AVT 395-Final Paper
New Design in New Bottles
“Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish. But they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” —Matthew 9:17
The best wine is an expression of its maker, born as the product of fanatical care, refinement of technique, indelible patience, and, of course, years of evolution. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the maturation of wine labels has been a slow but rewarding progression of design reinvention. Since antiquity, wine labels have served the purpose of tracking the life of their contents, but many of today’s label designs tell the bottle’s story using a rich visual language. In years past, the Spirits Aisle at your local supermarket might have appeared as a sea of white squares that inspired little cause for celebration, but shopping for wine today means an optical feast of shape, size, color, type, and image. This is the result of a design renaissance in the wine industry that cast tradition aside and embraced a new wave of aesthetic radicalism. (If “aesthetic radicalism” seems hyperbolic, I’m sure the talking purple koala clinging to my bottle of Shiraz will set you straight). (Fig. 1)
As a consumer, you are being constantly being asked to develop an increasingly fluent visual vocabulary that can recall design in an instant and simultaneously connect an image with a feeling in order to illicit a response. McDonalds’ golden arches, Nike’s swoosh, and Coca-Cola’s all-American-red bottle cap are prime cases where effective design tells a story and creates a graphic vernacular. Following suit, wine labels now are designed with the intention of conveying a detailed message about the feeling of the wine, its prestige, the intentions of its maker, and even quality. The Mihart Design agency, who has designed innovative labels for a number of wineries, has a distinct strategy when it comes to creating an effective label: “If the solution doesn’t inspire the consumer to pause and select the product from a sea of competition within three seconds, the artwork has failed.” Designers of wine labels have taken to heart the notion that style can indicate substance—leading to the lowly label’s newfound design attention.
This new wine design wave is characterized by bold colors, handmade typography, and so-called critter labels that lure oenophiles with cuddly companions. Designers who focused their attention on wine labels discovered the vast potential of their product and have adapted and innovated accordingly. In addition to color and type, designers are thinking outside the literal ‘box’ of the traditional label, resulting in a variety of shapes, sizes, and placement. In some cases, designers have eliminated the paper label entirely and opted to print their logo directly on the bottle. The J Wine Company has embraced this technique and presented their 20th anniversary Cuvee in a plain bottle with a yellow “J” printed on the bottle itself (Fig. 2). Other winemakers have opted to retain the traditional paper label, but have pushed that form to the extreme by injecting attitude and modernity into the time-tested formula. Bootleg Wine, whose self-proclaimed “sexy” label features a bold, graphic statement with a trump l’oeil zipper running the length of the black bottle, simulating a black leather boot (Fig. 3). However, the informational part of the label is a small, simple, and vibrant rectangle meant to resemble a fabric tag that might be found on clothing. On the other hand, Pazzo Wine chose to closely follow the conventions of wine bottle design but infuse it with subtle twists (Fig. 4). Pazzo’s label relies on the consumer’s assumptions about what a wine label should be, deriving its shock value out of defying those conventions. Simple and understated, Pazzo’s skewed angles and playful patterns offer a wink to tradition but are a clear movement toward a new design standard in the wine industry.
And these design epiphanies are paying off. According to the Nielsen Company, 18% of new mass-marketed wine brands featured a “critter” on the label, and they estimate that animal-centric wine label designs have generated sales of over $600 million. But sales receipts are not the only aspect of the wine industry that has been revolutionized by design. Critter labels and the new crop of humor-driven bottle designs represent a shift in the entire culture of wine toward a simplified, de-frilled, and deconstructionist point of view that values accessibility and enjoyment over pomp and tradition.
Wine that Loves is a new brand that exemplifies this shift toward simplified and accessible wine consumption. The whole concept behind the brand is that each varietal pairs with a specific food, resulting in Wine that Loves Pizza, Wine that Loves Roasted Chicken, and so on. This ultra-simplified concept of wine is echoed by its visual presentation. Each type of Wine that Loves comes in a black bottle with a solid color thought bubble-shaped label that reveals the type of food that particular wine is infatuated with (Fig. 5). Roasted Chicken gets a blue bubble with a chicken, while Pasta gets a red bubble with a forkful of pasta (you see the pattern). This oversimplification of both wine culture and design represents the extreme end of the spectrum, but is indicative of larger trends at work.
Danny Brager, vice president of ACNielsen’s Beverage Alcohol team notes that “while placing a critter on a label doesn’t guarantee success, it is important that wine makers realize that there is a segment of consumers who don’t want to have to take wine too seriously.” Brager goes on to point out that “sales generated by new brands featuring a critter outperform other new table wines by more than two to one.” This highlights two important trends in the wine industry. One is that the consumer culture of mass-marketed wine is becoming more egalitarian, and the second is that design is playing a direct role in deciding which brands succeed. The paradigm is evolving, and design is facilitating that shift through visual language.
Yellow Tail Brand, perhaps the progenitor of critter labels, is a prime example of how design is shaping how wine is consumed. Yellow Tail has enjoyed whirlwind success in recent years due to its wide appeal and vibrant yellow “critter label” that features simple typography and the image of a leaping kangaroo (Fig. 6). Yellow Tail’s whimsical and bold design has created a brand that is familiar, accessible, and trustworthy. In general, good branding and packaging design manages to convince us of how the product might taste or feel or sound before we have even experienced it. Whether you enjoy it or not, no one is surprised by a McDonalds meal. We know what to expect in advance due to branding, reputation, and past experience. Similarly, Yellow Tail has become a popular choice for consumers because its design makes it easy to find and recognize—not necessarily because it is of the highest quality. This notion that accessibility and familiarity through design can outweigh prestige and even taste is revolutionary for the wine industry. So while your bottle of Black Swan might not be peaking quite like 1966 Margaux, its sophisticated graphic presentation lends it credibility and appeal regardless of taste or pedigree.
Wine labeling is an arena where designers play a pivotal role that can be tracked and measured, as evidenced by the positive impact that design innovation has had within the consumer market. The graphic designer’s place within the world of wine has led to a fundamental change in the way that products are conceptualized, presented, and consumed. Labels of the past were purely functional, while today’s label designs are an opportunity to create an identity and build a brand. Whether a label is simple and chic, loud and flashy, or cute and cuddly, good design can create a persona for a wine that influences its consumption.