Small Production Means Big Design on Wine Labels
In almost every case, the primary question that is asked by the owners of a wine labels is this: Will it help me sell more wine? What's really interesting about label design is that the less wine a label is supposed to help sell, the more creative and idiosyncratic that label is likely to be. On the flip side, the more wine a label is supposed to help sell, the higher the likelihood that the label will appear generic.
Though this is not a hard rule, it is a fast rule.
This principle was never more clear than in the recently released "The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels", a beautifully designed, structured and produced coffee table sized book that profiles some of the more interesting, provocative and beautiful wine labels in recent years.
The vast majority of the wine labels highlighted by Tanya Scholes in her new book portray the identity of small production wines. As a result, the readers is introduced to some of today's most fascinating and creative works of art on a cylindrical object.
Labels representing more than 200 wineries from across the globe are offered on page after page, with each winery's story told under the label. The label designer as well as the winery is indicated along with web pages for each and other vital information about the producer. However, the one thing that is missing is the number of cases of wine that each label carried with it into the marketplace. Had this information been presented, my thesis about creative vs. generic designs would have easily been confirmed.
In most cases, what distinguishes labels of high production wine is simplicity and clarity. These wines carry labels that clearly indicate the brand and variety and/or region. It should be obvious why this is the case. Wines of high production are required to stand out in a particular setting: a retail shelf. In a retail setting, the key aspects of choice come down to price and style (variety or region). After a consumer uses these parameters to narrow their choice, then any number of factors come into play determining their final choice. Among those factors is the label.
A widely marketed wine must first have a label that clearly indicates producer and style. After that, the primary asset of a label on a large production wine is that it does not offend. This isn't too difficult to achieve. But it means too that the designer can't go too far off the rails and find themselves profiled in "The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine labels—though some beautifully simple and small production wines are profiled there. And to prove the contrary, there are a very few high production labels also profiled.
However, designers that are tasked with designing a label for a wine likely to be sold out of a tasting room, off a high-end wine list or to a wine club and that is in very limited supply (read: much easier to sell out of) are welcome to go off the rails. Few of the limitations and requirements of conservative convention apply.
Perhaps the best American example of what I'm talking about is Sine Qua Non. The stylistic etchings of sometimes disturbing and other times opaque subject matter depicted on the labels wouldn't pass the the first encounter with consumer testing…and for good reason. They would not work on the shelves. But…They sure are fun to look at and ponder.
Other examples of American wines that needn't worry about appealing to a mass market and can therefore get a little more interesting and tricky with their label are The Cost Vineyard, Three Families Winery, Bridesmaid, and Michael Austin Wines.
The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels comes with a foreword by Michael Mondavi, as well as two essays by Ms. Scholes, one on the history of wine labels and one on their current state. However, the vast majority of the book is given over to the discovery of wine labels.
As do most books that highlight contemporary graphic/packaging design, this one is going to serve as inspiration for those charged with designing a new label, be they label designers or new winery owners. And the book is tremendously well suited for this purpose. But more generally, this book is an outstanding glimpse into the currently state of affairs and thinking and direction of those who have thought outside the box where label design is concerned.
This new compendium of wine labels is HIGHLY recommended.
The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels, By Tanya Scholes
Publisher: Santa Monica Press (2010) $45.00 (see Amazon Price!!)