16 Dec 2011

Wine labels can be fun and even plain silly

Wine is basically just a drink. It can often be a very good one too, and even, from time to time, produce, in some of those who drink it, the kind of esthetic experience that brings it close to others of fairly high sensual intensity. But a lot of wine geeks take this substance far too seriously, and I am not just talking about the snobs who want to buy only those rare and expensive labels. I find that this over-serious conformism shows clearly in the majority of wine labels, which are usually boringly conventional.

From time to time wine producers or retailers branch out a bit and try something different. This doesn't often happen in France, except to some extent within the so-called (and mis-named) "natural" wine category. Perhaps this is because so many of these wines seem, to me and to many of my professional colleagues, to be so totally unpalatable that they need to compensate by being creative with their labels?

But as soon as you travel, and especially to Italy, to the USA or to Australia, you can find all kinds of creativity, some of it quite off-the-wall, showing itself on wine labels. France tends to be far more staid, or else it sombers into vulgarity. Let's take a look...

Fattoria Le Terraze is a very good producer from the Conero appellation of the I Marchi region on Italy's Adriatic coast, to the east of Tuscany. The owner happens to be a great fan of Bob Dylan and called one of his wines Planet Waves, which is the name of a Dylan album (see left). I don't think that this was a huge commercial success and I believe he has abandoned this theme, but his current wine called Chaos has a very bright label that changes for every vintage. It also happens to be a very good wine (see below).

Other producers often take the route of making fun, using greater or lesser levels of sophistication. The most consistently creative and funny of these has to be the one and only Randall Grahm, whose Bonny Doon outfit, based in Santa Cruz, California, has consistently turned out excellent labels over many years now. This was probably one of the first, and it needs a bit of wine-knowledge to decode it, as it both pokes fun at and pays hommage to a couple of French wine regions.

Grahm has been responsible for many otherwise creative labels, such as this Steadman one for a Zinfandel:

Or this one, for his basic red wine, which is a little graphic and verbal masterpiece:

Getting even more powerfully graphic, he has also, more recently, produced this set, for a syrah:

Pure provocation is often a theme of some wine labels in the US or Australia. This is not often to be found in latin countries, with the exception of some French labels from the category I mentioned in my introduction:

or indeed this:

or this:

In the case of labels produced for specific markets, such as the English one, local sayings or quaint expressions tend to play a part in labels that use these to skew their message. The famous Fat Bastard Chardonnay is a well-known example, but there are also ones like this:

This one uses irony and the second degree to attempt to obviate the growing resistance to French wines in some segments of the UK market:

Occasionally somenone goes out on a direct line of provocation. This is usually sexual, and probably restricted to limited series wines:

And, just to ensure that nobody feels left out here:

As we are entering the festive period, it is worth remembering that the seasonal theme is also used at times : 

As are all kinds of other strange themes with nothing immediately to do with wine, such as murder movies or novels:

Or strip cartoons:

And, occasionally, things even weirder and, perhaps, more poetical: