In the late 2000s, indie music fans witnessed the birth of a handful of bands that found inspiration for names in the lesser-known recesses of the keyboard, such as (pronounced “dopplegänger”), Λ (“arc”) and ∆ (“alt-J”). There were earlier adopters—Prince, most notably, during his Love Symbol #2 phase or !!! (Chk Chk Chk)—but the growing popularity of this trend was, according to publications such as the Guardian, a way for bands to evade the easy internet searches that had become standard operating procedure in the post-MySpace world, and, in combination with locked Last.fm pages and inscrutable websites, heralded a new digital musical underground.
Of late, it appears that the wine world is going through something similar, but with the rise of picture-only front wine labels. The real estate of the front label is usually used to relay information about what’s in the bottle: the producer name, the region, the grape variety. But it is becoming increasingly common among a certain set of winemakers to forgo words entirely and use only a picture.
As with the indie music world’s character-only band names, having a pictorial label can change the conversation around a wine. Wine is at once tactile and visual—in a wine store, we pick up bottles and browse the labels. But the way we learn about it and share information through magazines, blogs and chat rooms is still very much written. Newspaper columns, for instance, rarely run a picture of the wine label next to a tasting note. Labels with words give consumers an easy cue, but when it comes to wines with picture-only labels, we might not recognize them immediately even if we’ve read about them before. Michael Cruse, winemaker and owner of Cruse Wine Co., whose bottles sport wrap-around labels anchored by large artwork, says he’s pleased that the labels encourage customers to pick up the bottles and take a closer look. “I wouldn’t say it was an intentional thing,” he says, “but I’m happy there’s a Luddite element to the design.”
The advent of the Instagram age and label recognition apps such as Vivino and Delectable adds a new wrinkle of meaning to the no-word label game. Whereas bottle shots of labels with words give easy sharable information—or at least enough info to Google the answer—a wordless label becomes something of a secret handshake among fans of the wine or the producer; the hunt for the producer after seeing an unknown wordless label can become its own game. Sometimes a label ID app can provide an easy shortcut, but if that fails, we must resort to old-fashioned human interaction.
When working on this story, for instance, I took a screenshot of a wine with a picture label that I didn’t recognize from a wine bar’s Instagram account. After having no luck sending the screenshot around to a handful of sommeliers and other wine writers and finding the tiny picture too grainy for Delectable’s ID ware, I had to write to the wine bar to get a positive identification (answer: the Sarnin-Berrux below), an action which felt almost foreign in this age of easy access to information on the Internet.
It’s somewhat difficult to imagine this trend moving beyond the fringes of the wine world and into, say, the supermarket aisle, but for now, finding a wordless label can still feel a bit like coming across a puzzle (a very nerdy wine puzzle). Here are the explanations behind five labels that caught our attention:
Broc Cellars Carignan Alexander Valley
Not all of California winemaker Chris Brockway’s front labels are wordless, but he says the collective aesthetic—“a little lighter, more organic”—helps set expectations for what’s inside the bottle. “I first started in the [Robert] Parker heyday. I could have tried to make those wines—bigger and bolder—but I think I would have been lost in the crowd,” he says, explaining how he came to make wines from experimental old vine grapes had largely been forgotten about in California. “I took a certain license to not listen when I was told ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that,’ and I think the labels float along with that as well.” The spare label for his Carignan is a drawing done by his friend Marta Johansen of a photograph taken from the first year he began pruning the 140-year-old carignan vines. “I didn’t know she was going to go quite as literal. There’s one of my pruning flaws on it,” he says.
A spare red spiral anchors this label from Venetian producer Ernesto Cattel, while the relevant wine information gets shunted up to an identification tag around the bottle’s neck—a striking counter to the raft of commerce-friendly prosecco. (The wine itself also happens to be a counter to commerce-friendly prosecco: It’s made in the col fondo style, wherein fermentation happens in bottle and the wine is released cloudy, with its lees intact.) Kevin McKenna, of importer Louis/Dressner, says the spiral is an old carving that was found nearby the vineyards. The different cuvées are marked by number—280, 330, 450—for the corresponding altitude in meters of the vineyards used.
Cruse Wine Co. Valdigiué
California winemaker Michael Cruse says the artwork on his unconventional wrap-around labels, designed by Force & Form, were a way to show both tradition and irreverence. “If you look at the old sherry labels from the 19th century, there’s a lot of graphics and detailed engravings, and I love those,” he says, adding that the addition of a neon paint splash overlay on the artwork introduces a semblance of modernity. That combination, he says, reflects what he’s attempting with his wine project, to “return to California roots and California classics…but doing it in a modern way.”
Designer Jeremy Otis says the obfuscation of the grape name and producer also helps to make Cruse’s wines, which are often made with rare grape varieties, more accessible. “Instead of a consumer asking themselves ‘What is Valdiguié?’, they ask ‘Is that a cow?’” he says. “On a humorous note, we once overheard a customer ask her friend ‘What’s Valdiguié?’ Her friend replied, ‘I don’t know, but the label looks great. Let’s try it.'”
Sarnin-Berrux Special Cuvée
This Burgundy negociant team’s front labels usually skew more traditional, with producer and region scrawled in an elegant cursive. But for this special 2011 cuvée, of which there were only 600 magnums produced, owner Jean-Pascal Sarnin says a different direction was needed. Artist Matthew McCue painted each bottle by hand in the distinctive colorblock design, which owner Sarnin says reflected the ideology to produce a “pure label, simple and refined, like the wine.”
Julien Courtois Originel
Loire producer Julien Courtois’s front labels, distinctive black and white line drawings, often of animals, have a family connection—they were designed by his New Zealand-born wife, Heidi Kuka. “Julien and I decided to change all of the labels and use my art,” Kuka says, of the unorthodox decision to go wordless on the front label. “My father is Maori, and so all of my drawings have a tribal side to them. The advantage of having ‘art’ as labels is two-fold: They are easy to remember, and most of our clients give us positive feedback as they are different.”
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