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Toast: A Wine Label, More Than Just A Pretty Face (from the Vacaville Reporter)

Far Niente Cabernet labelThis column was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on January 15, 2013

Fifty items in 50 minutes -- that's a typical trip to the grocery store. Convenient, yes. Fast, sure. But choosing wine in the supermarket has all the charm of online dating.

Yet grocery sales account for 40 percent of the wine sold in the U.S., which means the mighty wine label needs to tell its story in nine-square inches of paper or less.

Wine marketers and label designers create mental cues, most of them unconscious, that tell the consumer what to expect.

"I am a luxury, I will impress your boss," or "I am an everyday wine, it's Monday, pick me up," and "I am French, ma chérie d'amour!" Creating a label so compelling that it is chosen over the thousands of other bottles of wine on a shelf, it is no wonder that wine-label design must be an exacting art.

Most wineries approach their wine labels, or "trade dress," which includes all aspects of the bottle's appearance, as an ongoing process. Trade dress brings to mind a bottle wearing a dress (I once bought a hula skirt for a wine bottle-- yes they sell such things), but I digress.

According to Jim Caudill, the director of public relations and hospitality at the Hess Collection, wine marketers believe labels and related trade dress need constant care, with regular updates to reflect evolving market tastes. The Hess Select brand was recently refreshed with brighter colors to appeal to younger consumers without alienating their core customers.

"We're constantly absorbing insights and information as we interact with consumers, getting feedback from retailers, our distributor partners, often directly from consumers we talk with at events all around the country," said Caudill.

Given that consumers (would you believe 75 percent!) sometimes can't remember the name of the wine they like, icons on wine labels serve as useful mnemonics. Thus everything from kangaroos to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, all make an appearance.

A friend once recommended an inexpensive syrah, saying "I can't remember the name, but it has a rooster on the label." That sounded simple enough. But gazing at the Safeway syrahs, I wondered, "Which rooster?" I think there were five.

My favorite wine label does not have a rooster on it. An artist who was originally commissioned to create a stained-glass piece for the winery owner’s home designed it. According to Rachelle Newbold, Far Niente Winery's communication coordinator, the label has changed very little since its original vintage in 1979. Framed in gold foil is a pen and ink drawing of the historic winery and vineyards, with the Mayacamas mountains in the background.

Clustered around the drawing are water-colored grapevines in an art-nouveau style. It reminds me of a Tiffany window and the sumptuousness of the label's craftsmanship suggests an equally rich and artistic wine inside.

Far Niente comes from the Italian saying, "dolce far niente," the sweetness of doing nothing, a reminder to take a breath and smell the wine.

A wine label's work is never done. The bottle sits on our table as we drink, melding in our memories the flavors, the food and the friends.

And perhaps, when the party is over, it remains on the counter, too beautiful to throw away. 

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