Sunday, November 7, 2010

In Wine Labels, Napa Valley Sobers Up

I was eating Butterfingers left over from Halloween last night while watching the NBA's own butterfingers, the Sacramento Kings, lose to the Memphis Grizzlies. To better occupy my hands and to lift my spirits, I began to flip through a couple of holiday catalogs from Dean & Deluca, the posh deli and wine shop at St. Helena in Napa Valley. Not surprisingly, my eyes drifted most often to the wine selections. I hadn't consciously sensed it before, but in looking at wines specifically from Napa Valley, first in the catalogs, then at the Dean & Deluca website, I realized that we now have a third way to gauge just how dear a wine is going to be without glancing at the price sticker. In addition to the thickness of the glass and the depth of the punt - the heavier the bottle and the deeper the punt the more expensive the wine will be, you can be assured - the blandness of the label also will telegraph the message that this is one pricey release. When and why did the California wine label, especially on bottles of the noblest representatives of the state's wine culture, become so monochromatic, lifeless and dull? By and large, they look as if they came out of the same conservative studio, one that customarily prepares advertising material for mortuaries. Granted, designers and artists can't alone be faulted for labels so lacking in personality, adventure, history, romance, tension and drama. They take their cues from winery owners, who in reaching for stateliness too often end up with the underwhelmingly understated. Oh, there is an elegance to the designs, but it's so reserved and lacking in color and rhythm that vintners seem to have forgotten the first responsibility of the wine label: Sell the wine to browsing customers who for the most part are impulsive buyers. The label is to grab their attention and convey a sense of the confidence, tradition and aspiration that went into the wine in the bottle. Many of the labels are confident, all right, but hardly bold. Maybe in that price niche - $100 or more - they don't have to abide by the old standards. But they are of such similarity that they suggest a pack mentality that stems more from conformity and perhaps even insecurity than the spirit of  independence typically associated with Napa Valley. These labels are guarded, safe, flat. On the table of a dinner party in a popular restaurant none of them is likely to turn heads and evoke knowing appreciation the way the labels of Silver Oak, Montelena, Mayacamas and Jordan have done for decades. OK, winery owners and their retained designers and artists don't have it easy. They know the California wine label has gone through various phases - vineyard scenes, imperial buildings, wildflowers, critters - and they want to avoid formula and cliche. But that alone doesn't explain how they ended up in such a still and shallow eddy of the creative river. And, to be sure, there are exceptions to today's guarded wine label. Grace Family, Jones Family and Diamond Creek, among others, are all high-end Napa Valley producers whose labels convey an almost intimate feeling of the region and the people behind the wines. Why is it important that Napa Valley producers show more individuality, lyricism and even wit in their wine labels? Well, it isn't a pressing issue, and if vintners feel their humdrum labels are doing what they want them to do, so be it. But winemakers elsewhere in the state take their cues from Napa Valley, and if they think that disciples of the Tame School of Wine Label Design actually have a wide following, they are apt to emulate their style, and that would make bins a lot less interesting.


  1. Clearly this is a backlash against the millions of MS Word 2003-designed labels that clog store shelves and wine lists around the country. If I were a winemaker and I stared into the abyss of the thousands of CA Cabs on a big box store shelf and knew that 90% of those labels have no estate, no family and no history attached to them and that they were created 20 minutes ago by the design team at World Wine Domination Inc., I would want something classy to differentiate myself from these wines. Over the past five years label designs have become more and more flashy, and colorful (NO MORE ORANGE PLEASE!!!), and intricate, that at some point there has to be a correction. Maybe since every single wine in the Spanish and Argentine sections were designed by Ed Hardy, or a modern-day cubist, the CA winemakers feel the need to tone it down. Certainly Hundred Acre is not going to win the Catchy Label award away from Jorge Ordonez, so why compete? And on a $300 a bottle of wine it just looks cheesy and desperate.

    I for one think the Cliff Lede Poetry label looks classy with the embossed bottle.

  2. It really does seem like the large wineries use their expensive wines to hide behind bland labels. They are scared of straying from what they know. I have seen many custom labels with very interesting label designs. A unique design can really give an edge to the small wine companies.