Surface Pleasures (or, Choosing a Wine by its Label)

Published in Matter of Taste magazine, 2014

The wine world is sometimes accused of haughtiness, but creative wineries are exploding that myth with quirky labels that draw upon pop culture, legends, cinema and humour. Here I select some of the most amusing.

You dart into a wine shop with only minutes to spare before heading to a dinner party. Frantically you dash around the aisles, desperately trying to find something nice, but you’re overwhelmed by an endless selection of Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinots, Bordeaux, Burgundies, Chardonnays… what vintage to buy? From which winery? Much last-minute handwringing and handset Googling ensues.

Let’s be honest here. For the wine connoisseur it’s relatively easy to make a smart purchasing decision. For the less enlightened of us, the label plays a significant role. After all, if the wine isn’t that great, at least you have something to look at that’s a conversation starter. And if you, like this writer, fall into that category you are certainly not alone. According to Geordie Willis, brand director at venerable wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd, “Wine consumers, particularly those with limited wine knowledge, buy with their eyes.”

Judging a wine by its label is not an entirely superficial and misguided endeavour, however. That small piece of paper should convey much you need to know about a wine: the vintage, grape and region. But for a number of vineyards in the modern day, it has also become a space on which to convey the character of the wine, as well as the winemaker’s philosophy and sensibilities. What’s more, long after the bottle has been drained, a striking label is a memento of pleasures enjoyed. “The labels articulate the role of the merchant,” says Willis, “to be the closest link between those who make the wine and those who drink it.”

So many wineries have savvied up to the potential of an arresting label, in fact, that you could call it a trend. As in any type of branding, wine labels differentiate a product from the competition. But, adds Willis, “The onus is on the designer to create a product or label that is desirable and seductive, that lives up to the wine within.”

With this in mind, Matter of Taste scoured the shelves to unearth the most eye-catching and impressive labels out there. Those that follow raised smiles, and the occasional eyebrow.

Strait Jacket
Strait Jacket Wines of Western Australia opted for eccentric labels for its Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Shiraz wines. The frenziedly scrawled labels are intended to reflect the “barking mad” and “obsessive” nature of the winemakers, not – as one might initially suspect – the creative mind of a designer after having sampled one too many in the name of research. According to Strait Jacket wines: “At our winery, during vintage time the winery can often reflect a madhouse and the Strait Jacket series of wines are inspired by the essence of our unhinged winemakers.”


The Killibinbin range of wines, produced by the Brothers in Arms winery in the Langhorne Creek region of South Australia, includes a Cabernet Sauvignon and a so-called “Scream Shiraz,” as well as wines mysteriously dubbed “The Shadow” and “Scaredy Cat.” The labels are every bit as intriguing as their monikers, featuring terrified damsels, hardboiled private eyes, frights aplenty and more than a touch of noir that classic-movie buffs will adore. The company behind the Killibinbin labels, Adelaide- based branding and graphics outfit Mash Design, has come up with some of the most innovative wine labels on the market today.


Two Blind Mice
Two Blind Mice Wines of Australia’s Yarra Valley desired a label that was contemporary, cool, “even a little edgy” and memorable for its 2011 Shiraz, and put the job out to the public in a label-design competition. Melbourne- based Dezignstore’s left-field interpretation was based on an optician’s eye chart, which might have been lots of fun after a couple of glasses. The eventual winner, however, was a clever label by Dizziness Design of France that incorporated braille.

Two Blind Mice2

Pont des Arts
Pont des Arts is the labor of love of two young Frenchmen – Chateau Margaux’s China brand ambassador, Thibault Pontallier, and Arthur de Villepin (the son of former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, no less). The brand’s tipples fuse the two Hong Kong-based friends’ passions for art and wine with an East-meets-West aesthetic, perhaps most notably by commissioning Paris-based Chinese modern-art master, the late Zou Wou-Ki, who was a friend of De Villepin’s family, to design six labels. If you missed out on the artist’s work before the auction market got too hot, you can at least enjoy his distinctive and vibrant abstract shapes and daubs splashed across Pont des Arts’ bottles instead.


Featuring detailed illustrations that fuse fauna and flora with modern-day people, the offbeat labels of Australia’s Linnaea Vineyards reflect the founders’ desire to make “intelligent wines from some of the world’s most interesting wine regions.” The husband-and-wife team of winemaker Michelle Edwards (creator of wines for wineries in Australia, Italy, France and the United States) and agricultural scientist Daniel Fischl (who has spent nearly 20 years researching grapes and as a viticulture consultant in Australia, China, Italy, the US and Israel) clearly wear their love of science and natural history on the sleeves. Linnaea Vineyards’ labels are lovely enough to peel off and collect.

Linae Rhizotomi

The sustainable Matsu Winery in Spain’s Toro region wanted visually to link its products to its history and so adopted a personal approach to labelling. Three portraits were taken by Barcelona-based fashion and advertising photography team Bèla Adler and Salvador Fresneda to adorn the winery’s products and convey three generations of experience. The resulting label trilogy conveys tradition while also appearing effortlessly contemporary. The wines, by the way, are called El Pícaro (which translates from the Spanish as “The Rogue” or “The Rascal,” with the wine having been described as like a young man – “valiant, impertinent, and uncontrollable”), El Recio (essentially “The Tough Guy) and El Viejo (“The Old Man”)


Francis Coppola
Veteran Hollywood movie director Francis Ford Coppola (perhaps most famous for his Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now and his sprawling The Godfather trilogy) has channeled his seemingly boundless creativity over recent decades into winemaking. Bottles of Francis Coppola Reserve organic wines from the auteur’s Francis Ford Coppola Winery in California feature distinctive artworks created by film production designer Dean Tavoularis. The pair met during the making of The Godfather in the early 1970s and have continued to collaborate over the years.

Francis Coppola Reserve

Vinos de los Muertos
From Southwest Wines of New Mexico in the US come blends with unique packaging that has, rather bizarrely, been inspired by the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos – the “Day of the Dead” – that takes place every November when friends and family gather to remember and pray for loved ones that have passed away. The garish labels for the Vinos de los Muertos (“Wines of the Dead”) draw on the traditions and tattoo culture of the festival. According to the winemakers, “We all share an undeniably mortal life-cycle. Some also similarly say wine is a living, breathing entity.” If that to-die-for bottle needed in a hurry is for a Halloween party, look no further.

El Vino de los Muertos

Boarding Pass Shiraz
The bottle of the Boarding Pass Shiraz by South Australian-based but now defunct R Wines was decorated with exactly that – a tongue-in-cheek label reminiscent of an imaginary airline’s travel pass, with all the wine information replacing the flight details. Pleasingly, while not quite a no-frills budget deal, the Boarding Pass Shiraz was affordably priced, and The Wine Advocate’s founder Robert M. Parker, Jr. rated the 2007 vintage at 91 points. The perfect duty free airport purchase, perhaps.


Sine Qua Non
Cult winery Sine Qua Non of California is known for its limited-production wines that go by such kooky names as Queen of Spades, Twisted & Bent, Imposter McCoy, The Bride, Poker Face, Red Handed and The Hussy (below). So coveted are Sine Qua Non’s wines, in fact, that there’s a waiting list to obtain them. The wines arrive in uncommonly shaped bottles with distinctive labels featuring founder Manfred Krankl’s own artwork. The Wine Advocate’s Parker has described Krankl as “one of the most creative and multi- dimensional winemakers on Planet Earth.” More than just a pretty label, then.


Burn Cottage
Also by Mash Design, the gothic-inspired imagery that adorns labels for biodynamic New Zealand vineyard Burn Cottage reflects both the aesthetic sensibility and philosophy of the vineyard’s owners. The labels draw on the fairy tale The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (published 1795) by German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which explores how the life of the senses and the aspirations of the human can meet. The story, it is said, informed the work of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who was an early advocate of biodynamic and sustainable agriculture. Steiner’s convictions, in turn, have influenced Burn Cottage’s approach to winemaking.


For full PDF click here: Surface Pleasures

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