By Michael Gibbs
Illustrator, Designer, Lover of French red wines
I recently bought a bottle of Pinot Noir. I like reds, but I didn’t buy this Pinot for its medium body or slightly fruity aroma, I bought it because I liked the label.
Bottled by The Seeker winery, the label features an image of a fantastic flying machine, along with a modern sans serif typeface. The label is clean and modern, with a hint of nostalgia.
In that sense, it bridges the gap between the classic, old-style wine label design of yesteryear and the colorful, edgy graphics featured on many wine labels today.
Abandoning their forerunners’ staid tradition of off-white labels crammed with information set in classic type fonts—and maybe an etching of a chateau or a family crest, today’s labels often feature unexpected imagery, dynamic composition, cutting-edge typography and unique materials. (Early wine labels in Europe were small pieces of parchment tied with string around the neck of the bottle.)
Like a book cover, the goal is to attract the consumer’s attention and say something about the character of the contents within. Unlike traditional wine labels, which were intended to be utilitarian and functional and suggest elegance and refinement, today’s wine labels are as much a marketing device as an informational medium. Rather than conveying epicurean sophistication, they often hint at humor, hipness, and cultural awareness.
Or—as suggested by the proliferation of what the wine industry affectionately calls “critter labels”—a love for animals. Such labels exploded after the introduction of Yellow Tail wine, the Australian wine label featuring a kangaroo (or is it a wallaby?). Now we have cats, dogs, horses, birds, swans, penguins, bulls, turtles, monkeys, frogs, fish, and insects.
The success of these attention-grabbing labels—whether they feature animals or flying machines or minimalist silk-screened graphics or pop art or poster art or cowboys or pink trucks or pure typography—is notable. In just two years, Yellow Tail wines went from zero to number one in sales of imported wines in the United States. No doubt the label’s eye-catching kangaroo helped the bottles hop off the shelves and into consumers’ hands.
While these wines may not appeal to hardened wine aficionados, they do appeal to the large segment of casual buyers who want a good wine at a reasonable price. For these buyers, the packaging appeals to the senses as much as the wine itself. In fact, the bottle they choose may the bottle whose label they respond to first.
Other things being equal, if I’m holding two $10 bottles of wine, I’m going to buy the one with the label that appeals to me. In a recent trip to the wine store, I found several wines which I bought primarily for the labels.
Am I alone? Or do most consumers buy wine based on the label?
“The role of the wine label is far more important than merely delivering information about the wine to the buyer,” says Campbell Mattinson of Wine X, a young adult lifestyle magazine based in California. “More like a siren that croons longingly from the shore, the wine label’s job is to make you want it.”
That assumption is backed up by Tom Harris, CEO of the Point of Purchase Advertising Industry (POPAI), who estimates that 70 percent of wine buying decisions are made after the consumer has walked through the liquor store door. That’s why he considers wine labels “the absolute last frontier, where the buying decision meets the overall marketing strategy.”
What’s your favorite wine label?
A Six-Pack of Michael Gibbs’ Favorite Wine Labels
Their marketing pitch: “You are a Seeker. You invite the Unknown to share a bottomless carafe—and sometimes two. You long for whirring machines of flight and fancy. With the wind in your hair and the uncharted ahead, you command the helm. You follow your compass toward fortune. You wander by land and sea and stars and sky, because for you there is no other way. To each man a fate and to each fate, a fury itching to fly. But don’t worry, you’re in good company; we’re flying beside you. Some might say we’re mad. That we Seekers seize universal energy and use it to delight in aimless wanderings. They call us lords of lunacy, commanders gone rogue. And to that we say, “Indeed, we are. And truly great ones.”
Why I like the label: This collection of wines features fantastic flying machines framed by modern type. I like the clean label design and the whimsical nature of the flying machines. Like labels featuring birds, there’s an uplifting feel inherent in the theme of flying, and these machines, while decidedly retro, also suggest a modern element of adventure and … seeking. Seeking a new, good wine, perhaps.
Their marketing pitch: “Just good wine. Plain and simple. With its lovely black cherry, cola, and strawberry flavors, it’s understandable that you might want to talk about Jargon, maybe even rhapsodize about it. But really, wine is meant to be enjoyed, so we hope you’ll discover the simple pleasures that sharing a bottle of Jargon can bring.”
Why I like the label: This label can best be described as fun, and, like many new-school labels, it puts a somewhat irreverent face on an industry that can, for some, project itself as the pinnacle of sophistication, refinement, and musty stodginess. Somewhere in the jumble of characters are the words “just good wine,” and it’s apparent that this wine doesn’t take itself too seriously, trading pretentiousness for playfulness. It’s fun and lighthearted, like the buyers that it most likely appeals to.
Little Black Dress
Their marketing pitch: “If you’re passionate about Merlot, make Little Black Dress your “go to” red. This wine is rich with aromas of ripe black cherry, cranberry, and warm herb, complemented by hints of vanilla and toasted oak. This medium-bodied Merlot can seduce even the most experienced of palates with its nice lingering finish. Wine Pairing: Excellent with meats or hearty foods. Plus: Little Black Dress Wines and celebrity stylist Joey Tierney share the top 10 tips to style your little black dress all season long.”
Why I like the label: I like the minimalist approach to the label; in fact, it doesn’t even show what it purports to show. There is no little black dress. With the kicked-off red pumps and hanger, it may be a little suggestive, and maybe that’s the point.
Their marketing pitch: “When the Coppola family decided to construct a winery resort in Sonoma County, they felt strongly about giving head winemaker Corey Beck, a Sonoma County native, the opportunity to make wines that reflected his own vision of the quintessential Sonoma wine. Director’s Cut became that endeavor—limited production, appellation-designate wines sourced from Sonoma’s diverse and distinctive microclimates. Named after the version of a film which most reflects the director’s vision, the Director’s Cut wines represent our winemaker’s vision of varietal wines, which express true appellation character. In addition, every bottle of Director’s Cut pays homage to the history of filmmaking with its wraparound label designed after a Zoetrope strip, one of the earliest moving picture devices. Each Director’s Cut label is a replica of a strip from Francis’ personal Zoetrope collection.”
Why I like the label: This is a wine label that’s bigger than the bottle itself. A narrow strip of paper, it wraps around the bottle more than once and features a replica of a Zoetrope strip. A zoetrope was a device that produced the illusion of movement when the user viewed a series of static pictures through a slit, and such sequential pictures are featured on the wine label. The zoetrope was the forerunner to motion pictures, and it’s the namesake of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s film studio. Coppola collects vintage zoetrope strips. He owns a winery. Put the two together and you have Director’s Cut wines, with zoetrope stips as wine labels.
Their marketing pitch: “Crafted exclusively from grapes grown on original, ungrafted root systems, and produced using sustainable methods, the intense flavors and authentic varietal character of Root: 1 wines are living proof that character comes from your roots.”
Why I like the label: This is a label that isn’t a label. The entire “label”— even the rear one with the regulatory information— is silkscreened onto the bottle. Like a letterpress invitation, the graphics and lettering are raised, so there’s a tactile quality to the graphics. I also like the minimalist white-on-black approach, the contrast between text and drawing, and the clean lines of the design.
Their marketing pitch: “Black Swan wines are the essence of the unexpected experience: adventurous, bold, and sophisticated. With plenty of style. In 2002, we created Black Swan wines to showcase what the best wine-making regions in South Eastern Australia can produce. Every Black Swan varietal makes a bold, unexpected impression.”
Why I like the label: This is another big-selling wine from Down Under, featuring a “critter label” that followed in the footsteps of fellow Australian Yellow Tail. Like Yellow Tail, the bottle stands out from the crowd with its bold use of color, dynamic composition, clean modern type, and streamlined design. While many critter labels are whimsical, this design is more sophisticated, designed to appeal to a different audience than, say, a bottle of Three Blind Moose (which features an image of three moose wearing sunglasses).
About illustrator and designer Michael Glenwood Gibbs
An award-winning designer and illustrator, Gibbs has been freelancing for some of the nation’s most well-known publications and companies since attending Pratt Institute as a photography and illustration major in the mid-70s.
His artwork has appeared in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Worth Magazine, Consumer Reports, Harvard Business Review, and publications for United Airlines, Verizon, IBM, Sears, and American Airlines, as well as many book covers and posters.
Need a stock illustration? View Gibbs images, available as stock, at www.stockillustration.com.