Wineries may spend unholy sums on marketing their products, or none at all, sometimes to equal benefit. But it’s amazing how few wineries, whether large, medium or boutique, nail it with the most important billboard for their brand: Their wine labels.
Whether you scan a retail shelf, wine app or website, the design of a label jumps out at you and makes a quick impression, but not always a good one. Even after having closely examined roughly a quarter-million labels over the years, I still get gobsmacked by the poor quality of all-too-many labels.
In an earlier essay, I noted important label design guidelines that wineries should consider. Your label should not look cheesy. It should be readable, not feature things like dark type on a black background. Also, labels with technical information should be accurate and communicate something of value to the consumer, not just a bunch of boilerplate blather.
For a consumer, labels with poor color choices, careless spelling, generic text, illegible fonts and the like will almost always leave a negative impression. But besides the immediate visual impression, much can be gleaned from its actual content—if you know what to pay attention to.
Certain basic data, like names of grape varieties, must be pre-approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Varietal labeling is a good start to tell consumers what’s in the bottle. But when wines are labeled by region rather than grape, as across much of Europe, it’s unlikely that any varietal information will be provided. The customer must know what regional regulations may apply to tell what’s in the bottle.
For blended wines with proprietary names, the grapes used are anybody’s guess, unless the winery chooses to list that information.
Some generic categories also conceal more than they reveal. For example, wines labeled “rosé” can be made from a single grape, or a mix of both red and white grapes. They can be tinted pink by adding a little red wine to white, or by leaving the wine on the grape skins for a short period of time. The more clarity that a label conveys, the more certainty that a particular wine may suit your palate.
The TTB requires that the percentage of alcohol by volume (abv) must be shown on the label. Unfortunately, it’s often in tiny, unreadable type, and legally can fall within a broad range. A wine that claims 12.5% abv, for example, can be as low as 11% or as high as 14%. That’s little help when determining if a wine is dry or sweet, underripe or perhaps on the hot side.
Of more value is the American Viticultural Area (AVA) for domestic wines, or the appellation listed on imported bottlings. These range from overly broad (California, Bordeaux) to tightly defined (The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater). The tighter, the better to zero in on what’s in the bottle. Often though, the broader designations can point to decent, inexpensive wines. Good “Oregon Pinot Noir” can be found for $15, whereas good “Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir” is likely to cost three or four times as much.
Certain other basics—vintage, producer, importer or distributor—can provide an overview of a given wine. If you like a particular producer, it makes sense to see what else they make.
For imported wines, there are any number of individuals and companies that are specialists. Those that specialize in specific regions curate those wines much as a museum director dedicates an art show to a specific painter, period or style. Pay attention to the importer’s name on a wine you like, as it can guide you to other wines you’ve not yet discovered.
There are wine labels that are beautiful, distinctive, accurate and filled with useful information about such things as blends, vineyards, fermentation practices and barrel management. Scores from trusted reviewers can be quite valuable, when quoted along with full tasting notes. By and large, however, you’ll need to be a bit of a detective. Compile clues as to a wine’s character and quality. Know what words on a label matter, and which you can forget.
Here are common words and phrases that serve no useful purpose on a wine label and should be ignored.
Bad wine label terms
Handcrafted. This is essentially meaningless. Every wine is handcrafted, to some degree. And I have yet to see a wine label that proudly proclaims it’s “machine crafted.”
Reserve. This word, along with such phrases as “barrel select” and “winemaker’s selection,” imply quality. But outside of select designations in countries like Spain and Italy, it really offers no specifics and is entirely unregulated in the U.S. I’ve had dreadful “reserve” wines selling for $10 or less that made me wonder what the non-reserve wines were like.
Noble. Often found in winery descriptions of their grapes. This simply feeds the notion that wine-speak is pretentious. As a broad category, some grapes like Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon may be considered “noble grapes.” But, while grapes from a particular vineyard may be good, they are not noble. It’s fruit, for Pete’s sake.
Bold. Wineries frequently trumpet their wines’ bold flavors. Again, this is meaningless. Have you ever seen a winery speak about timid flavors?
Finest. All superlatives like “only the best,” “select,” and such are hot air and a waste of precious label space.
World-class. Who decides what is or isn’t world-class? There is no legal definition.
Award-winning. There are hundreds of wine competitions. Some wineries put all their marketing dollars into entering them, as they know that they will certainly bring home some medals. It’s standard practice for these “competitions” to demand a very high percentage of winners from the judges. And the best wineries almost never enter. Any tasting room with walls covered in medals from unknown competitions probably doesn’t have much else to brag about.
Dream. The aspirational side of the wine business leads many family-owned wineries to describe their dream of making wine. That may be true but says nothing about the quality of the wine.
Passion. Much like pursuing a dream, being passionate about owning a winery is a personal decision. That may be admirable, but it speaks to the owner, rather than the customer.
Good wine label qualities to look for
Here are seven things that you should look for on a wine label.
The basics are clear. Grape variety, vintage, AVA/appellation and alcohol content are required by law. Be sure they are easily found.
Defined terms. If you use unregulated words and phrases like “reserve,” “barrel selection” or “old vine,” the label should explain exactly what it means and why it matters.
Technical information. A good back label design can hold a lot of valuable information on the grape(s), blend, fermentation practices, cellaring and chemistry of a wine. Feed the geeks who love data!
Green certification. Clearly displayed icons for green farming and eco-friendly packaging can be a great benefit. It’s even better if the label, or the winery’s website, explain what those icons mean.
Vineyard sources. Producers shouldn’t hide behind the notion that vineyard information is proprietary. Unless a winery is making vast quantities of wine from dozens of growers, stating the vineyard the grapes came from can be a fantastic tool for wine lovers looking to learn more.
The winemaker. Winemakers are the celebrities in this business, just like chefs in the restaurant world. Name your winemaker and any valuable information like their previous training or experience.
Correct spelling. It’s Riesling, not Reisling. Terroir, not terrior. Chehalem, not Chahalem. These mistakes happen more often than you think. They can make the winery look careless at best, ignorant at worst, and neither quality bodes well for the wine behind the label.