Good Label, Bad Wine

Everybody knows you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t stop people from shelling out the price of two best sellers for one bottle of Shiraz. “Wine-label design has become a force in the last decade,” says Michael Osborne, creative director of the San Francisco–based Michael Osborne Design, who’s designed wine labels for nearly 20 years for clients like Chateau Souverain, Clos du Bois, and Rodney Strong. Cutesy animals, witty names, bright colors, and celebrity connections are all being used in packaging, and as soon as one—say, a kangaroo with a yellow tail—become popular, all of a sudden you’ve got a dozen marsupials with colorful appendages.

Now, it’s possible that if somebody’s willing to pay good money for sophisticated design, they’re also paying attention to the quality of the wine. Or not. CHOW visited a Safeway and a Trader Joe’s in San Francisco, and selected wines that appealed to us based on the design of their label alone. CHOW’s food editors and other staff sampled the wines and compared tasting notes.

Yellowtail Shiraz-Cabernet, 2005

Australia

THE LABEL: Osborne likes to call it the “era of crazy critters.” According to a recent survey by ACNielsen, 18 percent of the nearly 500 wine brands introduced in the last three years have featured an animal on their labels. Why? Because wine labels with animals outsell the non-critter competition twofold.

THE WINE: Yellowtail, widely credited with starting the “crazy critter” trend, sold a total of 7.5 million cases in the United States in 2005, making it the most imported wine in this country. The small print promised raspberry, oak, and soft tannins. Instead, we got a simple, sweetish wine that didn’t smell like much.

The Little Penguin Shiraz, 2005

Australia

THE LABEL: “I couldn’t resist myself, the penguin was so cute marching across the bottle,” said Jenelle Carlyle, a homemaker shopping in the wine section of a San Francisco Safeway. The label promised a “spicy and bold flavor.”

THE WINE: We found the wine flabby, not acidic enough, and—like Yellowtail—too sweet. “Like grape juice,” commented one editor. (For a great, inexpensive wine in the critter category, try Fat Bastard 2004 Shiraz instead.)

Candlewood Cellars Evenus Zinfandel Port, 2003

Paso Robles, California

THE LABELS: Both the Evenus port and Hahn Estates’ Cycles Gladiator labels are designed in the style of early-20th-century advertising, when Art Nouveau was established, Art Deco was on the rise, and artists like Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were working in the ad biz. On the Evenus label, the terra-cotta-on-parchment drawing of a woman in a sort of Grecian robe with lilies in her hair resembles an Alphonse Mucha print. One CHOW editor said the label made him feel as if he were discovering a port that had been tucked away for decades in someone’s cellar.

THE WINE: We imagined a room in Paris full of beautiful people sipping Evenus at the turn of the century. We tried it and stared at each other in a stunned silence. One of our food editors finally said, “This tastes like radioactive maple syrup.”

Puzzle Wines Merlot, 2004

Mendocino County, California

THE LABEL: Market research has shown that many wine buyers find classic, traditional-looking labels a turnoff. The Puzzle Wines bottle features a word-search puzzle with the words lush, currant, and chewy hidden in the grid.

Some producers have tried to make their wines more accessible through wit and irreverence. California-based Bonny Doon, for example, features illustrations by former Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman on their labels, and has given their wines names like Cardinal Zin and Bouteille Call. Only their wines are good.

THE WINE: Wasn’t lush, didn’t evoke currants, and was more watery than chewy.

Alchemy Wines Hello My Name Is 2005 Syrah

Sebastopol, California

THE LABEL: The Hello My Name Is label is a reproduction of the familiar peel-off nametag. On the back of the bottle, the 2005 Syrah “speaks” to you in first person: “I’m seductive and casually intoxicating.”

THE WINE: Smells skunky and tastes like drinkable grape-flavored children’s Tylenol.