Message in a bottle.

“Don’t be afraid to take the past head on”, Tracey Emin

Its 1924 and the love of art and wine are about to clash together with a painting by the French cubist artist, Jean Carlu. Carlu, a former graphic designer, whose painting style is just about to initiate the importance of having a striking label adorning your bottle of wine. A picture that in turn would enable the wine to stand out amongst the competition and will launch the concept of wine marketing.

The label that he designed was for none other than the dazzling 1924 vintage of Château Mouton-Rothschild. The recently appointed 20 year old Baron Philippe de Rothschild, had only just taken over the day to day running of his family’s Château. He began, almost immediately by making many significant changes to how things ran on the estate. At that time Bordeaux was run by a group of Negotiant’s who decided how long you aged the wine, the bottling of the wine, how your wine was to be marketed and the price they sold it at. They also put their own wine labels on your wine, blurring the line as to who even owned the wine. Philippe decided that enough was enough and began to bottle his own wines, he even began sticking his own labels on his wine (the temerity of the man!).  Since 1924 the house of Château Mouton-Rothschild has commissioned a different artist each year to design a new label. The artists that the house have bestowed this prestigious opportunity upon reads like a who’s who of the art world through the ages. Labels have been designed by the likes of Jean Cocteau (1947), Salvador Dali (1958), Pablo Picasso (1973), Francis Bacon (1990) and Gerhard Richter (2015).

“I never read, I just look at pictures”, Andy Warhol.

So, what is the relationship between label art and the essential liquid contained within the bottle and is it really important whether the wine inside tastes good or not?

Wine just like books should not be judged purely by the pretty label that adorns the 70cl glass bottle. It should be all about the precious liquid that has been sealed within. However, how many of us will buy a wine because the label looks nice? To a lot of people who will purchase a bottle of wine as a gift, it is all about the aesthetic. These people want their bottle of wine to be memorable with the recipient, long after it has been drunk. They hope that because the paper sticker looks good and that the price is within their budget that the wine will measure up to meet if not surpass their expectations. And so, through the simple medium of wine label design, we have all somehow become art critics and are making our decisions based according to font type and imagery. We may not remember if a bottle of wine tasted good or bad, but we can certainly remember the picture that graced the outside of the bottle never mind that all important liquid inside.

Show me the Monet!

For some wineries having the correct image and by employing the right marketing technique is now of huge importance to any emerging winery that wants to shift more units. But this pursuit of people wishing to achieve a certain life style must surely be balanced by the quality of the wine. The wine should be of the utmost concern for any winery that wishes to achieve respect within the world of wine. It should not be through the wild thoughts of some marketing geek in a quest for a new demographic of customer who will be attracted by pretty pictures. Sadly, we are in the era of celebrity and the age of product placement by large corporations.

If you are an “A” listed celebrity where image is everything, then to be seen enjoying a beverage that is ahead of the curve, one that is in advance of your contemporaries then you are prey to these Ad-men. Both you and your image, along with their wine will be marketed and exploited, but you will reap the financial rewards.

An example of how a wine has become more style over substance is a certain champagne that comes in a gold bottle with the Ace of spades symbol stamped on as a logo. This champagne was featured heavily in a video by a rapper, let’s call him Shay-C and almost overnight it sold out, such was the influence of the video. I wouldn’t mind if it tasted any good but this is a case of packaging (or to use the parlance “bling”) over quality.

“The idea is more important than the object”, Damien Hirst

Perhaps we should simplify wine labels with the sparsest of information and let the wine speak for itself. Do we not now rely too heavily upon our interpretation of a graphic or image to relay a lifestyle. To be able to enter a world albeit for a very brief time where we live the life that the ad-men tease us with and is only achievable through the purchase and consumption of this certain beverage.

The individual wine labels from many Domaine’s in Burgundy and the Rhone when observed as a group are all very much the same. Take for example one of the worlds most expensive wines “La Tache” by Domaine Romanee Conti. Now you would expect a wine that retails for a whopping 6,000.00CHF per bottle, to have a pretty impressive label but no it shares exactly the same label design with its slightly cheaper siblings. The only difference is the name of the vineyard emblazoned across the label is exactly the same as with those in the rest of the range. It is only the vineyard name that has been changed on each different wine.

The Da Vino Code!

It is well documented that both you and I find traditional Germanic wine labels a little bit confusing. This is usually down to the use of gothic lettering as found on many of the labels. Even some French wine labels are enough to prevent us from making that final commitment when standing at the checkout. All this is through their apparent lack of information.

However, I must mention though that contrary to our perception of the German wine labelling system, it is one of the most efficient and informative labelling systems you can get. When reading a German wine label you will be able to determine not only the year and the producer but the grape, the level of sweetness, the individual vineyard and in these days of traceability, the number of the testing site that approved that particular wine.  It’s just such a pity that some old German wine houses are still so deep rooted in Tradition of the old stylised label.

But can the aesthetic and the philosophy of a winery be captured in a wine label?

Wine labels have come a long way since 1924 and the seismic shift caused by young Phil Rothschild throughout the wine world. It must be said that New world winemakers enjoy none of the restrictions imposed by the French AOC system. They are free to authorise artists from many art mediums to convey the ideology of their winery. Through these visionary wine estate’s we can appreciate not only the artists interpretation of a wineries mission statement but also enjoy that all important liquid as well.

Today many producers such as Norton in Argentina have commissioned artists much in the same vein as Rothschild did to design a label for their prestige wines. Leeuwin Estate in Australia has championed lesser known Aboriginal artists to adorn their bottles. Whilst the Jolie-Laide winery in California appointed the lifestyle photographer Brian Gaberman to capture everyday images for use on their wines. The world of art and wine have become very much entwined together.

However, art is not just reserved for the labels upon a bottle of wine. The Champagne house Taittinger regularly allows an artist to not just design the label but to design an image that encompasses the whole bottle.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s vision and Jean Carlu’s image incorporating the Ram (Mouton) and the Rothschild coat of Arms has certainly come a long way.

4 thoughts

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