Eye Contact: The Art of Wine Labels

Back labels on wine bottles are mostly about required information, but front labels are mostly about branding and design.  Sometimes they’re works of art.  And sometimes they’re a lot more memorable than the wines inside the bottles, but that’s another story…

What should the front label look like?  Minimalist?  Whimsical?  Ironic?  Several of you have told me that a good looking label can be a deciding factor on which wine to buy, particularly if it’s one you’re not familiar with or if you’re choosing among wines in a particular price range. 

This label doesn't play well in Japan or Britain

But wine labels mean different things to people in other countries.  Check out this piece by Dave McIntyre in his blog for the Washington Post about Adelsheim Vineyards (also available in this link from Vinography).  Adelsheim produces Oregon Pinot Noirs.  Their very distinctive label, with a drawing of a woman on it, is certainly eye-catching.  (Adelsheim  has apparently been using drawings of family and friends on their labels for years now.)   The face of the woman on the current label has a sort of Mona Lisa mystique that makes you wonder what she’s looking at.   Or what it says about the wine. 

The label is also very different from those on most of the other Oregon Pinots, which are rather understated.  Many Oregon Pinots are on the expensive side, and it wouldn’t do to have a cutesy animal on the front label if you’re trying to convince people to spend upwards of $25.   For less expensive wines sold in the U.S., my read on it is that if it’s not overtly eye-catching, it at least has to be pleasant to look at and not totally boring or old-fashioned.   Adelsheim is looking for some individuality too, and while the winery isn’t quite pushing the envelope for wines in its price range, in my opinion it’s getting close.

Now the company is looking to export and is encountering label issues.  The Japanese are apparently uncomfortable making eye contact with a wine label.  And the British, bless their hearts, think that if the label doesn’t look like French wine, it must not be good. 

(No objections from us on that one, since we have mostly French wines and they’re all good!)

I’m guessing that by “French” labels, the British mean the sort of just-the-facts style that you find on most of them.  Some labels have the occasional bucolic or agrarian scene, and sometimes the shape of the label indicates a mountain or a valley.  But they mostly contain just the name of the producer, the wine, the vintage, and the appellation of origin

This style of label, faux parchment and all, used to be a sign of high quality. Luckily, times have changed!

These things mean something to most French people who drink wine.  I like to joke that all French people are born with an encyclopedic knowledge of each wine region (grapes, style, good and less-good years, etc.)   You know, the way baby birds on remote islands teeming with wildlife recognize the sounds their mothers make.  So they don’t need anything else on the bottle.

That won’t necessarily do it for the rest of us who need a little visual appeal, too.  What do the labels look like?  Most producers have (thank goodness) abandoned the old parchment/farmhouse drawings on labels that you saw in the 1980s and 1990s.  These days, the labels tend to be kind of minimalist.  I like most of them, but I always wonder what people think.  And today I got an answer.

This is going to look like a total advertisement/horn toot, but it goes right to my point.  We got a great write-up in Wednesday’s Washington Post Express in a feature on foods you can have delivered in DC.

Out of the six bottles I submitted for a photo with the article, these were the two that the Post picked. The labels are simple, clean, and direct

(OK, who am I kidding here with the restraint business, we got a mention in the Express!  Read by lots of people every morning!  How freaking cool is that!  And now, back to the post…) 

The writer, Erin Hartigan, wanted to photograph some bottles for the article.  I picked what I thought were six of our most interesting labels, and the photo shows the two that were chosen:  Cave la Vigneronne Cuvée des Templiers White and Cave la Vinsobraise Ambre.    A clear bottle for the white, with a white label, large script, and a simple drawing of an arched doorway that hints at the associations with the Knights Templar.  For the red, a neat color and a logo of a man stomping grapes (tough to see here, but trust me, that’s what it is). 

Simple, elegant, and direct.  If these were on the shelf in a typical wine shop, they’d be in with the other Rhône wines and I think they’d still stand out.  Maybe the British are on to something after all!

Perhaps not with food, though.  Since it’s hot as blazes outside and it doesn’t look like that will change for a while, I figured the last thing you’d want to make was one of my favorite British dishes, like Bubble and Squeak or Sticky Toffee Pudding (which, however, I am going to make myself no matter how hot it is outside).  So instead, here’s a wondrous little non-British appetizer to spread on bread or sliced cucumber or stuff into celery (add some raisins or currants on top and you’ll have an adult version of Ants on a Log).  I have been making it from memory for so long that I don’t remember where it came from.  It’s a puree of white beans, walnuts, and butter, topped with a bit of truffle oil.  Truffle oil is expensive, but buy a small bottle and keep it in the fridge — it will last a long time and you’ll definitely want to make this recipe again.  You can make it ahead and refrigerate it, it keeps for at least a few days.  Let it warm up before you serve it, but make sure it’s just a little bit cool.  Add a little bit of chopped rosemary if you like it, and you can also float a little olive oil with red pepper flakes on top.  Delicious! 

The best part is, it goes with either of the wines pictured above.  The Templiers White ($10) is a light-bodied Southern Rhône white wine made from White Grenache, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Marsanne.  It’s great with appetizers and perfect with salads and light meals.  The Ambre ($12) is one of the cru wines from Vinsobres, 70% Grenche and 30% Syrah.  It has a great red fruit flavor, a light- to medium-body, and an earthiness that works particularly well with the hint of truffle flavor.  But it’s great for burgers, pizza, and anything else you want to eat on a hot night.  Just make sure you stare right at the bottle — you’ll know you’ve had enough to drink when it starts staring back! 

Bon Appetit!


White Bean and Walnut Spread with Truffle Oil

1 15-ounce can white beans, like Cannellinis, drained and rinsed

1 cup walnut pieces

3 tablespoons softened (not melted) butter

1 – 2 teaspoons truffle oil (white or black)

Salt and freshly –ground black pepper

Put the walnut pieces on a microwave-safe dinner plate and microwave them on high power, uncovered, for about 3 minutes.  Take the plate out (be careful, it will be hot), stir the walnuts a bit, then put it back in and cook in 30-second intervals until the walnuts are fragrant.  Then put them on a different plate and let them cool off a bit.

When they’re pretty cool, put the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Process until they’re finely chopped, then add the beans and butter and puree the mixture until it’s smooth.  Add about a quarter-teaspoon of salt, some pepper, and a teaspoon of truffle oil.  Process again and taste for seasoning.  The truffle flavor should be subtle – too much and it’s a bit medicinal.  But definitely add more if you like.  You can thin out the spread to make a dip by adding some extra-virgin olive oil and a little water, then pureeing until smooth.

This entry was posted in Cave la Vigneronne, Cave la Vinsobraise, Côtes du Rhône Wines, french wine, Musings/Lectures/Rants, recipes, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine labeling. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Eye Contact: The Art of Wine Labels

  1. Sue says:

    Great mention! Congratulations!

    Interesting article about Adelsheim. I wonder what the new labels will look like. I definitely am swayed by the label if I’m choosing between 2 wines I’m not that familiar with.

    I love that you toasted the walnuts in the microwave. That’s my trick, except now that I have a new microwave I’m amazed how quickly they burn!

    • firstvine says:

      Thanks, Sue! While I’ve never been creeped out by the Adelsheim label it isn’t my favorite by far. I guess they feel they have to change all their labels (not just those for export) because it’s easier to have only one front label.

      I have to say with the wine business it has been a while since I have gone browsing in a wine shop, so I haven’t had to make a decision based on a label in a long time. Still, I like a good-looking label as much as anyone else!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s