Wine shops bear more than a passing resemblance to libraries. The hushed respectful tone of the staff, the way the wines are displayed on floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves with the rarest bottles set high up and only accessible by ladder. And like the covers of books, wine labels are seductive things: beautiful scripts, perhaps illuminated in gold, spelling out the name of a grand chateaux; pictures of the wine’s ancestral home adding grandeur, sometimes even embossed with an impressive coat of arms. Seductive and yet understated, they unobtrusively gather dust on the shelves of specialist wine shops, waiting to be selected by some bespectacled connoisseur who will base a decision on an intimate knowledge of the wine’s provenance — they don’t need to be flashy to attract consumers.
But, just like the book industry, times have changed and wine is now enjoyed by people who don’t possess expert wine knowledge and don’t necessarily buy from wine shops. Just as you might pop into a book shop and, being attracted to the cover, pick out a volume without knowing anything about its contents, some drinkers are now honing in on names and labels — the more interesting or unusual, the better.
W hen it comes to labels, they don’t come much more striking than the bold black and white numbers dreamed up by winemaker Charles Smith of K Vintners. Smith’s background spans not only the wine industry but also the rock industry — he used to manage rock bands in Denmark before returning to the United States in 1999 to make wine. Talking from the U.S. in a phone interview, Smith explains how he came upon the idea for his brand’s logo:
“My wine is from Washington State and I really don’t like those wineries who have faux European backgrounds by calling it Chateaux this or whatever. And I don’t like names that say things like ‘river,’ ‘canyon,’ ‘mountain,’ ‘sky’ or whatever. I wanted something that was very much American and Western.
“So you know how farmers use a branding iron for livestock? How they have a symbol that people can recognize, pronounce and remember? I took the letter ‘K.’ I didn’t want it to be Westerny, and the ‘K’ is (phonetically) for ‘Que Sera.’ The idea is once people see the labels, they’ll never forget them.”
Smith creates the label designs with Danish artist Rikke Korff, who is also a personal friend.
“I do all the conceptual design and she lays it out,” says Smith. “I’m inspired by all the things I’ve experienced whether it be album art or travel, a great meal, a bad relationship or a road trip. Everything that brought me to here is what goes into my labels. I’ll write 10 or 20 words down about the wine and then I’ll send them to Rikke and say ‘all these words need to be in the label. It might say ‘super loud, crisp and tasty’ or ‘dark and evil’ or ‘plush’ and they have to somehow be incorporated into the label.”
Like albums, each wine has its own name. “Pretty much the wine names itself,” he explained. “Like ‘Kung Fu Girl.’ I really enjoy drinking German Riesling with Asian food and the idea was to do something that was edgy and got your attention but was also tasteful and restrained.”
A name like “Kung Fu Girl” might at first appear kitsch, but Smith says that because the label’s artwork is so distinctive and refined, it grabs the consumers’ attention.
On Royal City, one of K’s Syrah wines, he says, ” ‘Royal City’ is a town in the area (Washington State) where about 300 people live and it’s all trailer park. I like the way it sounds, it’s very rock ‘n’ roll. . . . It’s kind of edgy and also has some integrity.”
Does Smith ever get any negative reactions to his wine labels? “I’m six foot two with my boots on and I’ve got big hair, so nobody’s going to tell me they don’t like my label, I guess. I’m a very nice person but I’ve been told I’m intimidating.”
I t’s not only labels that can stand out; unusual titles, too, draw customers in. Fat Bastard wine probably wins the prize for the most controversial title in the wine world today, but rather than scaring off customers, the wine has now become the third top selling French wine in the U.S. In a phone interview, Brad Mayer, brand director of Fat Bastard at Click Wine Group says they often get positive reactions from customers. “The American audience does understand it as something that’s cheeky, fun and represents a good time. It’s something of a joke, they understand the inside joke that the name represents,” he says.
The unusual name was hit upon by the winemaker Thierry Boudinaud and importer Guy Anderson. “The two of them were working on the wine together in France when Thierry exclaimed after tasting the wine that it tasted like a ‘Fat Bastard,’ which is a British expression which means something has a lot of flavor and a lot of personality,” says Mayer.
The taste of Fat Bastard is not highly alcoholic like one might think but more fruit driven. “It’s a full bodied wine with a lot of flavor, a lot of fruit, it’s very fruit forward and that’s the hallmark of the brand.”
Mayer worked with U.K. design firm Turner Duckworth to produce the brand’s label. “We wanted to have a label that was elegant and upscale but at the same time also had some fun and amusing elements. When you look at the label, it’s very clean, it’s very classy, it’s very upscale, but there are also some fun elements along with the name, like the smiling hippo sitting on top of the label and crushing it down a little bit.”
Now that most music is downloadable, we are slowly losing sight of the pleasure of owning an album and its cover art. And with the dawn of e-readers, such as the kindle, it looks like book-cover art could also be doomed to extinction. Happily, wine is a product that’s impossible to digitize. Part of the joy of buying a bottle of wine is the elegance and attractiveness of its label art. Let’s hope it continues to evolve in ways we can all enjoy in years to come.