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Wine bottles with colorful labels

Branding & Marketing

Grape Expectations: The Transformation of Wine Labels

Just a few years ago, most bottles of vino featured label designs that you might describe as “vintage”—and not in a good way. But things have changed. 99U heads to wine country to find out what’s behind this recent evolution.

If you’ve noticed a change of scenery as you peruse the offerings at your local wine shop, you’re not alone. The last decade has seen major upgrades to the little 3×6” billboard on your favorite bottles of Chianti, Merlot and Chardonnay. You’ll still find the occasional black-and-white engravings of terraced vineyards and the old, ivy-covered French chateau rendered in pen and ink. But more often you’ll find labels that take their cues from gig posters, abstract expressionists, and modern typography. What explains the radical transformation?

The short answer: A new generation of wine lovers is coming of age (literally) just as a new generation of graphic designers and vintners are abandoning old rules that they never really cared for.

Labels from Makers & Allies

First, a bit of history: The French dominated the wine industry until well after WWII. By the 1960s, things had changed dramatically: In blind tastings during the so-called “Judgement of Paris” in 1976, California wines beat out their French counterparts—the first in a series of controversial victories that opened eyes and opened new opportunities for vineyards all over the world. In France, a label’s iconography, such as the chateau, was anything but arbitrary—those little castles actually represented the region of origin, and were touted as an indicator of quality; labeling laws in America and newer wine regions focused on the grapes instead. That subtle but significant shift has helped open doors—and oak barrels—to new audiences.  

“For so long, wine was inaccessible to most people,” says Frans De Villiers, designer and strategist at South Africa’s Fanakalo design studio, which specializes in wine and spirits. “The product was marketed in a way that said, ‘If you’re not fancy enough, you can’t enjoy this.’ But people are starting to realize that wine can’t be this inaccessible commodity that’s only for certain people—you can celebrate something unique without shutting people out.”

According to the Wine Market Council, the community of wine lovers is growing bigger—and younger. In 2016, the youngest Millennials turned 21, adding more thirsty palates to a generation that consumed 42 percent of all the wine sold in the country—more than any other generation. And it’s not all Two Buck Chuck: Surveys found that 17 percent of all those younger drinkers had bought a bottle worth more than $20 in the previous month.

“Wine buyers don’t want to drink what their parents or grandparents were drinking,” says Sarah Berger, co-founder and creative director at Makers + Allies, which also specializes in wine and spirits. “There’s a new type of wine buyer out there, and they’re a bit more daring.”

In spite of the old trope about judging a book by its cover, a wine label speaks volumes. Once a narrow representation of the winery itself, wine packaging now aims to make an emotional connection with a person—from the moment it’s placed on a store shelf to the decision to proudly display it in your home.

“A classic label says, ‘This is a traditional product that offers certain guarantees of quality,’ but it doesn’t provide much more than that, which makes it hard to stand out on the shelf or tell a story,” says Javier Suárez, senior designer at Atipus, a Barcelona agency. “Smaller wineries are more willing to break the rules, creating a new language that will give them access a new market niche.”

And that language generally begins with a story—the story behind the vintner, the grapes, or the land where they’re grown.

“An important part of our creative process includes visiting the environment—getting into the cellar or the vineyard and walking the grounds with the winemaker,” says Berger. “Making wine is a labor of love that can take 18 to 20 months, which means our clients are really invested in the process.”

Labels from Simple Solace by Makers & Allies

Makers + Allies’ client Wonderwall releases a new vintage with a different theme each year: In 2014 the agency paired historic imagery of explorers with bright colors and bold typography; the following year, portraits of well-known artists continued the theme. The founders of No Pasa Nada started making wine as an escape from the 9-to-5 grind, and soon recognized that most wine aficionados pour a glass in search of a similar escape. So for their wine, Simple Solace, Makers + Allies crafted Dali-esque visions that start with black-and-white clip-art circa 1950, and explode into a kaleidoscope of modern imagery. “We’re never just creating art for art’s sake,” says Garrett Deiter, Berger’s husband and co-founder. “On the back of the bottle, we always tell the story that inspired it.”

For Vi Novell, a “young and perishable wine that’s ill-mannered and traditional in equal parts,” the idea was to craft a wine that was a tribute to celebration, so Atipus created a series of simple, bold designs that look just like wrapping paper. For the design of Rojalet, Atipus looked to the name itself, which references the characteristic red soil where the grapes are grown.

Label from Rojalet by Atipus

“We decided to represent the red soil through an abstract vision of the soil’s strata and layers, playing with colors, textures and shapes,” says Suárez. “For the aged red wine, we looked for the sobriety of black and gold, embodying a more mineral touch with the textures. We used a more vivid and bright color range for white wine, something that reflected a fruity and fresh taste. And finally, a black background and subtle colored lines, to reflect the intensity of the young red wine.”

“If you want to be completely frank, you might say that wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice, which means there will always be a need for stories to add another dimension to the brand,” says Rohan Etsebeth, another designer at Fanakalo. “That concept comes through on shows like Chef’s Table—people want to look at the biographical side of these chefs, even though they’ll never be able to afford a trip to France to eat one of their meals.”

Labels from Die Kreatuur by Fanakalo

The iconic beard illustrated on Beau Constantia’s Pas de Nom labels is a tribute to Japie Bronn, the farm’s manager, who had planted vineyards in South Africa dating back to the 1950s; he worked into his 70s until passing away in 2015. Just as another client, Lukas van Loggerenberg, was preparing to bottle his first vintage, he broke his leg playing soccer and was forced to ask friends and family for help—thus the name Break-A-Leg, which features a modern Photoshop collage. The artwork for Die Kreatuur (“The Creature” in Afrikaans) was originally created for another winery which took a pass; years later, when Fanakalo’s founders invested in another winery producing a blend, it was the perfect fit.

“Wine is like a souvenir that you take to the table,” says Fanakalo’s third principal, Jan Solms. “You always want something that looks beautiful, that leads to a story told over dinner.”

More Posts by Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, with a focus on nonprofits and “do gooder” brands. His editorial work has appeared in Communication Arts, Eye on Design, HOW, and Modern in Denver.

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