Guest Article by Paul Gregutt https://www.paulgwine.com/
I recently got into a somewhat heated exchange with a winemaker who was incensed over a comment I’d posted on social media. I was troubled (OK I was ranting) about the plastic “wax” slathered over the bottle neck which made pulling the cork quite a pain in the a$$. Although I did my best to avoid any specific mention of the actual wine, this individual was outraged and quite certain that the close-up of the bottle neck I’d shown was easily identifiable and would somehow impact the winery’s reputation.
It’s ironic that the actual review I had already written about the wine was entirely positive and included a very good score, with no mention at all of the packaging. Nonetheless the winemaker insisted that it not be published because I couldn’t possibly be objective about the wine if I hated the package. So I honored the request and never submitted the review for publication.
There’s a lot to unpack here. But first and foremost I want to be clear that I have always tried to be a fair and objective critic, and that means moderating honest opinion with what I hope is useful feedback. On rare occasions in a printed review I have discussed the packaging as well as the wine. Packaging includes everything that isn’t wine – bottle, seal, label etc. Often my comments were supportive: when screwcaps began to appear on better quality wines, I was one of the first to sing their praises. Same with box wines.
I’ve sometimes commented on wine labels also, with a mix of praise and criticism. Because along with what’s in the bottle (or box or can) I firmly believe that the package has a major impact on sales. Consumers buy the package as often as not. How does that package attract or repel them? How much useful information does it convey? And in the case of a decision to cover the cork in plastic, how much trouble does it cause when opening the wine?
There are many closure options for wineries that are still bottling in glass. Real cork, composite cork, bamboo cork, plastic cork, screwcap, crown cap, glass cap and on and on. Further amendments, such as a wax seal, neck foil and plastic are not necessary for the preservation of the contents but may sometimes add to the overall package design.
Wine labels are another essential part of the package. Does the overall design work have visual appeal? Does it convey just the legally mandated information or add further detail? Is there a unique story being told or just the usual stuff about passion and using the best grapes possible?
I’ve seen labels printed almost entirely in black, rendering them unreadable. I’ve seen cartoonish labels on expensive wines that make them look cheap. I’ve seen labels so overloaded with technical gobbledygook that only a chemist could unravel them. I’ve seen wines with no paper labels at all, just (sometimes) indecipherable imprinted glass. And on the other hand are labels that not only convey exactly what’s in the bottle but also bring a personal, artistic touch to the overall design. The hand-drawn, letter-printed labels of Big Table Farm are a splendid example of such exceptional work.
Granted that not every winery has a talented artist at the helm, and simply spending money on a design firm is no guarantee of success. But designing a simple, readable and informative label – better yet finding a design that reaches across an entire portfolio, such as Charles Smith’s use of black and white along with catchy wine names – should not be out of reach for most.
Those of us who open hundreds if not thousands of wine bottles every year may be more sensitive to closures than the average consumer. But honestly, if you plan to sell your wine in restaurants, wouldn’t it make sense to put it in a package that doesn’t require a professional wrestler to jack open?
The late Eric Dunham made outstanding wines with original artwork he’d painted himself and at times cloaked them in faux wax. Eric was both a cherished friend and someone whose wines I reviewed professionally. Once or twice I referenced the goop on the bottle unfavorably. Rather than take offense, Eric invited me to dinner at the winery and made a special presentation of a one-of-a-kind bottle of his best wine that he’d slathered in a vast amount of red plastic. We both had a good laugh. That bottle is one of my personal treasures and is proudly displayed in my wine cellar.
I’ll tackle the even more exasperating topic of bad wine label copy in a later post. Suffice it to say that if you waste that precious and limited space on a meandering tale of your passion you are in no way differentiating yourself from tens of thousands of others. There are a whole lot of passionate people making wine, and good on ’em. But that does not make for good copy.
So… winemakers, consumers, designers, retailers, somms and fellow scribes… what do you think? How important is packaging? How does the look of a wine label impact buying decisions? And should wine reviews stick to what’s in the bottle and leave out the rest?