I have worked as a writer in France for ten years, writing professionally for primarily film publications.
We've All Been There
If you’re somewhat of a wine nerd and have traveled to a few wineries, you've been in this scenario: the winemaker nonchalantly enquires whether you are going to taste their brand-new range of négociant labels. You want to say no, but what comes out is "yes, please!" That's when the winemaker utters those classic words: ”We have just redesigned our label.” Great: here we go again. They tilt the bottle in your direction so that you can admire the new artwork.
Feigning interest, you squint to work out what (if anything) has actually changed. In the back of your mind, you know that some teenager with the French equivalent of GCSE in Graphic Design at Bordeaux Polytechnic spent approximately three minutes during the lunch hour tweaking the font, shifting it a couple of millimeters (and then back again), or perhaps lightening the background a notch. These half-dozen mindless clicks of the mouse will cost thousands of Euros once the marketing department has sprinkled this feckless redesign with pretentious psycho-twaddle along the lines of “Vermillion is so ‘in’ for cash-rich millennial oenosluts” or “Wine critics give higher scores to labels with Aleppo beige backgrounds.” You hide your incredulity and remark something banal like “That’s nice!" even though you have no idea what's changed.
Back in the old days, it would seem that all properties just bought off-the-shelf fonts, a choice of three or four at most, which is why, half a century later, they are so easy to fake. There are exceptions, most notably Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's striking font, Figeac’s red and gold lettering, and those magnificent gothic.
German Riesling labels make the Sistine Chapel look like an Etch-a-Sketch doodle. Even after so many decades, these labels are unmistakable and distinctive. Some had little designer motifs. Think of Calon-Ségur s heart. It derives from Nicolas-Alexandre, the Marquis de Ségur who claimed his heart lay in that Saint Kstéphe chåteau rather than Lafite. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and the bottle flies off shelves in the Far East because that same heart is seen as the ultimate romantic gesture and (I quote verbatim here) “gets women into bed quicker”. And sure, it’s different now that we buy a lot of wine online. And ordering wine online - You do get sucked in by those hipster fun labels.
I doubt that was the marquis’s original intention. Michel Chapoutier’s labels include script written in Braille so that the blind can know which single-vineyard Hermitage they are buying, though unfortunately not the price - not until the cashier rings it up and tells them. Labels can be works of art. Manfred Krankl’s bottles of Sine Qua Non are so aesthetically pleasing that you don’t know whether they should be cellared or displayed at the Tate Modem. Baron Philippe de Rothschild hit upon the novel idea of commissioning famous artists to paint a unique label. The roll call is impressive: Salvador Dali, Picasso, Francis Bacon, and Tony Hart, who forewarned the baron that any bottles sent to Broadcasting House could not be returned. Sadly, Gilbert & George scented excretion label was dumped and Damien Hirst's insistence that little should be sliced in half and bathed in formaldehyde was rejected. Marcus Harvey proposed a ‘Pol Pot’ label which, after a long meeting, the marketing department felt it “gave the wrong message".
The best labels, sadly a dying breed, are those produced when even the most famous estates could not rub two francs together.
The proprietor would wait for a suitably sunny day, then traipse into the vineyard with his Brownie and take a photograph of the chateau and its surrounding vines. The resulting monochrome image would be out of focus. Upon closer examination, he would notice that the village inebriate had stumbled into the shot. Merde. But whatever. He would ask his local printer to run off a few rolls and, hey, presto, that would be the label until the end of time because, despite its simplicity and amateurishness, it captured something bucolic and timeless. There are some prime examples: pre-1970s Chateau Nenin and old Domaine de Chevalier labels are beautiful, even if neither features the aforementioned inebriate. Negotiants are a prime source because having bought the barrels, they had to find a different label for the chateau and the easiest option was to just slap on a photo.
Of course, there is that old saying that the only thing that counts is what is inside the bottle, not outside. This is bollocks.
Most consumers buy on pretty labels, not the hint of blackcurrant leaf on the nose or the average score of 4.99 on Vivino. And sure, Petrus might taste amazing but that label kicks arse, especially when you make sure that it's within sight of every other diner so that they may gaze admiringly at your wealth, your impeccable taste, and, of course, your wealth. My advice to winemakers? Don't go redesigning labels every weekend. Stick with what you've got and resist sexing up the image by tweaking the font size or changing the background color an imperceptible degree, because in 99.9% of cases nobody notices - and if they do, it's because it looks worse.
How to Read a Wine Label (Video)
© 2018 Bruce Donners