Fat Bastard. YellowTail. Chat-en-Oeuf.
The Prisoner. Belle Glos. Marilyn.
Sine Qua Non. Screaming Eagle.
We were looking for ourselves, and found each other. This is how it must feel to be new to wine, completely and utterly dumbfounded by European labels, then equally misled by some bullshit take on Merlot being bad and coaxed into the overly-simplistic varietal labeling prevalent in the United States, and then, voila:
You see the label. That's the one.
You don't even think twice about it as long as it's not $300. And even if it was, you'd probably buy it for a super special occasion.
Because. It's. FUN.
This topic, I'll admit, is really tough. I've grazed it before, but just like each vintage produces a new wine from the same vineyard, today's a new day, and I'm musing on a different side of labeling and branding. Where to begin?
My favourite story is Fat Bastard. In the 1990s, as American wine and its more comprehensible varietal producing/labeling focus took hold of the US market, a British importer and French winemaker had a great idea to re-introduce French wine to Americans. They took wine from the South of France where it is much cheaper to source, and put this fun ol' label on it. See, North Americans struggle to this day to comprehend traditional European labels. Sure, they might know Bordeaux and might know Chianti, but that's hardly informative, even within those regions themselves. It's complicated, for sure. And it's in a different language. Now I can't verify that what I am about to say next is true, but legend has it that this Fat Bastard wine was originally denied entry into the US because of the name "bastard," but the producers argued that it wouldn't be offensive, because it was a French word pronounced "bas-TAHRD." The French word for bastard is bâtard. Let's leave it at that.
Fat Bastard Chardonnay. Easy. Hilarious label, wine grape that people have heard of. All good, right? Well, yes, it became a huge brand in the US & UK. And it was never sold in France.
I kind of look at this phenomenon of the label a little bit like I look at online shopping. See, if I offer a product in an online advertisement, and I click on it, the closer that link takes me to entering my credit card number and checking out, the more likely I am to buy it. Make me click more times, evaluate more options, each hoop I must jump through, incrementally less people will buy the product. You lose them. Fat Bastard Chardonnay (they have a whole line of varietally labeled wine) got the customer from the Ad to the Checkout FAST. No questions asked.
Fat Bastard would probably still sell a lot of wine if they labeled it by the region, or even Vin de Pays or Vin de France. But you'd lose a few people, because at least a few would say, "what the hell's in it?" and move on. You could bottle a wine that was probably much better, and have to sell it for less money to probably sell fewer cases in North America. It's just the way it is at the moment.
So. We're at a bit of a stalemate in terms of getting newbies onto the European wines that have no varietal label. Even Louis Latour, the great big house of Burgundy, puts the varietal on the label of their generic Bourgogne rouge (Pinot Noir) & Bourgogne blanc (Chardonnay). It's no wonder they are the best seller in many North American markets, among a few other reasons. A lot of people can get it.
Now, you might say, "well, why don't we just label everything by varietal then?"
OK. So in Rioja, we're gonna write Tempranillo+Garnacha+Graciano+Mazuelo? Oh, dear. It's just more gibberish to the market. That doesn't work. Hmm.
In the New World, for a great part, wines have been labeled by varietal. Here's the problem. Now you have purchased some very expensive acreage with the intention of planting a vineyard. All the popular wines and greatest number of consumers shop by varietal. You're in Napa or the Okanagan, and you see Cabernet Sauvignon going for an average of $37 (I just made that up) per bottle. You think, "well, this site seems really well suited for Syrah," but the average Syrah is only going for $22 per bottle (again, for argument's sake). Well. You can make $37 per vine or $22 per vine. One will sell out faster for more money. The other will make life more difficult. And you've gotta start paying off this loan. What would you do? Who cares what the better wine will be when you're on the hook for your livelihood?
Yes, this varietal labeling business has actually, in many ways, limited the creativity and ability of many a new world region to properly define its micro-climates and plant them with appropriate grape varietals that might really thrive. There are MANY exceptions to this, but not enough that the dominant thought is "plant whatever you feel like, yeah, Müller Thurgau would grow great here!"
We're planting Pinot Gris and selling it by the skid like Franks at Fenway™. Duh.
To take this a step further and to accommodate some of these producers in the US & Canada, regulations dictate that only 75% or so of a wine has to be A) the varietal on the label and B) from the vintage on the label, to varying degrees as you move around to different regions. This misleads the consumer into thinking they like Cabernet Sauvignon, hate Merlot, when really, there's probably loads of Merlot in a lot of the Cabernet Sauvignon that they drink.
At least in Bordeaux, if you study a little, you just know that there's a chunk of any amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and some Petit Verdot going in. Same with Rioja and the Tempranillo-Garnacha-Graciano (GraTHiano!) etc. and same with Chianti with the Sangiovese-Cannaiolo and whatever else they want to throw in there. The focus is on the regional grape-growing style and regional winemaking style. Yes, there's variance, but they've been doing it so long that there are successful and consistent patterns, even between contrasting producers and vineyard sites.
All of a sudden, the Prisoner comes along. $61 in Canada after 20 odd years and nobody has a fucking clue what's in it.
The label. The heavy bottle. And a style of wine that's "good enough" for most.
Apothic. Nobody has a fucking clue what's in it. Never mind the grape varietals.
And why should we care? Look how slick that label is. Nice, broad, high shouldered bottle. It looks like a sex shop. In a very appetizing way to a person who is relatively new to wine. To boot, the flavours are designed and manufactured, quite literally, to make it easy to like.
They're not the only ones. There are cult classics. Sine Qua Non. Stylized labels, exclusive waitlists and clubs, limited productions. Non-mainstream blends for the American market. Even the Screaming Eagle label doesn't list the varietal. And it looks cute. And sells for over $3000.
We could go on. But here we are, right back in Fat Bastardville:
These labels succeed in turning consumers away from a trend, selling more wine, albeit for totally opposite reasons. It's a lot more profitable to sell a reasonably tasty hodge-podge of Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah, and whatever else have you for $61 than it is to sell a reasonably tasty Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Think about your costs. If Apothic had to be 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, they probably couldn't make as much, would have a lower margin on it, and also be tied to the availability of this already popularized varietal. Instead, they circumvented the varietal restriction, just like Fat Bastard circumvented the regional labelling restriction. They took less popular varietals and made them appealing in a different way.
I think this is really incredible and very enlightening. Now, let's look at the other side.
Natural wine. Or low-intervention wine. WHATEVER they want to call it.
Wow. Now we're dealing with a whole other set of circumstances. Only the intention is much more noble. See, now we've got wines that are going to be more expensive because they're going to be produced in smaller quantities, by smaller producers with no economies of scale, and will cost more to ship more carefully because the wines are much more volatile in the bottle and should be transported in more specific conditions.
The only problem is that some of them are going to taste totally radical to a palate trained on clean, lab-made supermarket wines and more popular producers who favour a more hands on, manipulative approach. And others will not.
Well, well, well. How do you suggest we bridge the gap here, Leon?
You put some motherfuckin' hipster-ass labels on that shit, Larry.
I swear to god, and I am not too proud to admit this, I genuinely had a craving the other day for a hip, natural wine label with a light, glou-glou style of ultra-bright, pale, funky red wine inside.
I had the craving. I wanted the stupid little wax dipped tip that covers the cork. I wanted the pastel poster-like label that looks like it should belong on the wall in a indie vinyl record shop. I wanted to wear Blundstones or Vans or Converse or god-knows-what kind of shoes and drink some wild wine.
And I swear to fucking god, it was the label. The idea of a label, it wasn't even specific. I just wanted it on my table. You see how powerful this is? You get it?! You get it!
The natural wine community has done an unbelievable job AS A COMMUNITY in bringing a higher-level of artisanal looking art and design to a great deal of the labels of producers of low-intervention wines far and wide. So much so, that instead of creating a single brand, they've created a community-generated lifestyle brand based on a tapestry of producers around the world who share a similar vision: create clean wines from the earth without interfering in unnecessary ways. Retrain the palate to make wine a healthier, more natural product that we can feel better about. And make it feel cool.
I think this is just incredible. Fat Bastard, the Prisoner, Apothic, and natural wine. Utilizing the power of the label, all for completely different purposes, some noble, some questionable, some despicable. In no particular order.
I mean, if natural wines looked like the rest of the wine industry that they are vehemently standing up against, nobody would want to drink them. Many who attempted to try them would be disappointed. But the label. It makes it fun. It doesn't just make it fun, it changes your approach. See, I've drank a ton of wine. But the natural wine community appealed to a different and common sensibility of their ideal customer who they felt could appreciate their product. It's not the wine that appealed to me in that moment as much as the whole lifestyle package. I wanted to look at unique art on a wine bottle while I contemplated what was inside. It had little to do with taste. The Prisoner, one of the most recognizable, commercial, publicly traded, mass-produced wines in the world, uses the same exact principle to attract drinkers. I just can't get over how incredible this is.
Fat Bastard drinkers. The first ones probably just pounded it while they laughed their asses off and cracked ridiculous jokes about the fact that the Fat Bastard was getting them hammered.
I don't have some big answer for you about what's good and bad and right and wrong in labels. I haven't even discussed how much I love the traditional labels of Europe. They are a lifestyle brand unto themselves as a group. I haven't talked about the stylish fonts of DRC and Ridge that I adore. Labels, and labeling are incredibly powerful forces in the business. I am an advocate for discovering the truth about each specific wine that you drink. I maintain that the body is an amusement park, and that we should experience as much as you can from all sides of the industry. But once you see an awful lot of it, certain parts hold more value for you. You start to gravitate towards different wines. Different elements of wine becomes more or less important to you.
For me, in my evolution, it's taken 6-7 years to really want to embrace the natural wine movement with open arms and an open gullet. I'm only just starting to become excited by it, rather than merrily co-existing alongside it. And to say that the style and brand created by the movement in large part due to labels has nothing to do with this would be ridiculous. We're aesthetic creatures. Most of us are visual creatures. It's not always about just the juice. If it was, we wouldn't have those moments where we happily drink something we thought we hated on a deck at a winery on vacation and then all of a sudden we don't like it on a Friday night after we bring home a case. We want to be surrounded by images that make us feel a certain way, not just flavours that make us feel a certain way. It's human nature. All of our senses and all of our dispositional characteristics are involved in experiencing wine.
It's about our mood. Understanding how our mood is influenced is paramount to understanding our relationship with anything that we can taste.
Labels are a great example of this. Even for me.