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Celebrating The Design of The Wine Label

As someone who makes his living through design, I have a greater interest than most in the labels which grace the bottles I drink with regularity. For too many winemakers, the label is just a required piece of packaging that needs to just "stand out" and have all the legal information required by the state.

In reality, that small square of paper is a beautifully constrained space for design, an opportunity to use the restrictions of a small piece of real estate (the front and back labels for a bottle) to create a real emotional impact and embody something of the personality of the wine or those who made it.

Now I'm not going to wax artsy here, but there are all sorts of interesting things being done in wine label design that are worthy of recognition and reflection at the level of design, and not just because they make us reach out and pull that bottle off the shelf.

Tthis is where the newly opened San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design comes in. Starting this week (actually the opening reception was last Friday) the museum is putting on a show called "Beyond The Pour -- Pairing Art and Wine Label Design."

The show is punctuated, or accompanied, by several speaking and wine tasting events that are worth taking note of:

Thursday October 27th 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Curator Bob Nugent will discuss the exhibition with attendees as well as material from his new book on wine label design.

Saturday November 5th 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Curator Bob Nugent hosts a panel discussion with several of the designers whose work is featured in the exhibition. The panel is followed by a wine tasting event until 5:30 PM.

Saturday Afternoon (Date TBD - Check the web site) 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM
Kimberly Charles, Spokesperson for the Society of Wine Educators will discuss the significance of wine glass design. The talk is followed by a wine tasting event until 5:30 PM.

Finally (and you'll only hear about this through Vinography) the museum is also hosting a series of special (read: higher end) wine tastings for members conducted by sommelier Doug Wilder of Vinfolio who will also be hosting a forum on the relationship between winemaking and wine packaging. These take place on November 12th and December 3rd, so if you want to attend, all you need to do is become a member of the new museum and then ask some pointed questions. You can also tell them that Vinography sent you.

The tastings usually run $10 and the speaker series is free to members, $5 for non-members.

The San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design
550 Sutter Street (off Union Square)
San Francisco, CA 94111

[email protected]

The Museum is open Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 am " 5 pm, Thursdays from 10 am " 7 pm and Sundays from 12 pm " 5 pm. The Museum is closed on Mondays.

Docent tours are offered every Thursday (call for specific times) or by appointment for special groups.

Comments (9)

Mark wrote:
10.25.05 at 12:30 PM

Interesting, thanks for the heads up. My friend's Kent and Colleen at Eric Kent Cellars have embraced the wine and art combination on their labels. The "front" label is only a piece of art - nothing else. The back carries all the info. Each wine has a different artist and the artists change year to year. You can check it out here:
and, the wine rocks as well - Pinot and Syrah are sold out. Had the Syrah last night and it's good juice. Can't wait for the 04s to come out, but I think they are still 6+ months away.

Disclaimer: Kent's a friend and I am a wine club member (and itb, but not related).

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
10.29.05 at 9:48 PM

I'm curious to know how labels effect sales. For example would a run-of-the-mill cab with a nondescript label show improved sales with a snappy graphic. My hunch is that it probably would. There is a segment of the wine buying public who are into designer labels and packaging, and such consumers are liable to be influenced by a chic label.

Some of the Aussie wines these days have terrific labels with bright yellows, oranges and blues a-plenty.

Alder wrote:
10.30.05 at 8:20 AM


To my knowledge no real study has ever been done of this. I would like to know, too.

10.31.05 at 2:34 AM

As an ex-packaging design engineer, turned purveyor of wine courses, I too find label design interesting.

Last week I asked my wine course attendees to buy a bottle of wine based entirely on a bottle or label that jumped off the shelf at them - for good or bad reasons.

The majority chose bottles using stylish looking black labels, or labels containing traditional looking chateaux. Labels using bright reds/yellows/abstract design were rejected as these were thought to contain tasteless wine - "If they have to shout about it, what on earth must the wine be like".

James Cross wrote:
10.31.05 at 4:07 PM

Regarding Paula Goddards comment that "label dersigns using bright reds/yellows... were rejected" is a comment on the general level of good taste existing today that was not happening 20 years ago. I'm a label designer having designed over 50 labels in the past 8 years. I tell my clients that the label must express confidence in the product inside the bottle and that as Paula put it "If they have to shout...what must (people think) the wine is like". Thanks for the info re: the Museum of Craft and Design.

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
11.01.05 at 1:01 AM

"The majority chose bottles using stylish looking black labels, or labels containing traditional looking chateaux. Labels using bright reds/yellows/abstract design were rejected as these were thought to contain tasteless wine" - Paula

Were these traditional types Paula? The whole trend in wine these days surely is away from elitist terminology and chateauesque labeling toward a new approach that is more upbeat and consumer friendly. I have a background that includes graphics and when I go into a wine store I enjoy looking at some of the great original labels designers have come up with.

Lord, there are labels I love that feature cartoons! Chateau Roquegrave (Medoc) comes to mind. Also a memorable label featuring a stoned chipmunk sprawling in the middle of a highway on a very good bottle of Chardonnay '89 (Pinot Noir). It was really hilarious!

I can't imagine any wine enthusiasts these days making the assumption that a bright label therefore indicates a mediocre wine. There are far too many exceptions to that rule.

I would love to see even more flair with label design!

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
11.01.05 at 1:27 AM

James can confidence only be expressed in muted tones? I read a very interesting article with respect to these changing attitudes toward packaging and I'm enclosing a few paragraphs beneath ...

"US-based Knightsbridge Fine Wines has signed a licensing agreement to access certain works by internationally acclaimed pop artist Romero Britto. The firm plans to develop a portfolio of wines bearing Britto's *colourful* images on its labels and promotional merchandise.

Knightsbridge’s Britto line continues the company's Artist Series of Fine Wines, begun under similar licensing agreements with Guy Buffet and Andy Warhol. By creating new brands linked to internationally known artists, Knightsbridge hopes to maximise brand name recognition at minimal marketing cost.

The innovative packaging concept is part of the company’s plan to revolutionise how companies operate within the wine industry. Knightsbridge believes that through careful marketing and brand presentation, the firm can capitalise on a current oversupply in the small and mid-sized winery industry.

Knightsbridge believes that too many firms lack effective sales, marketing and branding strength. This has created an opportunity for the firm to consolidate and build an efficient operation that can maximise economies of scale and provide a more streamlined and effective sales, marketing and distribution group."

doug wilder wrote:
12.09.05 at 5:56 PM

Interesting comments about what drives shelf appeal. At the forum I presented for San Francisco Museum of Craft+Design last week the overriding characrterization was the personal passion of the winemakers/owners. The four wineries and there stories:
SCHOLIUM PROJECT - Abe Schoener, winemaker; the label is a representation of Isaac Newton's first principia, that Abe spent a year teaching a pupil so that he could present it to his parents. In his early years of learning wine, Abe made a living by teaching - He has a doctorate in Ancient Greek Philosopy. Abe made my highest scoring wine of the year.

Blackbird Vineyard - Michael Polenske, owner; The design of this label features blackbirds in flight against a white background. Blackbirds are plentiful in the valley after harvest picking off the left over berrys. Blackbird Vineyard makes a Merlot which is French patois for Blackbird. Blackbird Merlot was the highest scoring red wine I tasted all year.

Tres Sabores Winery - Julie Johnson, winemaker and owner; Tres Sabores' label depicts an image of one of three pottery bowls. The inspiration came from the translation; three tastes which described her philosophy when she began the vineyard. Julie discovered the original art, had the bowls made and then the labels from the bowls. Previously Julie had been part owner of Frog's Leap whose label was an inspiration to two of the other three winemaker's here. Tres Sabores made my Top Zinfandel of 2005.

Green Truck Cellars - Kent Fortner, owner and winemaker; Green Truck's label contains what else, a green truck. It was owned originally by Kent's grandfather and he remembered it since he was a boy. He got it when his grandfather passed away and it has been a faithful companion and a valley icon.

All of these wines are small production, under 1000 cases and don't need to rely on mass marketing to sell them. They all communicate, intelligence, balance, passion and ethos. You want to know more about who is behind the wine.

Aidan Maconachy wrote:
01.07.06 at 11:20 PM

Interesting post Doug.

The Blackbird and Sabores labels you described complement the wines without undue fanfare. Often labels with understated designs are the most effective.

I'm a fan of Chilean wine. A cab I've been enjoying of late is Gato Negro and the only design work on the label consists of a black cat in a small rectangular frame. Simple but effective.

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