Intoxicatingly Lovely Wine Labels Conquer Retail Noise
By Kate Bertrand
Wine labels are in a category all their own. They must not only capture the unique personality of the winery, the wine and the brand but also catch the attention of shoppers in environments ranging from wine boutiques to club stores. The label must present well on the dinner table, as well, whether at home or in a restaurant.

To meet these varied requirements, wineries are hiring designers and even commissioning fine artists to create their labels. This winter, the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design explored the complexity of wine label art and design in its “Beyond the Pour: Pairing Art and Wine Label Design” exhibition.

The show featured the work of six design firms, including Britton Design, MOD/Michael Osborne Design and Icon Design. The exhibition also included the art of eight fine artists who have created labels for Glen Ellen, Calif.-based Imagery Estate Winery.

Wine labels must be distinctive to stand out in an extraordinarily prolific category.
“Research has shown that 60 percent of people buying wine base their decision on the look of the bottle and the label,” says Bob Nugent, curator of collections for the Benziger Family and Imagery Estate wineries and curator of “Beyond the Pour.” “The other 40 percent are probably more knowledgeable and have a wine in mind already. But people who don’t know what they want look through the shelves.”

Seb Hamamjian, associate director of the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design, says that while wine labels have great aesthetic value they also have more practical applications.

“Every winery is different, and wine is different from peanut butter or bread or cornflakes or beans. If you want consumers to make that initial step and take that bottle off the shelf, you have to somehow reach them. You have to say something to them that makes them want to do that,” he says.

“Then it’s up to the wine maker to get them to buy that wine again.”
Imagery, owned by the Benziger winery, produces small-quantity, rare and eclectic wines and commissions artists to create one-of-a-kind labels that complement them.

A nod to the parthenon
Imagery commissions full-size works from artists like Robert Arneson, Don Farnsworth, Dominic DiMare and Nancy Graves, and then reproduces and reduces each image to label size.

Nugent himself created the images for Imagery’s first labels: a triptych of images on three bottles in a boxed set. The winery currently has 214 pieces in the permanent Imagery Artist Label Collection.

When commissioning artwork, Imagery’s only requirement is that the artist include a representation, somewhere in the image, of the winery’s “parthenon”—a structure that actually exists on winery property.

Rose Hill and Dahlia
By incorporating images emblematic of the winery, label designers can capture the personality of the winemaker and the brand. For example, the imagery on labels of Carmel Valley, Calif.-based Galante Vineyards’ Red Rose Hill and Blackjack Pasture cabernet sauvignons expresses Galante’s dual identity as an ultra-premium wine maker and a working cattle ranch.

To create the Western-look label and also memorialize Galante’s large rose garden, Patti Britton, owner of Britton Design in Sonoma, Calif., hired a saddle maker to hand tool a border of roses on a 12-inch long piece of leather. The saddle maker decorated the piece with real silver conchos in the corners.

Britton then scanned the leather work and used digital technology to add winery and product identification to the scanned image, creating the label.
Originally the labels were glue-applied paper. However, the winery recently switched to pressure-sensitive paper labels, keeping the same graphic design. Galante’s three- and nine-liter bottles are decorated with a leather label and conchos.

But creativity isn’t limited to premium wines. Those in the mass market channel probably have a bigger challenge to differentiate.
“The wine category in general is saturated. You can go to Safeway and stand at the end of the wine aisle, and almost as far as the eye can see are wine brands,” says Michael Osborne, president of San Francisco-based MOD. There are “literally hundreds of brands, including imports, and several different price points.”

Private-label brands are playing an important part in that proliferation, according to Osborne. His firm has designed packaging for several, including the Firefly brand owned by Safeway, and Beverages & More’s Gina and Dahlia brands.

Dahlia’s abstract front-label graphics are printed using bright metallic inks, and the black linework is embossed. In addition to designing Dahlia’s front and back labels, the cork and capsule graphics and a 12-bottle shipper case, MOD named the brand.

The label and more
It goes to show that for wine, as for any product, the label does not stand alone. Combining the right bottle shape, glass color, cork/closure and capsule is essential to support the label and communicate a coordinated brand message.  

Icon Design took an elegant yet down-to-earth approach to such packaging elements in designing a boxed set of six clone-based chardonnays produced by Chalk Hill Winery in Sonoma County, Calif.

For these expensive experimental wines, Chalk Hill wanted a “dramatic presentation to tell its story,” says Jeffrey Caldewey, founder of Icon Design in Napa, Calif.

Developed as an educational tool for sommeliers and high-end wine retailers, the clones’ package is a hand-made wooden box finished with custom fixtures, including metal hinges, a lock and skeleton key, and a woven external belt.

The box securely holds six bottles—each a different Chalk Hill chardonnay clone. Also tucked into the box are budwood, cut from vine canes, and a book that describes clone variation. The latter was designed to look like an antique field notebook.

The clones’ primary packaging was inspired by the metal tags used to identify clone vines in the field. Attached to the neck of each bottle is an aluminum vineyard tag hand-embossed with the wine’s clone number.

To complement the neck tag, Icon chose a plain tin capsule cut by hand to achieve a shorter-than-usual finish over the cork and bottle neck. The stark white label gives a nod to laboratory-sample labels. And for a touch of elegance, it is engraved in two colors and watermarked with specific clone numbers.

Chalk Hill wanted the clones in an “honest, real, sincere package—not glitz,” Caldewey explains. “The packaging becomes a value-added bonus.”  BP

Target the ‘Overwhelmed’
Constellation Wines U.S. recently released the results of its Project Genome research study, in which the company conducted more than 3,500 interviews with premium wine consumers. Interview subjects had purchased wine at a price of $5 or more per 750 ml bottle in the three months prior to the interview.
The results indicate that there is no typical wine consumer; rather, the study found that consumers fall into six unique segments:

Enthusiast 12%
Image Seeker
Savvy Shopper 15%
Traditionalist 16%
Satisfied Sipper 14%
Overwhelmed 23%

However, the largest segment, the Overwhelmed, holds particular value for package development. According to the study, wine labels play an important role in purchase decisions for this group. Because these consumers find shopping for wine complex, they often buy based on what the label communicates about the product.

Where to go for more information...
Package design. At Britton Design, contact Patti Britton at 707.938.8378 or
Package design. At Icon Design, contact Jeffrey Caldewey at 707.495.0539 or  
Package design. At MOD/Michael Osborne Design Inc., contact Michael Osborne at 415.255.0125 or
“Beyond the Pour” exhibition. At the San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design, contact Seb Hamamjian at 415.773.0303 or