Wellcome in Sai Kung offers a dizzying array of wines. Picture: May Tse

How the wine label became an art form

With the wine industry estimated to be worth US$303 billion annually, winemakers have been raising their game in an effort to grab our attention in an overcrowded marketplace

Walk down the aisles of any wine shop and you may well be as mesmerised by the variety of label design, which has evolved into an art form in itself, as you are befuddled by the choice on offer.

It’s all about grabbing our attention, as John Casella is well aware.

Casella’s family started making wine in Italy in the 1820s, before setting up in Australia after the second world war, and he has spent the best part of his life watching the wine industry grow into the 32 billion-bottles-a-year beast (worth an estimated US$303 billion annually) it is now.


John Casella of Yellow Tail wines.
In 2000, Casella turned the focus of his winery towards an American market that had only recently developed a thirst for wine. Having been concerned mostly with the habits of Australian drinkers, Casella looked at the figures rising out of the United States and decided to take the plunge with a prod­uct that might appeal “to young-at-heart, casual wine drink­ers and potential new drinkers”. (The US market has since proved near unquenchable, becoming the world’s largest, with an annual average consumption of 12 litres per person.)

“To stand out on the shelf, I knew we had to differentiate Yellow Tail from the traditional wine bottles that were crowding the market,” says Casella. “The wine style was approachable and easy to drink, and I wanted to ensure that the brand visually conveyed the same message to consumers; that Yellow Tail was a fun and non-traditional wine brand.”

So the team Casella guides out of the Riverina region of New South Wales started thinking about how consumers – especially those in relatively new markets, where wine knowledge is limited and the choice seemingly endless – choose the bottles they buy. Casella had no doubts about the product he was preparing to launch – Yellow Tail, “a wine with a soft, well-rounded mouth feel” – but how would he get this new brand noticed?

The wine label is about storytelling, memory and the art of seduction. All told on a three-by-four inch piece of paper

Casella opted for a unique, and uniquely Australian, design, based, he explains, on a yellow-footed rock wallaby: “a small, richly coloured wallaby and one of the most brightly coloured of all Australian mammals, readily identified by its colouring and patterning.”

It was a time when interest in his country was high, Sydney having just staged the 2000 Olympics, and the plan from the outset was to draw the consumer’s attention directly to the artwork, offset against a jet-black bottle. It proved a spark of marketing genius and the results were impressive, to say the least.

Cautiously optimistic, Casella’s team had hoped they would shift 25,000 cases in the first year of full operation. They ended up moving more than one million cases of Yellow Tail, or about 12 million bottles. Within five years, that figure had reached 7.5 million cases annually to the US alone – more than all the wine that country imported each year from the whole of France. And much of that success can be attributed to the artwork.

“Retailers loved the bottle’s bright colours and the car­tons could be stacked to ensure it popped against a sea of trad­itional labels,” says Casella. “If you look at the category today, it is safe to say the market has caught up and there is a proliferation of brands with interesting, unique and intriguing labels. For us, the strength of the Yellow Tail brand means we have been able to hold our market share whilst many other brands have come and gone.”

As markets have emerged and expanded, winemakers – especially those in the “New World” (North America, Australia and South Africa, for example), which don’t bring as much history to the table as those in nations such as France – have had to explore novel ways of catching the consumer’s eye.

“For some regions in France, the style of label is based on tradition and, in some cases, this may even extend to the bottle,” explains Amanda Longworth, head of marketing and wine services at the Hong Kong office of Berry Bros & Rudd, one of the world’s largest wine merchants. “Take, for example, wines from the Rhone region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where a unique coat of arms is embossed on the bottle.

“But as wine distribution has become more global in nature, labelling has become a way of differentiating and communicating the story and personality of your wine.”

A jaunt down to your local ParknShop will reveal the mind-boggling array of designs now on display.

“Given that for most consumers, wine is extremely confu­sing, particularly at the entry, mid-market or super­market-level, labels can help consumers select their wine of choice,” says Longworth. “So, for many producers, the label is one of the key ways to try to influence sales. For wines that are targeted at the highly involved wine consumer, art-based labels are less relevant, as typically the consumer under­stands the general style, variety and region from where the wine has originated.

“New World [wines] are not bound by the elements of tradition that some of the regions in the Old World are. However, many areas in the higher-volume-producing regions of the Old World that sit outside legislative rules are also adopting the artistic label.”

Jeffrey Caldewey has made wine-label design the focus of his life’s work, through the Napa, California-based Icon Design Group, which he co-founded with Chuck House. The subject is explored in the book the pair put together, Icon: Art of the Wine Label.

“I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology and its quest to discover and interpret the artefacts of ancient civilisations. I like to imagine the archaeologist of the future discovering bottle shards with the original wine label still affixed and the story it would reveal about life in the second millennium,” says Caldewey, who has produced artwork for the likes of California’s Ferrari-Carano Tresor and Frog’s Leap wineries.

“Wine has always served a ceremonial as well as a culinary function. Perhaps it is this ritualised consumption and its abi­lity to alter consciousness that has made wine such a power­ful talisman and the wine label something akin to an icon.”

A successful label, he believes, should reveal all you need to know about the product being pitched.

“The wine label is about storytelling, memory and the art of seduction. All told on a three-by-four inch piece of paper,” says Caldewey. “A successful wine label acts as a warrant of authenticity and an implied guarantor of quality. It must appeal to both the senses and the psyche. The look must be understated yet evocative, elegant yet honest. The package must exude quality, style and substance.”

Frog's Leap winery’s logo.
But first it has to catch your eye.

“Wine brands number in the tens of thousands, far more than any other consumer product,” says Caldewey. “To create distinction, a wine label must project individuality and meaning against a sea of similarity.

“The challenge is to create new combi­nations of symbols that will reveal the soul at the core of the brand.”

FRENCH VINEYARD CHÂTEAU Mouton Rothschild was among the first to produce labels that showcased what might be termed as pure art. To help celebrate the end of the second world war, the winery commissioned a “V” (for victory) design from French illustrator Philippe Jullian.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s 1945 label, designed by Philippe Jullian.
Such was the success of the initiative that each year since, another artist – Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons included – has been commissioned to design a label.

“My grandfather, Baron Philippe, always used to say that a great wine is a work of art,” says Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild, co-owner of the winery. “If that is the case, then I would say that the wine world and the arts support each other.”

Emerging wine industries have taken note. Since it opened, in 1985, Imagery Estate Winery, in Glen Ellen, in California’s Sonoma County, has worked with about 150 contemporary artists, including American conceptual and minimalism master Sol LeWitt. The artists are given full control over the label design, says Joe Benziger, founder of Imagery.

Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s 1975 label designed by Andy Warhol.

“The only caveat was the use of the Parthenon [logo],” he says. “If an issue came up, it was always handled in favour of the artist. We never compromise the quality of the art. I think art can bring a new element into the story of the wine. It certainly helps to market the brand and make it stand out.”

Label design has also been embraced by those entering the Chinese market, which has seen astonishing growth over the past decade. In 2015, the total value of imports rose 37 per cent year on year, to reach US$1.9 billion.

Hong Kong-listed Dynasty Fine Wines emerged in the late 1990s and now has about 100 labels on the local and international markets. For label design, the Tianjin-based producer turned to Chinese artists because, according to a spokesman, they were more readily able to “fully under­stand our brand and history”. The most recent results can be seen on the labels of the Dynasty Wisemenship Collection – Fiera, Elegantia, Modesta, Ravissantia – which feature artwork reminiscent of traditional watercolours.

“We tried to work with some renowned foreign design companies but their work could not fully manifest the characteristics of Dynasty,” says the spokesman. “As Dynasty is a Chinese wine brand and all the grapes we use for wine production originate from Chinese regions, we thought it would be better to adopt Chinese style in packaging and design, to represent the wisdom of the nation.”

The Dynasty Wisemenship Collection gift set.

CALDEWEY IS UNDER no illusions about how a label might influence a consumer’s decision making, even if we are not fully aware of it as we reach to snatch that bottle from the shelf.

“To a very real extent, the consumers are not buying the wine, they are buying the label,” he says. “The identity of a wine is revealed or concealed primarily though the label. Every day, millions of bottles are acquired based solely on the label’s desirability. All things being equal, the consumer is willing to pay a premium for the brand ‘mystique’. And mystique, while somewhat illusory, is manifested by the wine label.

“The wine label influences your buying decision, shapes your drinking experience and is the only memento left at the end of the last glass.”

A cool-looking bottle may even make the wine inside taste better, suggests Caldewey: “The enjoyment of wine is incred­ibly subjective. All the subtle nuances of the experience, not the least of which is our own chemistry of preconceptions, contribute to the overall impression.”

And it’s not only the amateur who can have their head turned by a fancy design. A quick chat with Arvid Rosengren, the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale’s “world’s best sommelier 2016”, reveals that even the experts can be seduced by a label.

“It’s a rare occurrence,” he admits. “There are beautiful wines with ugly labels as well as the opposite, so I never go by the label alone. However, a few years ago, in a fabulous wine shop in Barcelona, my eyes were caught by a spectacular label that I’d never seen before. When I turned the bottle around, I also realised that it was a special cuvée of Cabernet Franc called Mephisto, made in tiny amounts by a producer I hold in high esteem, Domaine de l’Ecu, in the Nantais area of the Loire Valley.

“I bought it, and it turned out to be wonderful and I have kept buying it ever since.”


We asked two of the world’s leading sommeliers to pick a label that has caught their eye


Arvid Rosengren. Picture: AFP
Who? Arvid Rosengren, the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale’s “world’s best sommelier 2016”; wine director, Charlie Bird restaurant, New York.

What? Original Vines pinot gris, from The Eyrie Vineyards, Oregon, the United States.

Why? “It’s a pioneering concept, in that the artist [winemaker Jason Lett] tries to capture the essence of the wine using colours and shapes. In this age, when the descriptive, fruit salad-style of tasting note still reigns supreme, Jason takes a new approach to describing wine. I often use terms of geometry, colour, texture and structure to try to relay what my guests can expect from a wine. Even though terms like ‘angular and green’ or ‘round and yellow’ might not really describe any aspect of a wine, most people intuitively get the meaning and can relate it to the flavour and aromas.

“Jason’s wine label takes this a step further. The visual cues embedded in the painting that adorns the bottle do a better job of conveying the crux of the wine’s flavour and structure than words could.”

And the wine? “A won­der­ful, full and textured rendition of pinot gris, so different from the insipid bottles [especially the ones labelled ‘grigio’ instead of ‘gris’] being made globally without any trade of personality. This may not be as easy drinking; in fact, some may call it an ac­quired taste. But give it a proper consideration and it will show fantastic layers upon layers of aromas and a round, dense structure that will match some otherwise difficult flavours.

“Myself, I’d like to have it with something simple and delicious, such as a richer fish main course, like grilled monkfish with fennel, capers and seared lemon.”


Yohann Jousselin. Picture: SCMP
Who? Yohann Jousselin, China’s Wine List of the Year Awards’ “outstanding sommelier for Hong Kong, Macau & Taiwan 2015”; area sommelier, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

What? Silex par Didier Dagueneau, the Loire Valley, France.

Why? “I came across this wine a long time ago while studying wine in the Loire Valley. Back then, this estate was already one of the legendary estates for sauvignon blanc. Being produced in very small yields, I would only really come across the wine at special occasions. Over the years, after repeat tastings, it’s become one of my favourites.

“The wine label stands out to me because it is simple yet carries a clear key message – you know there is a link in the wine to the silex stone after which the wine is named. And this wine does carry with this a very strong mineral structure, due to the silex composition in the soil.”

And the wine? “The style is clean, fresh but powerful, with an intense mineral character driven by notes of ripe citrus and an intense touch of freshness.

“One of my favourite pairings with the wine would be simple pan-fried scallops served on a bed of cauliflower and apple sauce.

“This wine rates among the best sauvignon blanc in the world, a must try for any wine lover.”