We live in a visual age. And wine, a product that appeals principally to the senses of taste and smell, must rely on its one purely visual component—the label—to attract consumers.
First and foremost, a label must meet strict legal standards. Details like alcohol content, appellations, warning messages and varietal identification are among the things that must appear on any domestic wine label. But after these criteria are met, labels are all about the messaging, both stated and understated, that producers want to convey.
I’m no different than anyone else. When I stand in front of a wall of wine, I look for something that jumps out. Something that makes me want to grab the bottle for a closer look. But as a wine reviewer, I have to study every millimeter of a bottle’s label, front and back, for information. And as a wine critic (who is not a graphic designer), I’ve developed strong feelings about the visual appeal, originality, appropriateness and overall quality that a label embodies.
The vast majority of labels are adequate, but the others fall into one of three categories—the good, the bad and the ugly. These are subjective impressions and I, of course, don’t let the label impact the initial evaluation of the wine. But once a wine is reviewed and scored blind, the label is carefully examined for the specific information it provides.
So what makes a label stand out, for better or worse? Let’s start with ugly.
Is the paper cheap? Do the fonts collide? Are the colors incompatible or jarring? Is the printing so dark or light that it’s impossible to read? Are the images blurred? Is the label mismatched to the rest of the package (bottle shape and weight, stopper choice, capsule)? If there are too many “yes” answers to those questions, you’ve got an ugly label on your hands.
Bad labels fail in other ways. They are often ugly, but also fail to convey any useful information other than the bare requirements. How many wineries write a generic paragraph about their passion, the very special place their vineyard happens to be planted, or tell some story about animal habitat that has nothing to do with what’s in the bottle? Save the animal stories for the website. The bottle should explain as much as possible about the wine inside.
So what constitutes a really good label? Three key elements:
It’s aesthetically pleasing. When I walk into a museum or art gallery, what do I look for? Images that please my eye. We all have our own tastes, but as far as wine labels go, I’d bet that there’s a lot of agreement. A clear front label that’s attractive both by itself and within the context of a particular brand lineup, yet stands out in a sea of wine on a retail shelf.
Relevant information is clearly displayed. Look for this on the back label. Most wineries don’t update the details every year, because it’s extra work and requires further government approval. But if you love wine, isn’t it interesting to learn the details that went in to produce that bottle? Vineyards, viticulture, vintage, clones, fermentation practices, barrel management; the list of relevant information is almost inexhaustible. But has it been carefully curated and clearly displayed? That’s what separates good labels from cluttered ones.
It gives props to the regional style. This is more often apparent in Old World regions like Bordeaux and Tuscany, but New World regions can also impress. A good example is Oregon’s Domaine Divio, whose elegant front label references the classic, clean look of Burgundy. The paper stock, elegant font and subtle use of color all resonate. The back label explains the derivation of the name, details the winemaking choices and includes further technical information without getting lost in a sea of details.