Ancient vines in the Rhone Valley

Ancient vines in the Rhone Valley

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What are the hidden meanings in wine labels?

  
Book covers and wine labels have much in common.  They need to be creatively designed to successfully differentiate themselves from their competition. They battle at similar price points, they vie for the same buyers, and they are involved in shelf space warfare for the optimum location.  At this point, all else is secondary, for if they do not seize one’s attention and trigger a buying impulse, then a customer is lost—potentially forever.

Wine labels and their “hidden persuaders” have always fascinated me, particularly those with attention getting colors and graphics that go beyond the basic presentation of the producer’s name, logo and varietal grape (or appellation). I'm intrigued by their subtle, and often not so subtle, efforts to seize the gaze of roaming and inattentive eyes.   

Label designers have a number of variables at their disposal when they set out to stir an emotion and connect with a prospective buyer’s psyche.  Colors and graphics are two very important ones, and when combined with eye-catching typography in a vivid and striking layout, they can be rich with symbolic, emotional nuances.   

Consider the emotional properties that can be expressed with colors.  Would an anonymous Cabernet Sauvignon label attract one’s eyes better with a two-color combination of orange (fun, energy, vitality) and yellow (sunshine, happiness, optimism), or would it be better served with a mixture of black (elegance, power, formality) and red (passion, energy, sexuality)?  

Or would the yellow/orange combination be more appropriate to, say, a buttery New World Chardonnay?  And what say you about the effectiveness of a green-dominant label (nature, freshness, health) for, say, Rosé or Pinot Noir?  

While not always that cut and dried, you get the implications of why colors and to an equal extent, designs and proprietary names are important to wineries.  Occasionally, at least for this tooth stained sniffer, some producers get a bit too cute or excessively irreverent.  What is one to make of a Zinfandel labeled “Zin-Phomaniac” and adorned with red-saturated, porn-like artwork of a near nude female?  Or what to deduce from a Zinfandel label with a skull and cross bones labeled “Poizin—the wine to die for?”   

More importantly, who do the label designers feel are the most likely suspects for mood manipulation?  Of the six “buyer types” identified by Constellation Brands in its long term research, one must assume that Everyday Loyals and Enthusiasts—because of their knowledge and buying habits—are relatively immune to being seduced by eye-catching labels.  (They’ve done their research and “know” what they want.)

Given their cost/value mind set, Price Driven and Image Seeker buyers, who occupy opposite poles of how much they’re willing to spend, should also be less susceptible to mood evoking colors and graphics. (Either it’s low and worth it, or it’s high and really worth it.)  But I suspect it is with the two remaining buyer types—Overwhelmed and Engaged Newcomers—where the best opportunity lies for snaring susceptible, wandering eyes with provocative labels.

Also, it is my scientific, wild-ass-guess (swag) that those two groups are amply populated by Millennials, that demographic group born in the late 1970s to early 1990s time line.  Even though Baby Boomers are still the largest group of high-frequency, core wine drinkers, (more than one per week) they are followed closely behind by the ever increasing Millennial group.  

Moreover, the research of Wine Market Counci, an association of growers, producers, wholesalers and others, confirms that Millennials are attracted by innovative names and designs with splashy colors, fonts and graphics.  (That label to the right is wildly successful with you know who.)  At least for the first purchase, what’s outside the bottle seems more relevant than what’s inside. If a subsequent swirl, sniff and taste doesn’t seal the deal, then a brief tablet or smart phone trip through the social media and wine-rating mobile apps will. 

While it might be advisable, for a variety of reasons, to periodically modify and/or update one’s label design, how about doing it, say, annually?  Or better yet, for each of the next 60+ vintages?  And not merely with simple label modifications, mind you.  But to do it right, how about implementing an innovative program of affixing a reproduction of a contemporary artist’s original painting for each of those vintages?

Bordeaux aficionados know that I’m alluding to the Medoc’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild and their iconic, Premier Cru Classé red wine.  Their innovative and image-asserting label design program began with the famous 1945 vintage to celebrate the end of World War II.  

And as their Internet website informs us, this policy “establishes a tradition, that would henceforth become the visual hallmark of Mouton Rothschild.”  It is indeed a very distinctive hallmark, for none of the other three Bordeaux Premier Cru Classés have ever attempted to mimic it, and it is unlikely that they ever will.