Should Wine Reviews Comment on the Packaging?

Should Wine Reviews Comment on the Packaging?

Guest Article by Paul Gregutt

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 Nonetheless the winemaker insisted that it not be published because I couldn’t possibly be objective about the wine if I hated the package.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?

27 Responses

  1. What an intriguing question and I can’t wait to read the opinions sure to come. Rather than be influenced by those, I’m going to jump right in with mine. Coming from a marketing mindset, I see a vessel of wine as a singular product with different components. As in any product, the components collectively create the overall product impression. What producers aim for is a clear and accurate brand impression of a product. If any of the components do not fit the desired brand, then there’s brand confusion and your consumers are not sure what they are getting — likely making the product less desirable.

    I’ll use DANCIN as an example. Prior to the current “wine dress” label, DANCIN’s label was more abstract and showy. Owner Dan Marca received some feedback from a respected critic that “the label did not prepare her for the elegance of the wine.” Even though the wine had made it to her table, the taste and visuals were conflicting, lessening the overall enjoyment of the wine. Dan’s current label design took that feedback to heart and found a stunning remedy — you’ll want to take a look if you’re not familiar.

    I believe that packaging is critical to create a way for consumers to more accurately understand what they are buying. Just as much as lesser packaging can hide the elegance of a wine, producers shouldn’t count on high-end packaging to improve the quality of what’s in the bottle. In either situation, the consumer will probably not be happy. People resonate with brands that are accurate and true to themselves.

    When it comes to wine reviews, I want to read wine reviews about the wine, and packaging can be an interesting footnote.

    I look forward to others’ comments!

    1. Chris, this is well thought out, and we also should ping some writer-reviewers on social media to read the article and comment. Most important is that Paul weigh in as a long time on assignment wine reviewer. I doubt it was part of his job description to comment on packaging, but maybe it should have been! Paul?

      I also want to add another perspective, and that the total “product” should be synonymous with the “brand”. The stories and messaging around the winery, personalities, and wine should be in sync with the product. This, in my opinion, is where media communications meet product and digital marketing, and sales result.

  2. My professional background includes decades of work advising myriad non-wine companies on marketing. Everything from product packaging to websites to trade show media and displays. It’s in my DNA to have an opinion about labels on wines, as well as other packaging decisions. Almost always I keep those opinions to myself, but once in awhile I can’t not comment. My original piece appears here:

    And I agree, especially for a lifestyle product such as wine, the packaging is a huge part of the overall brand.

    1. Wasn’t aware of your background, Paul. This is the reason I do the “Turning the Tables” wine writer interview series for Wine Industry Advisor and my own site. There is so much more to know about wine media and wine reviewers that the underlying publications. Want to know more about Paul? You’ll find the Paul Gregutt interview which was the first of this series here!

  3. Setting aside the copy one finds on a wine label, the design of the label is about nothing other than branding and marketing. Moreover, it says nothing objective or reliable about the quality or character of the wine inside the bottle. I don’t think the reviewer should comment on the design (visual appeal) of the label (unless its uncommonly beautiful) simply because it might turn someone off a good wine for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual wine. That said, Paul’s original reference was that plastic wax on the top of a bottle that made it hard to open. Packages being hard to open are a consumer issue…But I still think it’s best to shy away from mentioning this since, again, it might turn someone off of a good wine for reasons that have nothing to do with the wine in the bottle.

    1. Thanks for adding to the discussion, Tom. Had a big discussion with some wine peeps in town to judge the McMinnville Wine Competition – – and the general consensus is as you stated. I do also find the idea of considering the entire product – juice, package, brand identity, and underlying story (if told) compelling – but more than can be expected for wine reviews. An alternate format and approach?

    2. With all due respect, I think Tom has missed the point. It’s the poor label design that can turn away consumers from a good wine, not a critic’s discussion about the disconnect between the wine package and the wine quality. If/when I ever dive into this topic again, please understand it is with the intent to provide valuable feedback to the winery and perhaps convince consumers to try a wine they might otherwise dismiss as cheap plonk.

  4. Good question Paul,
    This winemaker thinks that “out-of-the-ordinary” packaging that affects the consumer is worthy of note.
    I would say a comment on heavier than average bottles is of consumer interest. Especially if the producer is making green claims. Glass weight is a factor in my purchases. Big lumps of plastic on the neck? Not for me.
    Ingredient label? Yes, I want to know. Ugly label? Eye of the beholder.
    3 liter? Yes, worthy of note. Plastic container? Yes again.
    Certainly most reviewers comment on Organic, Biodynamic, “natural”, Sustainable, which have no bearing on the organoleptic character. Again it may be significant to consumers.
    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol Winery and Organic Vineyard

    1. These are good distinctions Paul. We appreciate your perspective. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  5. I am more than familiar with the issues of which Paul writes. I have on occasion posted general thoughts on packaging on my own site (Northwest Wine Report) or on social media. Paul made note of dark print on labels that make information near unreadable. I have seen this as well and noted it at one point in a social media post, speaking generally. I have also, for a very long time, harangued against wax sealed bottles. As both a consumer and a critic, hate is not a strong enough word for how I feel about them. I can’t imagine why anyone would try and make a wine bottle even harder to open than it already is. As I always say, wax capsule sealed bottles make great gifts – for people you don’t like.

    Unfortunately, when I’ve made such comments regarding packaging, again always speaking generally rather than specifically identifying an individual winery, I’ve often been reminded of that old Carly Simon song. Every winemaker thinks you’re talking about them. It has, at times, led to some of the most unprofessional comments that I’ve received in my career, which is saying something.

    As a reviewer, it would be unusual for me to make a comment about packaging in a tasting note, unless there was something exceptionally notable, such as strange bottle shape. The bowling pin style bottle of the Dazzle Rosé comes to mind. Drawing attention to this can help people identify the wine.

    When I was tasting for Wine Enthusiast, there was one bottle where I was very tempted to write something about the label. I’d given the wine a 90 point score (tasting blind of course), and based on its price, the wine was a Best Buy. The label was so atrocious – truly the worst I’ve ever seen in my nearly two decades as a critic – that no consumer would ever believe good wine would be found in the bottle. I also had some concern that seeing that label with a positive score with my name attached might harm my credibility, as it was that bad. So I was tempted to add something in the tasting note to the effect of “Don’t let the label dissuade you…” but that would, of course, be inappropriate.

    Since I refocused on my own site earlier this year, I have included whether or not the bottles use an alternative closure in my tasting notes. As a consumer, I’m much more likely to buy a wine and buy it in some quantity if I know that I don’t have to be worried about TCA. Conversely, I’m much less likely to buy a wine in quantity if it has a natural cork closure. It’s not worth the risk to me as a consumer at this point in my wine journey.

    I’ve considered adding information about bottle weight. The intent would be to draw attention to bottles that are well outside the norm because of the outsized environmental impact that murder weapon-weight bottles have. I haven’t done that as of yet, as I still need to think about how I would execute it and whether the effort would be worth the potential value.

    Overall, packaging is, of course, critical to how consumers perceive a bottle of wine. It is part of the aesthetic experience, good or bad. One thing I’ve noted over the years, it is somewhat rare – though far from unprecedented – to find high quality wine in bottles with very unattractive labels. Wine quality and label aesthetic appear positively correlated for whatever reason. I often joke that many wine labels are the best argument I’ve heard for critics blind tasting wines.

    1. Hi Sean, I always appreciate your perspective and the integrity with which you approach wine reviews. It is clear that your approach to blind tasting should not be influenced by label and packaging, but rather solely, by the juice. I still think Paul is on to something regarding package reviews as consumers are interested in supporting brands that are thoughtful about their use of resources.

      1. Carl, I absolutely agree. I’ve advocated strongly for wineries no longer using capsules at all let alone wax ones (see my article “It’s time for wine capsules to go away” from when I was at Wine Enthusiast). I’ve also advocated for using using lighter weight bottles and for “truth in alcohol labeling” (see my “Wine Emperor” article at Enthusiast).

        Critics are in an interesting position. On the one hand, we could give feedback that could substantially help a particular brand. On the other hand, it would generally be inappropriate to do so when speaking specifically about a particular winery.

        For example, if I were to say to a winery (I wouldn’t) “Your labels really don’t reflect the quality of the wine that is in the bottle,” a winery would naturally feel some pressure to respond to that feedback, regardless of whether they agreed with it or not. Moreover, they might feel that if they alter their label, they would receive a better score from that particular critic, even if the reviewer is tasting wines blind. Such is the nature of being a critic.

        For this reason, I believe it’s typically a better approach to speak more generally. But again, then many think you’re referring to their package and takes it personally. It can be a very fine line to walk, even if the feedback is in all cases well-intentioned.

        Generally speaking, wineries love to receive positive feedback. Anything that is neutral or in any way negative (or even positive but they perceive it as negative), many very much don’t, even if that feedback could substantially help their brand. It’s a shame, but I understand some of the reasons why that’s the case.

    2. Sean, thanks for checking in. When you and I were reviewing for Wine Enthusiast we were hog-tied by certain “rules” – some unspoken, some not – that prescribed what we could comment about. Now that I am free of any and all constraints, and doing what I do essentially for free, my tradeoff is to expand the role of critic to include much more than a simple rundown of price and flavors. Wine packaging is a big part of any marketing effort and fair game as far as I’m concerned. If wineries don’t want to take free advice from an experienced critic, that’s their perogative. Mostly when I’ve commented on bad labels etc. it’s to say that the wine is waay better than the package. So why not say “don’t let the label dissuade you…”? I think that’s a plus, not a minus.

      1. Thank you both, Paul and Sean, for the engagement and comments on each other’s responses. I wish we all could dialogue professionally in hopes of learning something outside of our own views.

      2. I would also think that a visual publication like Wine Enthusiast would be interested in their reviewers commenting on labels specifically, especially since they enjoying charging for label placement in the magazine!

  6. Interesting and well-written article. A fun read. Packaging can make a difference but it’s not the first thing I consider when looking for a new and good wine. I didn’t know there were so many kinds of corks and tops and will be looking for that pesky waxy stuff.

    1. Hi Kathy, thanks for sharing a consumer perspective on this. There are many types of closures and containers and types and styles of bottles. The industry is evaluating both sustainability (bottle weight, foil covers, plastic corks, etc.), and consumer preferences. It’s the right thing to do overall and consumer awareness has grown the demand for alternatives.

  7. When a technical consideration (closure) is trumped by a marketing consideration (popular perception) the critic is faced with a dilemma: call out the winemaker or accommodate the flawed standard.
    For the most part, wine publications accommodate the cork, allowing duplicate submissions.
    Critics and winemakers who stand up to this are in the minority still. However the consumer will eventually understand that a flawed product is unacceptable.
    Until cork suppliers can guarantee 100% consistent and flawless closures, there will be a moral disconnect for reviewers who give bad corks a pass.
    Those of us who choose the path of integrity (in my case Stelvin) pay a price. I only ask that the consumer demand accountability from those that pander to popular perception. And that critics take but one bottle for review.

    1. Co is, as always, a North Star on this issue. It’s very much something I’ve considered. However, I do see odd bottle variation as well as a steady drumbeat of TCA contamination. Additionally, if a bottle is well below (or well above) expectations, it’s handy to have a second on hand to reconfirm the impression.

      All that said, Co is correct. It’s also giving wineries using natural cork a pass. Moreover, if there is something off on the original bottle, consumers don’t necessarily have a second on hand. His suggestion is something that I’ve thought a lot about and I continue to.

    2. Co, I was among the first reviewers to repeatedly note that a screwcap did not always signify cheap wine. I don’t criticize those who choose corks because it is a rational decision that makes some sense. But slathering a bottle with fake wax is neither practical nor aesthetically pleasing. And I feel sorry for the poor server who has to wrestle open one of these monsters at a table in a fancy restaurant with customers watching!

  8. Packaging is something consumers may not think about consciously but for well designed labels specifically iconic and memorable packaging will be recalled with emotion. An iconic yellow label in Champagne may be defended with considerable rigorem because it is feared that consumers might “forget” the Champagne label.

    I like striking and thoughtful design. I do think design from a distance is a benchmark for what consumers really want: familiarity. I love wax seals and they don’t bother me at all. Most are easy to open and I like this old timey aspect to it. I have been part of the design process and sometimes there is such a perfectionist view that it assumes it will produce glowing sales – rarely does that happen. There is one part of great distribution but also the other aspect is something so iconic if not enigmatic is requisite. Back labels are missed opportunities–I see a lot of vague copy that is not worth printing. I like to see a map, data points and/or meaningful copy – something versus meaningless copy. Thought provoking article!

    1. James, thanks for adding to the discussion, and happy to see you note the importance of package design. Your YouTube wine review videos (as opposed to written reviews) highlight front and back labels so this is natural. Can you explain “design from a distance” and consumer familiarity, for readers of this article?

        1. Yes, design at a distance is something I can spot and like to find something I’ll enjoy – perhaps it is unexpected or perhaps it is reassurance/allurement in a great experience in that setting. I love iconic designs and packaging – a great example is Travaglini Gattinara – a bottle design that is unlike any other – I don’t have to guess the producer because there is much communication in design. The label itself looks like a postage stamp and the Cantina is easy to read from a distance.

          I think in general reviewers should comment on packaging and labels and should do so with ease.

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