Marketing Wine…in 100 Words or Less

Last week three particular writing projects occupied much of my time: A handbook (40,000 words), a press release (500 words) and back labels (100 words each). Any writer will understand when I note that it is the short little wine back labels that are by far the more difficult task.

I’ve probably written upwards of 200 back labels in my career as a public relations and marketing consultant in the wine industry. More than any other writing project they make you appreciate the power of words. The back label exercise is one of making few words say a great deal.

In the particular case of last week’s back label, I was presented with a specific amount of space into which the following ideas had to fit:

1. The winery takes an artisan approach to its winemaking, both in the vineyard and the cellar
2. Its focus is on making wines of a particular region
3. The winery is a small, decidedly family affair
4. A description of the character and attributes of the wine
5. Placing the location of the vineyards and describing what makes them unique.

All these ideas were not merely to be mentioned, but explained…in 100 words.

Unlike a press release which has a generally accepted format to follow, the wine label does not necessarily demand  any particular writing style or format. So, there is a more stylistic creativity I can indulge in. Additionally, and again unlike the press release, a back label need not necessarily follow the conventions of proper grammar. The only requirement is that you deliver the message.

My approach to writing a back label is to first ask, "where is it most likely to be read? In a store where it will be purchased for later drinking, or on a table in a restaurant where it will be consumed immediately." In the former case the back label should help make the sale. In the case of the restaurant purchase the back label should reinforce the decision of the diner as well as keep the focus on the purchasing decision that has already been made without the help of a back label.

It is not as uncommon as you may think for a wine to be produced with the intention that it will be consumed primarily after having been purchased in one of these different types of environments. A number of wines, for example, are made with the intention that 80% to 90% will be purchased  from a wine list. I prefer writing these kinds of back labels. They tend to be less oriented to "close the sale" than to educate, explain and entertain. As your conceive and write these labels you imagine dinner companions passing the bottle around the table, sipping the wine, and talking about what they are tasting, smelling and reading. I almost always tend to focus on the actually wine in the bottle and what  makes it unique (a vineyard, a cellar technique, a person, a history).

Writing a label for the store shelf is different. In this case I ask myself, what can I say about this wine or producer that will help them choose this wine over the other they have in their hand as they stand, wondering and pondering in the wine section of the grocery store. I’m selling. One way to do this is to create back copy that helps the buyer WANT to BE where the wine was made or WANT to BE the people who made the wine: "Adoption by Desire."

The labels I was working on last week were likely to be sold equally on the shelf and in a restaurant (SIGH…).

When this is the case I tend to default to a in-store purchase mindset with a little more emphasis on making the copy more personal. One way to do this is by writing in the first person, rather than 2nd or third, which is often done with back labels for wines meant to be sold primarily in a retail setting.

First person writing on a back label is a powerful style illustrated by the following two sentences:

1. "Domain Wark’s 2004 Cabernet is crafted with artisan techniques in the winery’s small Sonoma Valley cellar."

2.. "Our 2004 Cabernet is a wine I made using the simple artisan techniques I lend to all the wines I produce in our family’s small Sonoma Valley cellar."

The problem with the second sentence however is that it uses far too many words. Twenty-eight to be exact. But as the writing process begins that doesn’t matter. As I start the process of writing the back label, knowing the points I need to make, I simply want to get the ideas on paper in a relatively attractive and complete way. Then, when finished, I’ll count up the words. No doubt there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 or so. Of course I always to go the label designer before I start to re-write and ask, "Can’t we fit in an extra 40 words?"  They always say, "Sure, if we redesign the label."

So, now the process becomes one of tightening. Saying the the same thing but taking out a third of the words.

In the end, it took a good 2 hours of writing and editing to complete this back label of 100 words (it actually turned out to be 97 words). In that same time, I completed and edited 1000 words of the handbook I was also working on.

Words remain the most powerful tools of a literate, civilized society. Crafted and combined well, they have the power to move a nation to action, induce tears among an audience of 100s, slow down a road filled with drivers, or sell an unknown bottle of wine.


9 Responses

  1. Jimmy Mancbach - May 22, 2005

    Back labels….who cares, better to put the best effort into what’s in the bottle rather than on it. Put on the UPC and the government requirements and perhaps the varietals and there source and be done with it. By the time someone picks up the bottle, you have done your job. I never saw someone buy a bottle of wine because of the back label. Enough with the self promotion of the winery and it’s mission.

  2. tom - May 22, 2005

    That’s certainly one way to go, I’ll admit. However, we know that a back label can help sell a wine, particularly in a retail setting that can be terribly confusing for the consumer and very competative for the wineries. The job of the winery is not just to make wine. Hell, that might be the easy part. You still have to sell it. Otherwise you’ll never make another vintage. Given 2 bottles of wine, both of which you know nothing, priced the same, same varietal, same appellation, which do you choose?

  3. Jimmy Mancbach - May 22, 2005

    I would buy the wine, whose name represents quality and whose reputation is better. The wine I buy would be from a vineyard or grower whom I know has a dedication to high quality not high profits ( over production). I could go on, suffice to say I am in the business and I do understand what it takes to SELL wine, far more than 96% of the wineries out there. I just think if you are creating a back label for an artisan property, it is not necessary to harp about it on the back label. Now if you are doing it for one of the big boys, that’s another story.

  4. tom - May 22, 2005

    I’m with you. Not having tasted two wines, I go with what I know about the producers, vineyard, appellation, etc. However, I think you and I are in the minority. There’s always a new artisan producer about whom the average consumer knows nothing but his holding in thier hand a that new producer’s $30 Merlot. In the other hand is another $30 Syrah, of which they know nothing. How do they decide.
    Finally, suppose it is an artisan producer, a new one. Suppose they are going to come out of the blocks with two new wines, a Cab and a Zin from, say, Sonoma Mountain. Let’s say too that this new producer has decided they want, for whatevere reason, to produce wines from “old vines” only. Why not make note on the back label your philosophy of seeking out Old Vine vineyards. Explaining why you prefer Old-Vine fruit. Perhaps talk a bit about thow old vines tend to interact with a terroir and the type of fruit they tend to produce. I don’t see any problem with that. It helps define the new producer. It educates the consumer and it helps set apart the bottle from others in the same category on the same shelf that the consumer can choose from.

  5. Jack - May 22, 2005

    “1. “Domain Wark’s 2004 Cabernet is crafted with artisan techniques in the winery’s small Sonoma Valley cellar.”
    2.. “Our 2004 Cabernet is a wine I made using the simple artisan techniques I lend to all the wines I produce in our family’s small Sonoma Valley cellar.””
    Tom, Neither of these sentences are going to encourage me to buy this wine. (And hey, I’m Mr. Artisan buyer.) YET, back labels are way under-utlizied (hello, Kermit Lynch!) and if done well, will boost sales anywhere from 5-25% (very unscientific guess). Mike Officer’s Carlisle back lables, are very good, for example.

  6. Steven Tolliver - May 23, 2005

    How about wine marketing in 3 seconds or less?
    Check out the original post from Gaping Void at

  7. tom - May 23, 2005

    Hi Jack:
    While I appreciate that you are a tough sell, I should point out that the two sentences above were not examples of a back label, but examples of how writing in first person has more impact than writing in the third person.
    My favorite back labels are Calera’s. They put virtually every piece of informtion and statistic about the wine on there you could imagine. It’s not romantic, but it sure is interesting.

  8. Jimmy Mancbach - May 23, 2005

    Very few people casually buy a 30. bottle of wine. I tend to believe the prose you propose is unnessary on that type of wine. For a 10-15 bottle sure, pitch away.
    I think that most people who are casually willing to spend 30. and above, are more in tune with the wine market to the point that they are familiar varietals and appelations. Unless of course they have more money than good sencse, I figure that’s about 10% of the upper end buyers.

  9. huge - May 23, 2005

    “Unless of course they have more money than good sencse, I figure that’s about 10% of the upper end buyers.”
    Actually, I think a fairly small portion of the “upper end buyers” buy after having read reviews, considered the vintage, the varietal, winemaker reputation etc. The other 90% buy it to show off their purchase. Watch somebody order a bottle of Opus One (one of the worst offenders of overpriced generic Napa cab) or any other well-known label at a restaurant and notice how they leave the label turned toward the other diners – “Look what I bought!” Same goes with most collectors who show off their cellars but don’t know what they’ve bought.
    Talked to a buddy recently who sold $20k worth of first and second growths to a cattle rancher in Texas. They guy asked if they had them available in 375s because he and his wife only drink one glass each and then pour the rest out!!!
    Oh – as for back labels, I like them. Particularly from producers that I don’t know, its an inducement to buy, particularly if there’s a touch of humor or originality in the text.

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