As they're being bottled, most wines -- the slightest nuances aside -- look pretty much the same.
But slap a label on that bottle and, suddenly, there's so much information, both explicit and subliminal, that it's almost impossible to take it all in.
In addition to the raw data -- the vintage and all that -- the label tells you who the winemakers are, who they think you are and the sort of wine they believe they're producing. As wine brands proliferate, the art of label design has become an intense exercise in psycho-marketing, requiring teams of skilled people to determine the message and make it leap from the shelf.
Does the buyer see himself as a connoisseur who knows his Echezeaux from his Eiswein? A bold spirit who refuses to bow to tradition? A hipster who thinks a wine with a cool-looking minimalist label is just the thing to bring to a dinner party?
There are wine labels specifically vying for each one's attention. And when you consider that about 80% of wine is bought directly off the shelf, it begins to become clear: That little sticky-back piece of paper has a lot of power.
Follow the kangaroo
Nowhere is wine label design more crucial to sales than with the less expensive brands aimed at occasional wine drinkers and inexperienced young consumers who want something festive-looking to take to a party.
For the current trend in splashy, colorful label design for lower-end wines, we mostly can thank the wildly successful Australian brand Yellow Tail, whose whimsical leaping kangaroo has makers of other low-priced wines hopping in emulation.
"Now you're getting a plethora of brands with kicky names and colorful graphics -- people fishing in the shallow end with flashy lures and baits," says Rob Celsi, vice president of brand development for Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena, Calif.
But how does a winery make its label stand out amid the colorful din?
Seattle designer Stephen Black faced such a challenge in redesigning the label for the Talus line of wines, which retail for about $7. The concept grew from his conversation with Talus' winemaker. "I asked her what she does that makes Talus wines unique, and she said, 'I don't do anything special. I get out of the way and let the grape do its thing.' "
So Black came up with a painterly rendition of a single grape floating in a disembodied, Magritte sort of way over an incongruous setting. For white wines, a green grape hovers over a sandy desert; for reds, a purple grape hangs suspended above a stormy sea -- all in vivid color.
"Part of my approach was to try to create contrast," Black says. "I wanted to pique consumers' interest with counterpoint, contrast, something very unexpected; something innovative with traditional clues. You have to find some way of creating a unique and memorable image without looking garish or cheap."
Black further emphasized the traditional by modifying the "a" in Talus to resemble ancient Roman lettering. The typeface, moreover, is slightly condensed, "meaning you can make it larger without it looking horsey," he says.
Finally, he opted for a vertically elongated label, which makes the bottle look a bit taller and more slender -- features generally associated with more expensive wines. But not too tall or slender.
"This is all about perceived quality at a certain price point," Black says. "You don't want to over-deliver graphically; you want to make sure consumers don't expect so much that when they try the wine they're disappointed."
While the battle of the bottom shelves is waged with color and drama, at the high end of the price scale designers are increasingly wed to the concept of less is more.
"Everyone is trying to achieve an image of perceived rarity," says Napa label designer Jeffrey Caldewey. "It's the idea that if you have to put a lot of type and gaudy graphics on your package, you're trying a little too hard. The more restrained and elegant labels are meant for the restaurant or dining room table, as opposed to trying to leap off a shelf into your lap."
For $40, artwork
After Napa designer Anthony Auston was hired to devise a label for Joseph Phelps Vineyards' Ovation Chardonnay, which sells for about $40, he was asked to devise something "like a museum book, something hot, contemporary, somewhat minimal, but also timeless," Auston says.
He and his colleagues "banged our heads on our desks trying to figure out how we were going to represent a grape leaf or a grape cluster or a vineyard this time around -- when you've designed hundreds of wine labels, this can be a problem. So we grabbed our cameras, a bag of chips and a six-pack and headed out to the vineyards to figure it out."
Eventually, Auston settled on a very minimalist white label bisected by a straight black horizontal line with a squiggle in its middle.
"Nearly everyone who looks at the label takes a closer look," he says. "Most think it's a section of barbed wire. Actually, it's the remnants of a grape tendril clinging to a length of trellis after the winter pruning."