Artists Dress Wine Bottles in Cloaks of Creativity

One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but most wine makers hope consumers judge, at least partly, a bottle by its label. Deliberate attention is granted to details that create what goes into a bottle of wine—and what goes on it.

In the early days of its business, the owners of Parley Lake Winery would gather to pick out images for its label designs, created by a Minneapolis-based label designer. “They seem to have a knack for it,” says Deb Zeller, a Parley Lake Winery owner. Once a prototype is offered, the owners fall into easy agreement.  “Almost always, we all go, ‘That’s the one,’” she says.

Initially, Zeller says the focus of the labels was to consistently articulate the winery’s mission and brand, along with providing images of the winery.  In 2010, the business began producing an artisan series of blended, red wines and launched an annual label competition for it a year later.  Between 30 and 50 Minnesota artists compete for the honor. The preference for homegrown artists led to some complaints from across the pond.  “We wanted to stay true to Minnesota grapes and Minnesota artists,” says Zeller, an artist herself with a studio in Hopkins. One of the winery’s labels includes a photograph of her bronze sculpture of Bacchus (Roman god of wine) and Mother Earth.

“We always accept artwork,” Zeller says, noting the contest is always open, and the team picks a winning label once it’s ready to release another bottle in the series. In addition to the prize of pride, winning artists are treated to a complimentary visit to the winery with 20 of their friends and, naturally, a case of wine.

“I just love the artisan series because it has very good variety, and the talent level is high,” Zeller says. Many of its labels have received industry recognition, including from the Mid-America Wine Competition.

In general within the industry, designs for wine labels can run the gamut between classic and outrageous; include glitzy, gold trimming or classy, silver foil; and some are etched or painted directly onto the bottles, without a paper label to speak of. While most anything goes, the label still has a job to do—“Something has to say, ‘Consumer, pick me off the shelf,’” Zeller says. “Every single winery wants their bottles to stand out.”

Ben Banks, winemaker and graphic designer with Sovereign Estate, is charged with designing the winery’s labels. “My degree is in graphic arts and photography, and it is a skill not dissimilar to wine-making because both are the synthesis of art and science,” he says. Some of his work is inspired by the crest for the winery, which itself is inspired by “European heraldic and religious symbolism relating to our family, with references to our local geography, flora and fauna,” he says.

From his label design work, Banks has some favorites. “For labels I have designed myself, my favorite has been the Estate Reserve labels,” he says. “Their simplicity belies effort to make them, and I think really project the elegance and sophisticated quality I believe these wines have.”

Banks understands the labels send a message to consumers, and sometimes that can be problematic. “One of the biggest challenges I see for the Minnesota winery industry is that there is a lingering public perception of low-quality farm wines, nothing to be taken seriously,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. These are very good wines and deserve to be given consideration alongside all fine wines. So, the message I want our labels to send is quality by tying it to the traditions of wine-making that people are familiar with from Europe. That is why I drew a crest in the European style and display it prominently on all of our best wines, along with very direct and astute typography. It may be in a sense boring because it is so direct, and of course there is a trend for a lot of wines sold in stores to feature cute and whimsical labels (we even have a few in our own winery, the Domaine du Duke, for instance). But because I want the focus to be in the quality of the wines first, I keep the labels simple and dignified.”

Labels have style and function, and the importance of each element varies. “At a farm winery like ours, the importance differs from, say, a wine store,” Banks says. “At the farm winery, guests have the chance to do a wine sampling first, so the experience of tasting is the primary focus of the sale, much more than label design or even price. Also, at the farm winery, because only our wine is for sale, we are not trying to compete for the customers’ attention among competing wines.”

Once bottles hit the shelves at retailers, it’s a different ballgame. “At a liquor store, however, I would say label design is probably close to 40 percent of the decision making process, with 50 percent being the price and the other 10 percent on the wine varietal and region. Because most of our wine is sold out of our tasting room, I haven't designed labels with the intent to compete in a liquor store. Once our wholesale business increases, however, that would become a much more important part of my job.”

A chance meeting in 2013 with a customer, a local freelance graphic designer, proved fortuitous for the team at Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery. After the encounter, Crystal Barlow Jensen began designing Schram’s Bumbley wine labels.  “The relationship grew from there, as later that year we added the brewery, and we needed a new logo and label design,” Ashley Schram says. “Together, we have rebranded the winery and brewery from our original logo and designed over 25 beer and wine labels. It's been an amazing relationship that has grown into a friendship.”
 
Not every bottle carries the same message. Schram features a couple of different series of its labels. While some highlight a fun and relaxed vibe, others feature a more simplistic or classic design. “We don't want the wine and beer drinking experience to be intimidating, but we also want you to walk away with a sense of education and pride in Minnesota crafted wines and beers,” Schram says. “We love to be able to tell a story about what inspired the label as every name or image on there has a reason for why it was chosen. Bonfire, for example, was inspired by an event we started here the first year we even owned the land.  It's grown every year, but it is fun to have a label that is part of our story in how we got started.”

Other inspiration grows from the wine’s taste. “Our Blush and Blossom wine labels have been pretty popular both for the label and the blends that are in them, as they are really unique wines using Minnesota cold-hardy grapes,” Schram says. “Our designer collaborated with a local illustrator/watercolor artist Colleen Bringle to create the art for that label.”

“I really like the labels we are doing for our wine club,” Schram says. “Our wine club receives special access to our reserve wines that are not available for purchase to the general public, and the labels have a very clean and simplistic design.”

While tending to the message on the bottle is important, Schram is dedicated to the message in the bottle. “It's  important to have a label that stands out on shelf,” she says. “But our priority is on making a quality product inside the bottle that reflects high quality Minnesota wine and have the label reflect this is a serious wine that is making an impact on the local wine scene.”  

LABEL LAWS

It’s not all fun and games in the world of wine labels, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). This department considers labels to be “an important source of information for consumers.”

Some, but certainly not all, of the regulations include allowing certain changes to a label without obtaining a Certificate of Label Approval (COLA). Only grape varieties that are approved by the TTB may be listed on a label, and there are guidelines for listing a wine as organic. There is a separate brochure for listing all the information that must be included on a label.

“TTB periodically reviews labeling and advertising claims by taking samples of alcohol beverage products for validation purposes,” the website states. “For many alcohol beverage products, TTB requires a product evaluation to determine whether a proposed label identifies the product in an adequate and non-misleading way.”