of Yellow Tail Wines. But we took the risk because it was completely different. That risk turned out to be a home run.” The brand built on the Aussie stereotype of being laid back and carefree seems to be working, as they sell over 8 million cases a year in the U.S. alone. Currently, Yellow Tail sits as the second largest wine brand in the U.S. having lost the first position to Barefoot Wines, a few years ago.
Aging Wine with Your Consumer
The biggest opportunity for wine brands are the growing millennial consumers who aren’t tied to any past wine traditions or formalities. Wine has emerged as a social beverage on par with beer where not only is wine consumption growing among Millennials but they are also happy to experiment with different tastes.
In a 2012 study done by Profs. Joe Bath and Statia Elliot of Guelph University they found that a majority of Millennials choose wine based on package appeal, with racy labels faring best. They are attracted to ‘spirited’, ‘up-to-date’ and ‘colourful’ labels with sexually suggestive language and images.
Now the shelves are covered with colourful, highly-designed, provocative images and humours typography. A good example is B.C. winery Church and State’s Lost Inhibitions label which has a multitude of different colourful labels with catchy and tweetable sayings such as: “This is Effing Epic”, “I Fu*cking Love You” and “Kiss My Ass”, to name a few. I think you get the point.
I am not sure you can build a long-term wine brand that is pushing the borders all the time. Ok, you can laugh once and buy once, but building a long-term relation on abusive language isn’t sustainable. It looks and feels like an opportunity to take advantage of the moment but it will only be a moment. It reminds me of the underwear fad fifteen years ago when young people were wearing trendy, funky boxer shorts with funny messages and images. Today, they have moved those words and images onto wine bottles. But you should never judge a wine by its label. Or should you?
Beyond the crude, there are many unique wine labels using whatever possible styles and techniques to grab your attention; everything from distinctive etched, engraved and embossed bottles, wax and other materials, such as metal, wood, fabric and even dirt, minimalistic & conceptual designs and personalization. The vineyard’s budget is the limit.
Wine Improves With Age – The Older I Get, The More I Like It
A wine’s taste is the most important fact for generating repeat purchases, packaging can impact the initial trial purchase and help with visual recall. But worth-of-mouth can`t be ignored. No different than advertising, you can lead the consumer to drink but the product in the glass will make or break the relationship, not the label. The worst scenario is when they love the wine but can’t remember the label. Thank heavens for cameras on phones.
Purchasing a bottle of wine can be overwhelming and somewhat intimidating for many people. Like any food and drink your palate evolves over time and the same will occur with wine. The situation and environment that you consume the wine also effects how you experience the wine. Have the same bottle of wine with your best friends reminiscing around a bonfire on a beach, then experience the same bottle by yourself in a somber mood, in a quiet room alone, and the wine will taste different. If the only chance for the wine to communicate to a consumer is through the 10 cm x 10 cm label on a bottle, make sure you catch their attention and the name is memorable – or at least pronounceable. Also understand who, how and where they will consume it, which should influence the label’s design and graphics. The stronger the message (like Church and State’s Lost Inhibitions) the more restrictive the audience or greater the chance it’s received like a fad.
But what do I know. I have seen Barefoot Wines on the wine shelf for almost 30 years and I have never thought of buying it. I don’t need the bottle to scream at me or make me laugh, I just want an effing great Cab that has a bold character, depth and a balanced finish. I’d like to think I’m aging well. Cheers!
*Please no drinking and driving.