Strange currencies

I worked at a wine shop nearly 10 years ago as an undergrad and remember the first time we popped open a bottle of Vampire wine. You see, we had to taste the wines in order to help lost customers find their way. Perk of the job.

I worked at a wine shop nearly 10 years ago as an undergrad and remember the first time we popped open a bottle of Vampire wine. You see, we had to taste the wines in order to help lost customers find their way. Perk of the job.

I was there with two managers, both in the process of becoming licensed sommeliers and we were skeptical. We took a drink and it was better than we imagined a wine with such a silly name could be.

That type of wine snobbery is passé these days with bottles like Fat Bastard, Menage a Trois, and Mommy's Time Out populating the shelves.

"It makes wine fun," says CJ Lester, a certified wine consultant at Manhattan wine shop, Manor House Cellar. "Having these silly names makes it less pretentious, more approachable."

Wine is big business. Just to give you an idea of the dollars and cents of it, The Wine Institute, which follows California's wine industry, says that the Californian sector of the wine world has a $125.3 billion annual impact on the US industry.

"Marketing wine is a challenge similar to other types of products that are complex in nature, and that complexity needs to be reduced to make buying decisions initially," says Paul Tincknell, co-founder of Tincknell & Tincknell, a marketing consultancy he founded with his wife Jennifer. "In the past, we came to rely on people knowing a lot about wine. Today, we have to provide entry points that are more simplified. People really are interested in wine and they just need a place to start." 

Some examples of the unique labels you may find at your local store include Marilyn Merlot, which uses the sultry and iconic face of Ms. Monroe to lure customers; Bully Hill Meat Market, which features a man sawing what seems to be a side of beef, apparently helping customers deduce that this wine will go with a steak dinner; and The Prisoner, dark and mysterious with its steel-colored label featuring a man in chains.

"I don't think packaging has ever been more important," says Dave Phinney, owner and winemaker at Orin Swift Cellars, makers of The Prisoner. "The quality of wines internationally is at such a high level now that what differentiates certain brands is only marketing. The easiest marketing tool is your label, and it's the one that you have 100% control over."

This trend has actually been a long time in the making. Todd Williams, proprietor of Toad Hollow Vineyards, makers of Eye of the Toad, says there were very few unique labels over a decade ago when he was starting out. He was nicknamed Toad as a child (he's now approaching his 69th birthday) and figured his wine would be a nice play on Eye of the Swan, an elegant label.

"I thought I would take the other side of the coin and put a drunken toad and a drunken badger on the label," he says. "The label is something to take and remember above and beyond other folks. When there's too many people [doing it], it can get foggy."

And that may be the point that we've reached. Less-experienced wine consumers with less tolerance for pretension may be the ones most likely to be swayed by these labels. However, with all the saucy names and kitschy branding, some wineries are running the risk of undermining themselves.

"The minute you put a cheesy label on something, all you're doing is devaluing your own product," says Phinney, of the outer spectrum of inventive names and labels.

Both Williams and Lester think this is a trend that will soon fizzle like any other. Tincknell, however, isn't predicting its demise.

"Overall, the idea of capturing some kind of strong and modern image that resonates with the new wine generation is not going to die out any time soon," he says. "People respond to fun, colorful packaging. Your wine label is your 30-second ad, your business card, and everything rolled up into one."

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