Monday, December 8, 2014

My Favorite Wine Labels of the Year

“I buy wine based on the label.”

Countless friends and acquaintances have confessed this to me over the years, although few would attach their names to the quote. When I hear this admission, I respond the same way: Of course you do. Everyone does.

There’s no need to apologize. Wine labels impact us, and we respond. This is a simple, honest acknowledgement of a concept we all understand: looks matter. In a world where everything is a commodity, it is crucial that commodities appeal to our visual senses.

There’s an academic paper in here for sure, something like: Aesthetics of the Wine Label – On the Convergence of Art, Agriculture and the Consumer Mind. There are studies and consumer trends and charts to be examined. But that’s what wine companies pay consultants for.

In the meantime, let’s break it down into digestible chunks.

Alcoholic products come in bottles. A bottle of wine presents itself to the consumer in a very direct and immediate way. You’re not just purchasing fermented grape juice from a particular time, place and producer. You’re purchasing a bottle of a wine — a product, a physical object you can grip in your hand.

You’re buying the shape of the bottle, the label, the cork and the foil. All of these elements are inseparable from the overall experience of smelling and tasting the wine. In other words, the physical object and the act of consuming its contents are interconnected.

I am not in any way suggesting you should buy a bottle of wine based solely on how attractive you find its label. You’d probably end up with some seriously forgettable wine. But, on the other hand, if a wine is well-made and speaks truthfully of its time and place, why not wrap the bottle in something visual interesting?

Just like language on a wine label can be poetry, images on a wine label can be visual art. All wineries use the label to communicate with consumers, but some take the artistic aspect seriously. Perhaps the best example is Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Every year, this first-growth Bordeaux works with a different renowned artist to create a memorable label. Past vintages have boasted paintings from Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and many more.

I can’t afford to drink Mouton, but I came across my share of memorable wine labels this year, bottles I consider artful. Like any piece of visual artwork, different people appreciate different images. So you may hate one or more of these, and that’s fine.

But these five labels jumped out at me. They intrigued me. They piqued my interest and made me wonder about the person behind the bottle. What more can you ask of a wine label? 

I love Old World wine labels, but all six of my favorites this year hail from California. (Pictures below the fold.)

2010 Lido Bay Viognier Seven Seas
California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County

I’ve loved the pirate aesthetic since I was a kid. This pirate-themed Seven Seas Viognier piece also incorporates a lot of elements from the American traditional tattoo style, which I love for its sharp contrast, dark lines and themes of skulls, bones, sailing ships, crossed swords. This bottle’s cork even has a skull on it. While I love the intricacy and design of the label, the juice inside is what counts. Considering I picked up a few bottles at auction for $10, I was very impressed with this wine. It's a classic creamy and rich Central Coast Viognier, but balanced out with medium acid. Really tropical and peachy, but shows some spice and tea elements as well. Better yet, it’s going on five years old and still holding well. A $10 Viognier is an easy gamble, but this label made the purchase even easier for me.

2011 McGah Family Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Scarlett
California, Napa Valley, Rutherford

I tasted this 2011 McGah Cellars Cabernet during a blind tasting and loved it. The wine is pure, deep and dark but really fresh and silky as well, something I really enjoy about 2011 Cabs from Napa. When I unveiled the wine and got a look at the label, I liked it even more. The linework here is wonderful, the dark red strands adding all sorts of texture to the beautiful woman’s image. The vine leaves are tinged with gold, reflecting light and drawing me in. A beautiful label for a beautiful wine.

2012 Edmunds St. John Gamay Bone-Jolly Rose Witters Vineyard
California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado County

I’m a huge fan of Edmunds St. John, so I knew I was getting something good when I snagged their rosé. It’s a bright and brisk pink with tons of minerals and ripping oceanic elements. Frankly, this is one of the best Cali roses I've had in a long time. And I am in love with the label. Dia de Los Muertos imagery has always intrigued me with its mix of bright colors and joyous skeletons, so much so that I got a Dia de Los Muertos-inspired tattoo last year. Here, the black old vines and circling birds add a loose frame to the skeleton vineyard jam session. And the Bone-Jolly moniker works perfectly for this El Dorado Gamay.

2013 Middleton Family Chardonnay Inconceivable
California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley

C’mon, a wine label featuring surfing, a breaching whale and avocados? As a surfer and lover of the California Coast, I love this 
Chardonnay label from Santa Maria Valley producer Middleton Family. I find the intricate banner attractive, and I think the fonts and overall layout are pieced together very well. I tasted this wine blind with some other California Chardonnays, and I found it juicy and creamy, but sporting some clean acid to keep it focused. Baked pear plays well off the spiced white tea, nougat and honeycomb flavors. Other Chards in the bunch performed better for my palate, but this label was far more awesome.

California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley

I purchased this wine a few years ago at auction, fully expecting it to be stunning based on my experience with the producer. This Russian River Syrah was rich in texture and flavor, but had developed all sorts of nuance and complexity over eight years: grilled meat, charcoal, black olive, spicy pickle relish, espresso, nutmeg. Just like their wines, Radio-Coteau puts a lot of thought and effort into their labels, and this particular one stood out for me. It has that carved wood panel aesthetic, and the detailed lines and shading give depth to the rows of vines. Waves always win me over, and these curling spirals are great. I like the dark contrast of the classic Radio-Coteau text at the bottom.

I hope you’ve been drinking some delicious wines this year. Hopefully some of the good ones had memorable and artful labels. I’m neglecting tons of great wine label art by only choosing five random bottles that I liked, so Id love to hear some of your recent favorites. 



  1. I have the same reaction when people tell me they judge books by their covers--of course you do! That's why books have covers!