The more wine labels I read, and I’m sure the count is in the thousands by now, the more I ask myself this not-so-simple question: what’s the point of all this? And by this I mean back labels, those often-unfortunate repositories of bad poetry, useless information, and misguided marketing.
In the interests of marketing and rhetorical analysis, I grabbed six bottles, sort of randomly, from my wine fridge. (I still can’t get used to saying cellar without thinking I should buy some ascots.) To be part of my cutting-edge research, the bottles needed to have a back label, one containing, at the minimum, the name of the winery. This precluded many European bottles, which often have nothing more than the mandatory “wine is evil” warning or the name of the wine’s distributor. Five of the six chosen are American wines, one is Spanish.
At one end of the American label spectrum you have labels that try very hard to sound romantically persuasive, but fail miserably and end up casting the winery, I think, in a bad light. Exhibit 1: Columbia Crest Grand Estates. [disclosure: I work part-time for a winery that is a subsidiary, along with Columbia Crest, of the St. Michelle Wine Estates. Hope I don’t get fired. Seriously.] The first two sentences, which you can read here, are filled with lofty superlatives but say nothing about what’s in the bottle. In the next paragraph, you have the word “notorious” used incorrectly; notorious always has a negative connotation, despite current attempts to soften its traditional meaning. Maybe the writer meant to say famous or well-regarded but thought notorious had more power and mystery. Hey clever guy, how about you put down that thesaurus and back away from the keyboard, okay? The label’s last sentence is just more of the same: pseudo-enological gibberish that says nothing precise or telling about the wine. More importantly, it does nothing for the customer. It’s the wine marketing equivalent of feeding your dinner guests marshmallows. In the end, the sugar and empty calories make them sick.
Exhibit 2 comes from a little winery down in Ventura named Old Creek Ranch. I don’t want to give these folks too much of a hard time because they were so generous and friendly when I visited a few months ago. But, unfortunately, their label is no better than Columbia Crest’s failed attempt. It is, I think, a sincere effort to say laudatory things about their wine, but is filled with so many generalities that you end up rereading it several times to see if there was something you missed. There is the obligatory reach to history and the verities of tradition, but 30 years isn’t really that long a time. This is followed by the admission that the grapes are grown following the best methods possible. Who would say otherwise? Which means there is no need to say it. The last sentence is so generically true that, while it can’t be refuted, it says nothing distinctive. The writer might as well have said, “We use grapes to make our wine. And then we bottle it, just like other wineries have done for years. It’s really good. Honest.” That’s a strong sell, right? No, it’s not, but the label barely gets over this very low bar.
While I’m not eager for a winery to tell me what flavors I’m going to encounter when I taste their wine – I like to leave the tasting and deciding of flavors to my palate, however inexperienced or unsophisticated it might be –I also don’t like their marketing pitch to assume I know the subtle differences between grape varieties or what wines from a particular region are supposed to taste like. This is what Exhibit 3, Chimney Rock, does. There’s something elitist and exclusive about that. How many average American wine drinkers know the wines of Graves in France all that well? Can these same folks also explain the differences between sauvignon blanc and sauvignon gris? I drink a fair amount of sauv blanc but not sauv gris, and so this language is wasted on me, even leaves me a bit puzzled. Finally, this label ends with language that just begs for speculation. Just because one is dedicated to a task doesn’t mean one achieves the sought-after end. Again, more presumption. I’m a big fan of Chimney Rock and all they do, but the language on their label leaves me a bit cold.
In Exhibit 4, another likeable and esteemed winery, Hanzell, falls into a sort of Orson Welles-John Houseman “You can trust us, we’re just grand” approach. As if gravity endows integrity. The label tells the reader all about how the vines are cared for. You know, just like where all those great Burgundies come from. Okay, great. So? Don’t get me wrong, I love their product, but telling me how you farm, which is no different from hundreds of other wineries, tells me absolutely nothing about your product or why I should buy it. Maybe we are back to my original question – what’s this all about?
The folks at Ridge, Exhibit 5, think they have the answer for this. I used to love their labels, front and back, just crammed with all the information any budding wine geek could want. Brix levels and malolactic times, pruning dates and crop yields, temperature swings and stirring of the lees. Enough to make the grape junkie swoon. Lately, however, I’m thinking that enough is enough. Does the average buyer need to know all this? Is there a benefit to us once we have consumed and digested more data than most folks can absorb in one sitting? If so, what is it? I’ve been a Ridge fan since the late 1980s, when a friend introduced me to one of their zinfandels. I drink them because they have, over the years, convinced me that they are among the most reliable and highest quality productions on the market. Their labels play no role in that belief. Maybe the winery likes being transparent. Maybe their staff’s own geekiness can’t be contained and they are compelled to share the most intimate minutiae of their craft. I don’t know. What I do know is that their labels now strike me as more form than substance, an interesting style point that really serves no other purpose than decoration.
Which brings us to our last example, Exhibit 6. This final label, from Spain’s Bodegas Muga, was chosen in order to show the minimal extent to which most European wineries go in this practice: winery name, distributor, legally required warnings and information – volume, alcohol by volume (ABV), sulfites, and so forth. There is also a bond label informing the buyer as to the region of origin, in this case Rioja, a bottling number, and the year it was bottled. That’s it. Plain and simple. And many wineries on the Continent don’t even go this far. One way to look at this type of presentation is to realize that what matters most is inside the bottle, not on some sticky paper with fancy words and colors. What matters is the wine. And no amount of rhetoric, however well-intentioned or poetic, is going to change that.
Will American wineries catch on? Or will they continue the Manifest Destiny approach to design – all space must be filled? I’d like to hope so, but the American wine industry has a talent for disappointing even its most loyal consumers. If you have some labels that you think do their job well, pass them along. I’ll take any reasons for hope I can get.