Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poetry of the Wine Label

Far too many wine labels are full of purple prose. You know the stuff, rolling hillsides kissed with abundant sunshine, grapes crushed by the calloused hands of a conscientious winemaker. Or the back label telling you what kind of toasted bread you should taste on the finish or what kind of sauce you should drizzle on your seared scallop pairing. 

But as an avid reader, writer and wine-drinker, I appreciate when producers take a thoughtful approach to placing words on the bottle. I admit calling wine label language poetry might be a stretch. Writing on a wine bottle is, after all, a pitch for a product. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Wine is emotive, and sipping a glass of wine encourages us to analyze it, and enjoy it, through language. In this era of instant communication through so many different media, the wine bottle itself is often the most intimate line of contact between producer and consumer. And some producers make the most of that opportunity.

Back in September, I enjoyed a
2010 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley’s Sokol Blosser. These folks combined a description of the vineyards with a declaration of their wine philosophy and a restrained tasting note. And they organized the label language in a manner that could be called poetic:

A nice mix of rain and sun. Warm breezes. Fog.
The fruits of sustainable farming. 16 months in
French oak. Flavors of black cherry, licorice, and
Blackberry. Smooth tannins. Deep affection.

When it comes to creative wine label language, sometimes less is more. I’m often wary of back labels with an essay’s worth of words. There seems to be a correlation between the shittiness of a wine and the length to which the label waxes about its deliciousness. One of my favorite examples of wine label writing is also one of the shortest. 

Last year I enjoyed a 2000 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir from Lane Tanner. This 13-year-old Pinot was full of spice and pickle notes on a tangy, medium-bodied frame. Mature for sure, but still lively. After a sip or two, pleased with my selection, I checked the back label. It read, simply: “This wine is a very smart choice.” Indeed it was. 

Cinquain Cellars of Paso Robles embraces the wine label as a medium for creative writing. The winery is named for a short poetic form which consists of five lines of two, four, six, eight and two syllables apiece. The husband-wife team behind this outfit, David and Beth Nagengast, chose the following cinquain to sum up their wine vision:

pruned, picked, and pressed,
all by hand, on our land,
we share our art form and passion,
with you.

Alliterative, concise, it’s not profound, but I like it. David and Beth also solicit poems from their customers every year, and they use the best on Cinquain’s wine labels. Here’s one from their 2011 Hames Vineyard Petite Sirah from Monterey County.

The grapes
Pour their story
Speaking in lusty notes
With a voice of velvet pleasure

Winemaker Bill Frick, of Frick Winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, has been writing poems on his wine labels since 1977. “I prefer an abstract way of describing wine,” Frick told RW&W. “Every one of my wines and vintages has its own unique poem. The inspiration for the words comes from the character of the wine, the scenes, ideas and what is happening here around the vineyard and winery.” Here are some of my favorites…

1985 Pinot Noir
Red velvet, blue beard, old leather satchel full
of wild mushrooms and straw.
The rain starts but the cave is near. 

1985 Napa Grenache  
Grin when you say Grenache.
A serious jester juggles red jelly beans. 

1993 Syrah
the mountain is so close
you can’t see it

“Many people don’t notice the poem,” Frick says. “Those who do are enthusiastic and want to read more bottles. Some are not sure and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Sometimes customers remember a specific wine only by the poem.”

Facebook posts are also poetic in nature, while providing basic information about the producer.

I spied the Frick tasting house through leafless brush.
A bright winter day. No one was there because it’s Tuesday.
Frick Tasting House open weekends 12-4:30.

Here’s another one, a clever Rhone-themed poem:

Winegrapes as verbs…

To syrah downtown is my wish.
Rainy days make me counoise.
The best place to viognier is in a box seat.
I carignane when I see a sad movie.
She will cinsaut when the sun sets.
Every time I mourvèdre I think of the you.
I grenache when the news comes on.

Environmental science writer
William L. Fox has a passion for soil and terroir, which led him to write wine labels for some Oregon winemakers. As author of many nonfiction books, 15 collections of poetry and the former editor of the West Coast Poetry Review, the guy knows how to turn a phrase. But when he looks at a wine label, Fox doesn’t want to see flowery tasting notes. He wants to get a sense of the place. “I’m not interested in someone telling me what they think the wine tastes like, but rather the elements out of which it comes,” he told RW&W.

In a 2011
interview with Edible Geography, Fox described what he aimed for when writing up a wine label: “You could combine a Weather Channel report with a USGS geologist’s field report with a geomorphologist’s soil analysis, and you still wouldn’t quite have it.” Sure the wine label presents a challenging medium, but when it’s done right, Fox says wine label writing can have a powerful impact on the reader. “I do still go to the store and read the back labels. I chortle sometimes, and other times I’m in awe,” he told Edible Geography. “I’m the same way with books, as an author. That’s what a wine label is — a small book.”

Of course, the language on the label matters little if the juice doesn’t back it up. If the wine sucks, I don’t care if you put an unpublished Bukowski poem on the label, I’m not going to be happy. But if the wine tastes good and expresses a sense of place, well-chosen words can make the experience even more rewarding.



  1. Great blog! I've just been employed to write wine labels and it's interesting to find so many more creative examples than the ones you usually see.

    1. Jacob, what an interesting position. I hope it goes well. I'd love to read some of your work if you'd like to share it. Cheers!