Hitting the Bottle With Style: Wine Labels Dress Up

Next time you are in a liquor store looking for a nice bottle of chardonnay, or maybe a merlot, think about what drives your selection.

Is it price? Is it name recognition? Or, is it the pretty picture on the label?

More and more winemakers are counting that it is the label.

Wines in recent years have taken on new and creative names and funky labels as a way to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace.

"That's the whole idea," said Katy Leese, a spokeswoman and partner in Red Truck, a California wine producer.

Red Truck, which started in 2002, took a very simple approach to marketing: a painting of a big red truck on their bottles.

The winery founders bought a painting of a 1947 Dodge truck, set against a typical Sonoma landscape, at an auction, and thought it would make the perfect wine label.

"It was to have something that was a little bit more kind of fun," Leese said. "The whole brand is about fun. One of our mottos is that we take making great wine seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously."

Like many other wines that use bold labels, Red Truck hopes to draw in new customers with its design, and then win them over as repeat buyers with their taste. Also, with a name like Red Truck, customers are more likely to remember the winery next time they hit a liquor store.

The strategy worked, and Red Truck now also has White Truck and Pink Truck wines.


Don't like trucks? Well, then, consider a bottle of cabernet sauvignon with Marilyn Monroe on the label.

Marilyn Wines, part of Nova Wines, Inc. of St. Helena, Calif., holds an exclusive agreement with the estate of Marilyn Monroe for the use of the name and the images. The vineyard started production in 1987 of Marilyn Merlot, and has since expanded its line to include other Marilyn-themed wines. For instance, there is Norma Jeane A Young Merlot.

"We do try to make sure that at typical browsing range — the range between the browser and the wine on the shelf — that our label is very noticeable. So, Marilyn is prominent, and we always hope, is eye-catching," said Bob Holder, president of Nova Wines.

Holder said that, even with great packaging, you still need a good product that is at least equal — and, hopefully, better — than the competition. Without good wine, there won't be repeat consumers or recommendations from wine store owners.

Still, packaging helps.

"Not everybody who sees it is going to buy it. Some people are going to think it's silly, obnoxious, or even worse," Holder said. "But, apparently, enough people are attracted by it, by the cleverness of it ... or because they are Marilyn fanatics, who will buy it just because it has the picture on it."

So, why are there so many unusual, offbeat labels and names now?

Peter F. May, author of "Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World," said, in an e-mail, it is a mix of reasons.

Part of it is that such names are distinctive and easy to remember. Also, many names have already been taken. Just think how many wines use hill, ridge or river, already.

May said wineries have also taken note of the success of others, especially Fat Bastard, which features a hippopotamus on the label.

"People were coming into wine shops and asking for the wine with the hippo," said May. Fat Bastard is the biggest-selling French chardonnay in America, and Goats do Roam, the largest-selling South African wine in the U.S.

May added that many well-established wine producers are following the trend, and jazzing up their labels. "Change or die," he said.

Even France, known for its long wine tradition and strict rules, has loosened its standards in the last year.

French wines have always been known by their region. But, that has changed with some wine producers who now blend various regional wines and sell them under a catch-all "France" label. Some of the labels are splashier, and are aimed at making French wines more competitive on liquor store shelves.

The change occurred because French wines were losing market share to wines from Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.

Take Fat Bastard, a wine from the south of France. It does not exactly have the most traditional French name for a wine.

But, its catering to American marketing goes beyond the brand name. One of its red wines is called Shiraz, even though the French typically call the same wine Syrah. Shiraz is more commonly used in wines from Australia and South America — wines that have flooded the American marketplace.

Having a name like Fat Bastard also helps. The company says, on its Web site, that, at first, "most people bought a bottle because of the name and returned to buy cases because of the quality."