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Apr 8, 2007 11:04 AM

Wine Label Design [mini-rant]

This is a bit of a takeoff on an article with comments on the CW board: It’s not about cutsey labels, but about labels in general, especially for wines that are likely to make it to the wine lists of restaurants.

Two of my favorite wines (well “family” of wines) are Robert Biale’s, and Turley’s Zinfandels. I love the wines. Yes, they are BIG and concentrated, and I do not want to get into a comparison of other Zins, or even types of Zins. The problem that I have is with their respective labels. First, I admit that from a design standpoint, they are simple, informative and feature uncluttered designs. Also, none of these features any “animals” on the labels. They look nice, and refined on the shelf in the wine shops. BUT, try to read the labels in a fine-dining restaurant. Even with reading glasses and a flashlight, the foil labels are virtually unreadable, especially the vintage and the more important “Single Vineyard,” designation. On these two examples, there are often many to choose from and with some, the difference between, say a Turley Single Vineyard can be US$50/btl.! To read foil, you need a broad light source to reflect. Intensity, alone, will not do it. Magnification, alone, will not do it. Luckily, I can spot the general label designs across a darkened room, but when it comes to the “fine print,” it’s almost a crap-shoot.

Though they will never win any design awards, most Bdx. labels can be easily read, even in the darkest FR restaurant. The same can be said for the late Al Bruonstein’s Diamond Creek. I always wondered if Al didn’t run the labels off on an old Xerox machine! However, even in a cave, one could tell if they were getting Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace, Lake, or Volcanic Hill.

I’d like some of the designers to think about the end-use of many of these labels. If you’re doing some “mass marketed” plonk, then cutsey is OK. If your client’s product is likely to be held up by a sommelier, for a customer’s approval, make it easy to read, especially in dim light. And, foil and subtle embossing might look great at the Art Director’s annual awards show, but do nothing to help the folk serving, or consuming the wine.


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  1. Bill, Bad graphic design is the visual virus of the world. (Just pick up any copy of "Wired" magazine and you'll see what I mean.) Wineries spend a fortune on six colored labels with foil and metallic inks--usually a sign of marketing more than winemaking. I believe if a wine maker has poor taste in labels, they have poor taste in wine.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Leper

      In v. few cases does a "mere" winemaker have anything to say about labels. That'll be marketing's job, and marketing will yield to the art department. ADs have entrenched hostility to type, which they express by using small, sans-serif faces that have low contrast and low-legibility. They obscure them further with shiny foil, which they apparently don't realize is tacky more often than not. Both ADs and marketing types then see and approve these design under bright studio lighting, not under restaurant or even retail lighting conditions. The virus Leper cites goes far beyond wine and Wired. ADs copy each other relentlessly. As a result, even general-interest large-circulation magazines are full of fuzzy type, "white" type only 6 points high, type on colored backgrounds and other reader-hostile fads.

    2. Reading this post and your mention of Helen Turley brought to mind one of her labels:

      I remember the first time I saw this label. I just stood there and said,"YES" out loud. This one of the most outstanding labels I've ever seen on a wine. Absolutely beautiful.
      That said ... I'll have to win the Texas Lotto to ever be able to drink it.

      5 Replies
      1. re: austx03

        You could just get "Excel '97 Annoyances" and call it a day, though.

        1. re: austx03

          Actually, it was her brothers' wine that I had the problem with. Love the wines, but even with a bright light and my "heavy-duty" readers, I find it hard to make out the vineyard.

          Being in advertising graphics, I understand the drive to "create," but too many nowadays do not take the possible end uses into consideration. In my stated case, darkened restaurants.

          I also like Helen Turley's Marcassin label. I have never heard the "story" behind that one, but would love to. Maybe it's time to sit down with Google for an evening, 'cause there HAS to be a story.


          1. re: Bill Hunt

            Hunt, I'm glad you agree with me on this label. I'll do the same and Google it too.
            If I find out anything I'll report back. Please do the same. I think it is a fantastic image.

            1. re: Bill Hunt

              It was Helen Turley's idea and an illustration she had of Circe changing a Roman Centurion into a bull with wine. The same designer, Chuck House, did both Marcassin and Turley. I wouldn't say that the winemaker gets outvoted by the marketing department, not in the case of wineries like these.

              1. re: wearybashful

                Whoa! Thanks for the info. Very interesting and greatly appreciated.

                As I get older (and the eyesight gets weaker, while the lighting in the restaurants seems to get dimmer), I have begun to appreciate the labels on the Diamond Creek, even though I felt that they were done on Al's Xerox machine.