At Hemingway’s, a specialty store in southwest Columbia, there are dozens of wine racks and more bottles of wine than any customer could count.
With so many varieties, choosing is often a matter of visual appeal, says Dawn Vaughn, owner of Hemingway’s. Vaughn says that customers often base their selection solely on the label’s appearance.
“They’ll purchase a wine without knowing what it tastes like,” Vaughn says.
Writer and wine consultant Doug Frost is one of three people in the world to hold both the titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He says that wine labels need to be more than the successful combination of art and vintage.
“First, a wine label has to attract attention,” Frost says. “Second, it needs to inform. It needs to tell potential customers what to expect from the wine.”
The pairing of a creative label and a unique wine is the idea behind a recently released series of wines from winery Les Bourgeois. The winery recently uncorked the new Collector’s Series, three new wines featuring winning artwork from their annual label design competition. Les Bourgeois has released a new Collector’s Series every year since the contest began in 1998.
The Collector’s Series is considered the highest-end wine produced at Les Bourgeois, and it is the only wine for which the labels change significantly. The three wines are small-batch experiments from the winery, coupled with winning label designs from the contest.
The series is a celebration of the partnership between two art forms. Winning designs are carefully paired with a wine that matches the feeling of the artwork.
For example, last year judges selected the first-ever winning entry that was in black and white, so the label was placed on a never-before-released port.
A successful label does much more than tell the name of the vineyard and the vintage. It offers important visual cues to the consumer, attempting to embody the style of the wine and a feeling of the winery itself. Elizabeth Slater, owner of In Short Direct Marketing, a California company that works with individual wineries and winery associations, says that a well-designed bottle should elicit emotion from the customer.
“It’s what the vintner wants to make the customer feel,” Slater says. “Through color, through design and through the bottle.”
Slater completed a survey of wineries, marketers, designers and wine shops across North America for Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine, assessing the importance of labeling in wine marketing.
“Your label is the face of your wine (except for the nose of course),” Slater wrote. “It tells people a lot about the wine consciously and subconsciously. The look of the label burrows into people’s emotions and makes them want to buy your wine or not want to buy your wine — even when they don’t know why. When consumers don’t know anything about the wine or winery, it is the packaging that attracts them to the bottle and subsequently to your winery.”
Not surprisingly, Slater found that labels were most important to those who didn’t know as much about wine. However, she says, eye-catching labels are important at every level of wine marketing.
“What it is trying to say more than anything is ‘Drink me!’” Slater says. “It’s trying to say ‘We have a quality product.’ That this is a product you are going to enjoy, and this is a product you can take home and pour for friends and be proud that you bought it.”
Until the early 1900s, wine was traditionally sold in barrels to wine merchants, who would then bottle the wine and design the labels, prominently featuring the merchant’s name rather than that of the chateau. However, everything changed in 1924, when Chateau Mouton-Rothschild’s owner, Baron Philippe, decided to bottle his own wine.
Cubist designer Jean Carlu was commissioned to create the first label featuring an artist’s work, a fantastical rendering of a ram, the chateau’s figurehead. In 1945, the chateau released a label to commemorate the end of World War II, with the symbolic “V” for Victory.
The tradition of Mouton-Rothschild has continued, with a virtual who’s who of art — Georges Braque, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró , Marc Chagall, Wassili Kandinksy, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol, among others — designing labels for the chateau. Other wineries have followed suit, making labels a popular collector’s item.
To select the winning artwork to appear on the labels of the Collector’s Series, Les Bourgeois partners with the Columbia Art League. A total of 10 judges from the organizations rank the entries based on color, composition and how well the piece would be represented on a wine bottle, says Jill Stedem, executive director of the Columbia Art League.
“Each judge has either a background in art or in the marketing of wine,” Stedem says. “So, it’s a great combination of talents.”
Dinise Mustain, whose piece “Red Queen Anne’s Lady” will appear on bottles of 2003 port, sees the creation of wine and the creation of art as parallel art forms. She has always looked at wine labels to help guide her personal wine purchases.
“I love to look at wine labels,” Mustain says. “When I try new wines, I often select one based on the region it was produced and the label. Sometimes, just for fun, my daughter and I will select wine with great labels. Even if we don’t like the wine, it makes a good vase.”
Mustain has always used her gardens as inspiration for her work. A teacher by trade, Mustain says her original art was the layout in her gardens. Now, she creates botanical collages with materials from those gardens.
“I thought it would be wonderful to have my work on a wine bottle — plant material representing a plant product,” Mustain says.
For Laura Pintel, whose collage “Prairie Flowers” will appear on bottles of 2004 Chardonel, this was not her first entry in the competition. After nine years working in molecular biology, Pintel went back to school to obtain an art degree. Her winning entry features the wildflowers of rural Missouri in a collage made of cutouts from magazines.
“I think the judges picked the perfect wine to go with this artwork,” Pintel says. “It is a Chardonel, which is a white wine, and the picture is bright and summer-like.”
Bryan Haynes, whose acrylic painting will be featured on bottles of 2004 Syrah, has worked with wine before. He entered the contest at a friend’s suggestion, and he created the painting with acrylic on canvas as an extension of illustrations he did for another winemaker. Haynes also sees the connection between the creation of the wine and the creation of artwork like his entry.
“One could make an analogy; throwing together the raw materials — grapes or thoughts … and seeing what happens after a period of gestation: always a surprise,” Haynes says.
In the end, the complete package, the pairing of the perfect complement of wine and art, the colors on the label and the font of the winery’s name, plays an integral role in the successful marketing of wine, says Slater.
“You can’t take a really great wine and put it in a jug and expect people to realize that this is a really great wine.”