The most frequent guilty admission I hear from wine buyers is not that they secretly like Black Tower (with sales of 14 million bottles last year, they are not alone), but that they often buy wine based purely on the label. This is not necessarily a bad way of doing things; if a winery didn’t make the effort to design a good label, it may well also follow that they have not taken all the trouble they can in creating a good wine.
As with many other factors concerning the context of wine (who you drink it with, what you eat with it, how much you paid etc), the aesthetic of the label does have an influence on how the wine will taste. By selecting a label that is aesthetically pleasing, I believe it prepares you to enjoy the wine a little bit more.
Wines have always tried to stand out in order to get people to buy them in the first place as well as to remember them afterward. This has led to the use of wine label as art, or art as wine label.
In the former category, the leading light is probably Sine Qua Non from California. All labels are designed and made by owner/winemaker, Manfred Krankl.
3 wines from SQN (l-r): Imposter McCoy, Turn The Whole Thing Upside Down and, my favourite, 17th Nail in My Cranium.
Montevertine, one of the truly great Tuscan estates, commissioned the artist Alberto Manfredi to design their original label for their top wine, Le Pergole Torte, in 1982 and they have used his work ever since. See the full gallery at: http://www.montevertine.it/en/gallery_pergole.php
This Barbaresco from La Spinetta features Dürer’s Rhinoceros. The reason? None, other than owner Giorgio Rivetti’s love of the artist.
But the undisputed champion of the art label is Chateau Mouton Rothschild, who, in 1945, began commissioning artists to design each year’s label. The artists for these include Cocteau, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Kandinsky, Picasso (1973 - the only posthumous label), Francis Bacon and Prince Charles… The complete set, up to 2011, can be viewed at http://www.theartistlabels.com/.
They were also involved in the most famous case of wine-art censorship. In 1993, Mouton’s label was designed by Balthus and featured a reclining nymphet, which was rejected by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Instead, a blank space was left where the drawing should be.
Rest of World Label US Label
Of course, when you charge several hundred pounds for a bottle, you can afford to be creative.
Which brings me back to Black Tower. From record sales in the 1980s, they slumped massively through the 90s, owing to the emergence of affordable New World wines. However, since 2010 their interesting bottle designs (including this rather fetching Christmas jumper effort) have made them stand out on the shelves and seen them rise back up to the figure I quoted earlier.
Still, the proof will always be in the pudding, and if consumers don’t like what they taste, they’re unlikely to return for another bottle.
Wine, like art, is something that needs to be experienced. The labels, as attractive as they may be, will only take you so far. I’ll leave you with the thoughts of one of the featured artists, Balthus. Before a retrospective of his work at the Tate in 1968, the gallery received this note:
NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.
With thanks to Laura Vickers for source material relating to Black Tower.