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About That Natural Wine Label

January 07, 2021

Story: Jordan Michelman

art: Nick Hensley

How did the modern bottle end up looking like it does—and what is it trying to tell us?

The most famous piece of postmodern art I’ve ever experienced firsthand was a 2,000-pound Hereford bull, topped with a rooster, drowned in formaldehyde and framed high above a Hackney dining room. It’s called “Cock and Bull,” part of revered late 20th century installation artist Damien Hirst’s “Natural History” series, in which whole animals (a dule of doves, a sheep posed like Jesus at Gethsemane) are embalmed and placed on display, often in public environments like bars and restaurants. In this case, it was the now-shuttered dining room at London’s Tramshed.

That a dining room might double as an art gallery makes a sort of intrinsic 21st-century sense, and installations like Hirst’s Tramshed bull—or his complete bar design for the Las Vegas Palms, centered around an enormous embalmed tiger shark, split into three chunks—are only the most obvious, on-the-nose expressions of this idiom. (A cultural critic of some esteem once wrote that modern art, having achieved an apogee moment of grand apotheosis in the mid-1970s, had henceforth “disappeared up its own fundamental aperture.” To which one might ask, Have you ever enjoyed an $18 Cosmo beneath a vivisected macropredator?)

But there is another, more obvious expression in how we drink, one that has emerged as a genuine mode of articulation and means of translating not just information, but values and the ethereal nature of the end product.

I am referring to the modern wine bottle.

Of course, we could just as easily be talking about the bean-to-bar chocolate wrapper, the craft beer can wrap or the third-wave coffee bag. These individual industries have their own trends and tropes and are unique from each other in material ways, but they share a bedrock similarity: the harnessing of art in the creation of packaging design. Similar to the 21st-century booms in industries like chocolate and coffee, natural wine has attempted to make visual the ethos of its movement, down to label adornment.

The early concept of the wine bottle as a canvas for artistic expression was first broached by Château Mouton Rothschild in 1945, resulting in label collaborations with the likes of David Hockney, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso. Before that, wine bottles were by and large understood as functional entities first and foremost, designed to convey the precise provenance of the contents of a bottle, plus who farmed and/or bottled it. A shift began in the Parker years, where the urge to express modernity began to outpace tradition. Today’s natural wine label offers a further telescoping of the trope.

“Winemakers consider themselves artists in a way,” says Eben Lillie, who grew up in his family’s influential Tribeca bottle shop, Chambers Street Wine; today he is a partner at Chambers Street as well as a co-founder at Skin Contact, a Lower East Side wine bar and pandemic-pivot bottle shop. “Natural winemakers love to do unique stuff with their labels, as a contrast to the big corporate-owned wine enterprises that are more boring. Many of these winemakers have artistic friends, and so the labels become an expression of community.”

Natural wine’s approach—an embrace of vivid, cartoonish, irreverent design—works as a clarion call, signifying that what’s in this bottle is new, different, an alternative to the stuffy beige cursive such-and-such monopole and Premier-de-French formalism of the wine bottles of yesteryear. By reconsidering wine’s geographic hierarchies (in the orbit of natural wine, Pantelleria and the Adelaide Hills are every bit as desirable as Burgundy or Bordeaux), wine labels have de-emphasized traditional devotions to provenance and classification, instead focusing on connecting fluently to drinkers—particularly young drinkers—and expressing the almighty vibe. In turn, drinkers have come to equate interesting labels with interesting bottles, for better or for worse.

“People aren’t really buying by vineyard site or region here,” says Victor Martinez, co-owner of Ardor Natural Wines in Portland, Oregon. Instead, he says, “they’re thinking about what color the wine is, and what the label looks like. People react to [the label] as a signifier, I think, in a really good way.”

Emotionally immediate labels, with art that moves and compels the drinker, did not begin with natural wine, but over the last decade natural wine has come to typify a modern zenith for the wine bottle as a form of artistic expression, rather than a vehicle for taxonomic info. Take, for example, the work of Gut Oggau, whose labels—designed by Hamburg firm Jung von Matt—feature a series of line drawings modeled after members of the Tscheppe winemaking family. Each design expresses a distinct cuvée, from grandparents (“Bertholdi,” the patriarch, “a strong Burgenländer”) to parents (“Emmeram,” a gewürztraminer described as a “bird of paradise”) to children (“Winifred,” a rosé with a “sociable and cheerful disposition”).

“They may be one of the first examples of truly marketed natural wines,” says author and natural wine advocate Alice Feiring. “This is a sophisticated natural wine story with a clear perspective. This is where things grow up and stop being so punk rock.” To Feiring, these labels typify a kind of second generation of natural wine, a progression from the wild id of the early days of the movement to something more studied and market-ready, yet no less artful. She cites another example, from Czech winemaker Milan Nestarec, whose bottles reflect an unmistakable sense of European modernity, equal parts late Soviet-era realism and a flinty knife-edge avant-garde modality. Designed by the Czech firm Visualist, the labels—sometimes sparse, as with the “Youngster” bottlings or cuvées like “Nach” or “Juicy Fruit,” and sometimes impressionistic (“Earthly Delights”) or violently urgent (“Danger 380 Volts”)—communicate the emotion of the contents inside.

But it’s not all design firm modernity. In Australia, natural wine culture feels particularly vivid, a cartoonish surreality of mythical creatures (Yetti and the Kokonut) and folk art (Brave New Wine, The Other Right and so on). The sun-drenched pastoral psychedelia of Australia’s scene is captured in winemaker James Erskine’s Jauma label, hailing from the Adelaide Hills. Jauma’s lineup is no keen work from a hired firm: Erskine himself is the designer for iconic labels like “Tikka the Cosmic Cat” (a psychedelic housecat in “Sgt. Pepper’s” day-glo hues, emerging from a lysergic puddle), while Erskine’s 8-year-old daughter, Audrey, and son, Danby, 10, also assist with label design.

“Since Day One my vision for Jauma was that the person picking up the [bottle] would need to create their own interpretation of the label, which for me gives a better opportunity for connection,” says Erskine. His bottles make a ready match for his wines—think carbonic cab franc fermented with chenin blanc and muscat pét-nat—but they have ready comparisons in the earlier waves of natural wine labels back in Europe, from the likes of Bruno Duchêne in the sunny south of France. His Banyuls blend of carignan and grenache, “La Luna,” practically radiates with sunshine and vitamin D. It’s as though one of van Gogh’s sunflowers took a tab of ecstasy and wound up on the cover of a later-period Happy Mondays record: pure lysergic bliss, soaked in sunshine, lapping up the waves.

Wine label art has the power to move us, and not just to drink. Perhaps my favorite label in all of natural wine comes courtesy of Gabrio Bini. These labels are divisive—Feiring described them to me as “phallic and arrogant”—but they express an unmistakable urgency and differentiation. Though Bini’s Serragghia line of wines from the Italian Mediterranean island of Pantelleria are now readily available at natural wine shops across the United States, they once represented a kind of in-the-know passcode to natural wine culture; I was turned on to them by way of a whisper, a nod and a bottle pulled from a hidden fridge beneath the great shared table at the influential London bottle shop/communal dining chimera P. Franco.

By drawing from a totally different set of traditions entirely—architecture and interior design—Bini has designed a wine label that is instantly recognizable, and looks like nothing else on the market today. Speaking to Apartamento magazine, Bini described the inspiration behind the design: “It’s actually taken from a lamp I designed, an arrow-shaped marble figure as tall as me, with a neon light behind it. The original lamp is designed in such a way that it has to rely on a wall to stand, and that arrow has to fit a corner.”

Can what’s on the wine bottle ever truly be as important as what’s actually in the bottle? For a new generation of winemakers, the answer is a kind of middle ground—they’re both important. Meanwhile wine sellers and culturalists walk a line between appreciating the artistic expression and what might be described as a polite eye roll towards the Instagrammification of wine.

“Sometimes there are great wines with boring labels that get overlooked,” says Lillie, “and it’s because the winemaker is such a hardcore farmer they simply don’t care.” But for many wine drinkers, particularly young wine drinkers drawn to the buzz around natural wine culture, the label is what hooks them first, opening up a world of vinous discovery that starts with the eyes—even when these labels fall under the genre of, as the writer and wine director Miguel de Leon puts it, “My Kid’s Drawings That Should Have Stayed on the Fridge.”

For instance, I would never, in one million years, have known to purchase and enjoy Philippe Bornard’s Chardonnay Le Blanc de la Rouge 2009 cuvée from the Arbois without its orange-and-white creamsicle cartoon fox label, or pulled a bottle of Laureano Serres’ Catalonia Abeurador macabeu off the shelves of Chambers Street Wines were it not for the adorable donkey that adorns it. Maybe I got lucky; maybe my style of drinking, by happenstance, led me to enjoy extraordinary bottles that tuned me in and turned me on to the power of natural winemaking. Or perhaps it’s something more, the IRL of the power of consumable art, the poetry and symmetry of a wine that is beautiful inside and out. I’m not alone; Lillie knows the experience, too.

“The first bottle of natural wine that I drank and really loved—before natural wine was a thing—was from Domaine des Sablonnettes, and it had this cartoon group of musicians on it, like a crayon drawing. It looked like a teenager made it or something, and it looked fun, like friends hanging out,” he recalls. “It turned out this was my entire foray into becoming interested in wine, because of this bottle and the cool little drawing on it.”

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