One cold weekday earlier this year, I convinced five friends to let me follow them around while they bought wine. We passed row after row of bottles, hundreds of images competing for our 10 to 15 dollars, from chateaus and vineyards to gold pheasants, floating bubbles, a goose mid-flight, and a man with an apple on his head. In split-second decisions, we rejected everything until each of us picked up one special bottle, looked at the label for a few seconds longer, and said to ourselves: sure, this looks good.
That day I learned that my friends know roughly the same amount as I do about wine, which is to say — as casual wine enthusiasts — we don’t know anything about wine. Maybe we lean towards a favorite region, or prefer a particular grape, but that’s about it. We don’t remember any specific bottle we’ve enjoyed. And we are useless at describing taste. Basically, we were just guessing, and in the process, we became accidental design critics.
Wine is one of civilization’s oldest beverages, and some wineries have been around for centuries, preserving their legacy with their chateau’s name. In France, there are longstanding laws about what a bottle of wine can, and cannot, look like. French wines are classified by region, each with strict rules about the growing conditions required to earn the right to display an appellation. That’s why the wine’s name, and maybe an image of a chateau or vineyard, are such prominent elements of a French wine label.
But in the U.S., labelling laws are much looser, making it a designer’s free for all. What a label says about the liquid in the bottle can be a real mystery. So what’s the relationship between the label and the liquid, and which is more important when selling wine today?
I headed to Terry’s West Village Wine and Spirits in Manhattan to meet Andre Mack, the owner, winemaker, and label designer at the Oregon-based Mouton Noir Wines. His labels are stark and bold, filled by black lettering on a white background, with playful names like Bottoms Up (written upside down), P-Oui, and O.P.P. (Other People’s Pinot, he explained). Making unconventional labels helps your wine stand out, Mack said, and as if on cue, a man grabbed a bottle of O.P.P. off the shelf, and Mack’s face lit up.
Mack learned design while working another job, years earlier, at a Red Lobster in Texas. One of the cooks introduced him to the design program CorelDraw, and he was hooked. But he stayed in restaurants, and gravitated towards wine. “The most stylish person in the restaurant was the sommelier. He was the guy that always seemed to float across the floor,” Mack said. He worked his way up to the French Laundry in Napa Valley, and eventually became head sommelier at Per Se in New York, which is where he found the name for his future winery. Fellow sommeliers gave him a nickname, Mouton Noir. It means “black sheep.”
“There’s not a lot of people who are African-American that do what I do. Customers were caught off guard,” he said.
But he embraced his outsider status, and felt free to design unconventional labels. According to Mack, his bold, straightforward imagery attracts the type of people who want a fun wine, but might feel intimidated with a label name that they could not pronounce. His labels feel direct, and they jump out from the shelf. But embracing this kind of quirky design can still be risky.
“Sometimes it sets people’s expectations low.” Mack recounted one experience selling wine for a wedding, in a shop where the bride and groom often choose pallets of wine solely based on the label. They look up at a large wall filled with wine bottles, and pick. The shop owner pulled Mack aside and told him, “‘Your wines look cheap. Your labels look cheap. I’m not sure they’ll do well here.” The shop never ordered anything from him.
That anecdotal bias has been confirmed by behavioral studies. In 2007, Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, published a study where diners at a restaurant were offered a free glass of wine from a label indicating that the wine was either from California or North Dakota. In fact, it was all Charles Shaw wine, the “Two Buck Chuck” sold at Trader Joe’s.
“One of the things we found was that people who were drinking the California wine, they rated the wine was better, the food was better,” Wansink said. “The people drinking the North Dakota wine didn’t like the wine or the food as much.” The entire dining experience was skewed by the wine bottle sitting on the table. The test subject may have been responding to their perceptions of California and North Dakota, rather than the label itself, but this study shows just how easily our taste can become hijacked by external influences.
And it’s not just a label name or winery location that can influence taste. The look of the label really matters. “Really bright colors, on let’s say a white wine, make you interpret it as more fresh or maybe having a little more bite, than if it was a much more cream based, boring label,” Wansink said.
Corey Miller, CEO of San Francisco-based company Barrel + Ink, started thinking about label design when he began making wine commercially. His company commissions small, limited-run batches of wine by pairing winemakers with graphic designers, and he describes his inspiration as a recurring scene that played out at wine events. The majority of people there came to his booth, took a sample of wine, swirled it around, smelled it, tasted it, and then they “just stared blankly at you.”
But as soon as they saw the label, they opened up. “They’d look at the label and say, ‘It’s a beautiful label, what inspired you to put that label on the bottle?’” Miller said. He realized that design could bring more people into the world of wine, but it would require fighting this cultural idea that there’s something shameful about buying wine based on the label. “We should celebrate the fact that the label can be part of the experience,” he said.
Both Barrel + Ink and Mouton Noir are using design to attract the same kinds of customers, but the aesthetic, and philosophy, of these two companies are remarkably different. Mouton Noir’s labels are minimal and austere. Mack believes that his wine should speak for itself, and that his minimalist label proves that he puts his energy and resources into the wine itself. “We want to make really good wine and not-so-good labels,” he said.
But for Barrel and Ink, the label and the wine get equal weight, and it shows. The labels are bright, complex, and vivid. One of the brand’s designers, Erik Marinovich, has designed campaigns for Facebook, Google, and Nike, along with one of the first Barrel and Ink labels, for a Sauvignon Blanc blend created by the winemaker Helen Keplinger. He started the project sitting in his studio, drinking the wine, “and started writing ideas and notes to the experience of what I was tasting,” he said. “It unlocked that sensation when you’re at a picnic table, surrounded by your best friends,” and everything seems just perfect, he says.