Puting the Art Back in the “Wine is Art” Cliche

Phillipshill I remember back in the early 1990s the only real "artist labels" on wine that mattered were those that graced the Mouton Rothschild and the Kenwood Vineyards Artist Series. Both were collectible not only for the wine in the bottle but also for the art on the label. And yet interestingly, I recall most of my colleagues in PR and wine marketing thinking that using art on the label was really nothing more than a gimmick and possibly something that might diminish the reputation of the wine in the bottle.

Flash forward 20 years. I can't think of a good reason NOT to put genuine art on a label, either as a permanent image or as a changing image based on the varietal or the vintage.

I was reminded of this and reminded of how to best use art on a label after spending some time thinking about the wines of Phillips Hill Estate in Anderson Valley and talking to the owner, Toby Hill. Phillips Hill is a winery that has only been around for a few vintages. Only about 1500 cases of Pinot Noir are made annually. But, the wines are beautiful and they have the added benefit of being produced from grapes grown in some of Anderson Valley's greatest vineyards including "Oppenlander" and "Toulouse". But in addition to all this…they also carry art on the label.

The Phillips Hill art label is, in my view, the best kind of art wine label: The art on the label is produced by the the owner AND…it's very good. 

But this brings me back to why using art on a wine label is a good idea: It gives buyers of wine ONE MORE REASON to buy the wine; it gives the wine more appeal.

Now I'm not sure that Toby Hill needs to create more appeal for his wines. What's in the bottle is very good. But, in this market when finding and keeping customers is a full time job, that little extra helps a lot. It gives the person who stumbles into your tasting room one more reason to buy the wine: They like the way it looks from the outside.

Anyone who tells you that all that matters is what's in the bottle and that everything else is decorations probably hasn't ever tried to sell or promote a bottle of wine. Wine is not just what's in the bottle. Wine is a validation of your style. Wine is a validation of your mind's eye. Wine is a security blanket. Wine is a validation of your lifestyle. Wine is an idea. Wine is a distraction. Wine is an intoxicant. Wine is a reminder. Wine is a piece of art. Wine is liquid in a bottle.

All that said, I think the art label does require a few things to be successful.

1. It should be good art. (I Know what you are thinking…)

2. The art should be connected to the winery in more ways than just being on the label.

3. The story behind the art should be on the bottle.

The Phillips Hill bottling meets these requirements, but in addition, it's wonderful wine. But frankly, I'm a little surprised more wineries don't embrace the art label of the "Artist Series". In particular, this kind of bottling and labeling would work great for wines that are meant primarily for wine club shipments and winery tasting rooms since they may require more explanation and by distributing them this way they won't disturb any branding that has been accomplished via a primary label.

In short, the message is this: Art on wine = Good.


9 Responses

  1. Clinton Stark - January 4, 2010

    I agree, absolutely. What a great combo: Art + Wine!
    We have some Kenwood artist series in the cellar. A good wine, and also a good label. Of course, this is not always the case.
    Also, we’ve bought bottles because of laser etched art (on magnums). Conversation starters.
    It can help both the winery as you suggest, and the artist. I’ll drink to that!

  2. Benito - January 4, 2010

    “…they won’t disturb any branding that has been accomplished via a primary label.”
    It’s possible to maintain brand identity through good design: a simple and successful example would be that National Geographic has a different picture on the cover every month but you can spot that yellow border a mile away and know exactly what it is.
    A bad example would be those wine labels that add art but reduce it to the size of a postage stamp, filling in blank space on an existing label design. You squint and wonder if you’re looking at the complete work or just a small section of it. ‘
    Somewhere in between are the DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau bottles every year: unique design every year, recognizable brand, but it’s always a wallpaper-like pattern rather than a single piece of art.
    Interesting design challenges…

  3. Wally - January 5, 2010

    I like art and wine together but the concept of wine as validation is one we strongly discourage with our customers. We almost always get through to them but if not, there are stores that cater to that clientel.

  4. Joe Lange - January 5, 2010

    Check out Bokisch Vineyards’ wines from Lodi for some very interesting Spanish-inspired art. The 2007 Tempranillo is a favorite (both the wine and art) but I think they are all very well received by their customers!

  5. Gretchen Roberts - January 5, 2010

    Just reading Randall Grahm’s new book, in which he has a chapter detailing the history of the wine labels. The Bonny Doon labels have always been rather outlandish, so it was fascinating to see the thought behind them. Randall even said they won a loyal consumer following but alienated the critics for not being serious enough.

  6. Saso Velkov - January 5, 2010

    “Wine is an idea. Wine is a reminder. Wine is a piece of art. Wine is a validation of your lifestyle.”
    Good aspects of how we would like our consumers to accept our bottle of wine (again and again …). To give them an unbeatable sensation of feeling good in all ways, to make them and us, all, happy. That is why wine is so important to all of us playing in this story, from the vineyards to store shelves or restaurants. ‘Cause bottle of good wine is a result of hard work of group of people focused in the same direction. If the piece of art on the wine label breathes in the the same rythm, completes the sinergy and finishes the story behind the wine than we have a winner. That’s why it is the biggest sicret in the world.

  7. David - January 5, 2010

    This was the whole concept around the development of our Goosecross ÆROS Artisan Series of wines. The metal label was designed by an artist, the plates hand-carved by a jeweler, and the final metal label produced by a foundry. Each label hand-applied. The wine in the bottle needs to meet the standards of a “panel” of winemakers before being labeled as ÆROS. If the wine doesn’t meet the standard, we do not release an ÆROS for that vintage year.
    The label needs to tell a genuine visual and tactile story and clearly relate back to the wine, but more importantly, back to the people and the philosophy of the brand. Otherwise, the lasting value will be lost. The label should also inspire emotion that assists the human bonding experience with an inanimate wine bottle.
    Now for a brief story regarding “genuine” art: My sister once owned a few fine art galleries with her husband in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles (very successful I might add).
    One day, while visiting one of the galleries, I tripped over a brick on the floor that had a nail in it. I went to move the brick since I thought it to be unsafe. I was hammered for moving the brick! That brick had been carefully designed and “hand-crafted” by a famous artist and strategically placed on the floor (where it was) to cast a particular shadow.
    My having moved this brick apparently cost the gallery a small fortune to have the artist reposition it once again. The brick with the nail in it was a meager $18,000 and ultimately sold for same!
    Please define “genuine” art.

  8. Mike Castleman - January 15, 2010

    Check out the Darioush II from Darioush. I love their Persian art…every year a new one…it pains me to open even though they are delicious.

  9. Nursing pajamas - May 2, 2010

    this was an awesome day but i wasn’t there. *sigh* hope for the next time i could join. i wish. 😀

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