wine labels: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I have no scientific proof for this, but I would bet a large sum of money that, along with good scores, attractive wine labels are responsible for a sizable percentage of all wine sales, and perhaps account for the highest percentage of spur-of-the-moment wine buying decisions.

So why are there so many ugly labels?

It's not as if most wineries don't give their packaging a lot of thought. They do! And it’s expensive, time consuming, and most importantly, it's their public face. What kind of bottle, what sort of closure, what (if any) capsule or neck label, are all topics up for discussion. But without a doubt, the label requires the most thought and attention.

I take a long look at most wine labels. If I am reviewing a wine, I must check every data entry point against what is printed on the actual label. Winery name... vintage... variety or blend... appellation... alcohol... vineyard or block or clone designation... and on and on. But like any consumer, I also have an immediate, visceral reaction to the overall design and impact of the label. And much of the time, that somehow correlates to the quality of the wine. But not always.

I've given this a lot of thought. What's good, what's not so good, and what's plain ugly? I think a good wine label should carry enough relevant information to guide a consumer to make a good purchase. It should be appealing to the eye. A quick check – does the label stand out among dozens of others on a crowded shelf? And if it does, does it look equally good from close up, when it's sitting on your dinner table? Apart from technical and vintage and varietal information, what does the label tell you about the story, the history, the human element behind the wine? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a good wine label should be worth at least a couple of sips!

A bad wine label may have some of the right elements, but not all. It may be sloppy, with typos and misspellings. Among the most common is the French word terroir, which often appears on wine bottles as terrior. French words throw a lot of curves at label designers, especially any grape name that requires an accent mark. Carmenère is a category leader here. I’ve seen Carménère, Carmenére, Carménere and more. Mourvèdre is another puzzler for some wineries. Misspellings may seem trivial, but they may also point to a larger issue, which is a lack of attention to detail. Good winemaking requires a huge amount of attention to detail.

Granted, my idea of a bad label may not be your idea of a bad label. I’m not fond of cute wine names with pictures of trucks, campers, little black dresses, etc. I cringe at off-color puns and snarky, quasi-sexual references. Yet some wines use these effectively, and sell many tens of thousands of cases as a result.

But ugly – now there’s where I simply scratch my head in wonder. How can a label that is simply flat out ugly make it through any sort of vetting process? Especially if it has been designed, at considerable expense, by a professional consultant? And yet, it happens.

Clutter is usually part of an ugly label. It’s difficult for a label to be truly ugly unless it is also cluttered. Cheesy photographic reproductions are another sure-fire way to uglify your product. Blurry black and white? OK sometimes. But color photos that look like they came straight off the copier? Woof! Color is also a big problem when the label, in an attempt to stand out, uses bright, flashy, ill-matched, quasi-psychedelic colors. And prints them on cheap paper.

In the end, there are just as many ways to succeed as to fail at label design. But if you want to get a good return on your investment, and come up with a label that captures something unique about your enterprise, and that will work well for a good long time before it needs some tweaking, then get as many opinions as possible before committing. Ask your employees, your friends and professional acquaintances. Ask your distributors and favorite retailers. Ask wine buyers and sommeliers. And ask regular consumers, wherever you intend to sell your wine. Ask them to tell you the truth. Would they buy your wine based entirely on the label? If not, you are losing some customers. And last but not least, ask yourself. Does this label make me feel as good as my wine?


Anonymous said...

Oh - I must write an blog post - How to Hire a Wine Label Designer! There are so many bad wine labels, you are correct. And this is something, in my humble opinion - comes from the false belief that the wine should speak for itself. But of course you can't drink it before you buy it - so we being human, make short cuts and that means we use the cleverness of the wine label to represent what we may taste in the bottle. But I think it comes down to how much wineries are willing to pay for a label, as well as the amount of research they put into finding the right wine label design firm. - Courtney Holmes, Talk is Sheep Marketing

Unknown said...

Wow, didn't see our label in the picture. (Maybe that's good) A few years ago all labels were dark/black, now they are mostly cream/white. What's next?

I like the bright pink bottle with the white label on the bottom shelf in the lower left hand side of the picture. Looks yummy!

JJ Williams said...

I keep a folder on my computer with label images from around the world along with personal annotations on each one. I have found that when I solicit opinions, preferences vary widely almost to the point of absurdity. Some of my all time least favorites are other's top picks. Such is the nature of wine, I suppose!

As far as I see it, there is good design and bad design. While it's possible to make an "ugly" label with good design, I don't think it's possible to have a beautiful label with bad design (a familiar philosophy here in the industry).

As a side note, I purchased "The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels" on your blog's recommendation and ended up hiring a designer featured therein. We should have a finished product in the market with that new aesthetic within a year. Hopefully people think it's as beautiful as I do, but who knows! Maybe I'm out of whack.

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