Making Wine Labels Pop

courtesy Kenwood Vineyards
courtesy Kenwood Vineyards

A wine bottle’s label should tell you everything you need to know about the wine inside it. Among the prerequisites are place of origin, variety of the wine, and the year the grapes were picked. But these days, the design of the label has taken precedent over the information it provides. Since the label is the first thing that catches the eye, looks are everything for the consumer, and smart winemakers are spending more and more time trying to get the consumer to look their way. There are even (sometimes dubious) online guides that tell you how to pick (and not pick) a wine by the label alone.

The winemakers should not be blamed, though, for using marketing to try to get attention in an increasingly more crowded market. Besides, it has been shown over and over again that consumers really do prefer to buy wines by the design of the label. That is why there is so much effort to make that label special.

One of the first wineries to recognize how important it can be for the quality of a wine to be reflected in the quality of its label was Sonoma’s Kenwood Vineyards. Since 1978, they have released their reserve cabernet sauvignon as the Artist Series with a label created by a different artist each year. When they began their designs, not only was it not the norm to give so much creative attention to the label, but it quickly showed that it could be controversial. Case in point, their very first label for the Artist Series was banned by the U.S. government!

courtesy Marty Lee
courtesy Marty Lee

Kenwood Vineyards was founded in 1970 by John Sheela and his brothers-in-law, Mike and Marty Lee in Sonoma Valley on the former site of Pagani Brothers Winery. At the time, the options available for California wineries were starkly different than they are today. To survive financially as a winery, one had to do one of two things: make jug wine – a then very popular and profitable, albeit low quality Sonoma product, sold cheap to local tables - and make money on bulk sales, or take a great chance and try to create fine wine in a market known more for quantity than quality. Then, even if one could produce quality wine at that time and in that place, there was still the problem of the consumer finding out about it and buying it.

"Last week in Paris, at a formal wine tasting…the unthinkable happened: California defeated all Gaul." George M. Tabor, Time June 7th, 1976

That last problem was solved in dramatic fashion in 1976 at “The Judgment of Paris”, an event which pitted some of the top French wines against those of upstart California wineries. Not only did the event - admittedly designed as a publicity stunt by Steve Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris – shine a spotlight on California for its world-class fine wine by daring to compare it to some of the biggest names the French wine world had to offer, but it also unexpectedly beat them head-to-head in a blind tasting on their own turf. The victory was significant not only for the two America winners: Stag’s Leap for red and Chateau Montelena for white, but for California wine in general it was a clarion call to American consumers who had long assumed domestic wines were inferior to imported wines.

That most unlikely victory almost immediately increased demand, production and consumption of California wines across the states. Kenwood Vineyards founder Marty Lee fondly remembers, “That California win at Paris was a big deal for us. We we're all high-fiving one another and realized this win showed that we in California could match and often excel in the making of fine wines.” The effect was lasting. He said, “Finer restaurants paid attention and an acceleration in our sales continued and remains even to this day.”

With the global acknowledgement that exceptional wine was coming out of California and domestic industry rapidly growing, wineries were popping up all over Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Although the interest of the consumer was suddenly captured, the partners at Kenwood Vineyards understood just making world-class wines might not be enough to sell them; they still needed to stand out on a shelf that suddenly was getting crowded with American wine too. That’s where the idea for label design came in.

Marty said, “I felt that most California wine labels in the 70s were too staid and boring (including my own). When a customer sees wines for sale on a wine shop shelf she/he can't tell what’s really in the bottle. One can’t even smell it as a cork is in the way and there is no sensory perception.”

Marty desperately wanted the quality of the label to imply the quality of the wine they were making. He found his inspiration in one of the most revered of French wines, the famed Château Mouton-Rothschild, who, since the 1940s, had commissioned a different artist each year to create artwork for their labels, including Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró among many other masters.

In 1978, when Kenwood was ready to sell their 1975 reserve cabernet sauvignon, they thought it was special enough to deserve a special label. They reached out to local artist David Lance Goines to ask him to design it.

Goines created a label that would go down in history as one of the most significant in American wine. The label was a simple pencil drawing of a nude, almost cartoon character of woman, lying in a vineyard. It was full of finesse yet fun, artistic yet illustrative, and by most accounts, tame. It was a really nice fit for the commissioned work. But, it was refused by the government.

The piece, "Reclining Nude in Vineyard," was deemed "obscene and indecent" by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the federal government regulatory agency that approved wine labeling then (now the known as the TTB). Under 27 CFR 4.39 in the Code of Federal Regulations, they have the right to refuse “any statement, design, device or representation which is obscene or indecent.”

Goines said of the ATF, “Despite their name, they do not exist to promote these things, but rather to protect us from all three, preferably by eliminating them altogether. This design was originally done for Kenwood Winery as a wine label, but the ATF ruled that (and I quote) ‘the drawing of the young lady must be deleted. More specifically, the Bureau regards the picture as obscene or indecent.'"

Not to be deterred, Goines established that the nude skin itself was the offensive element, so he sought to rid the ATF of that barrier by stripping the nude body even barer and submitting a label which depicted a skeleton reclining in the same vineyard. What could be the harm? It was dripping with sarcasm, of course. After all, what was a more nude form than a skeleton? But there was nothing anyone could describe as lurid about it. Lo and behold, that version too was rejected because the ATF was afraid that it might promote fetal alcohol syndrome.

Needing to get their bottles out in a hurry, Kenwood released the 1975 vintage labeled with a staid pastoral scene entitled “Stream and Hillside”, still designed by Goines, but not nearly as attention-getting as they imagined it would be. However, the desired effect was the same. The hullabaloo caused by the legal fight and the press coverage thereof led to a greater boon in sales than the nude label could have ever created. Sex sells, for sure, but censored sex is an even greater advertising tool.

Perhaps emboldened by their marketing victory (despite their legal defeat), for the next label Marty turned to an artist who was infamous as possibly America’s leading expert on censorship and filth, the author Henry Miller.

Henry Miller's "The Clown", courtesy Kenwood Vineyards
Henry Miller's "The Clown", courtesy Kenwood Vineyards

When Marty reached out to Miller in November 1978, Miller was nearly 87 years old and living out his final years in Pacific Palisades, California. Best known for his semi-autobiographical writing, Miller was an avid painter with more than 2,000 water colors produced in his lifetime. But by the end of 1978, he had limited sight in only one eye and was no longer able to paint.

Marty had recently been to a gallery show in Big Sur which featured Miller’s paintings and was taken aback by a water color work simply called “The Clown”. He wrote Miller asking him to either create an original label for his Artist Series, or trade the rights to his famous Clown painting for cases of wine, some to be delivered immediately and the balance to be delivered in 1981 or 1982 when Miller’s wine was bottled and for sale.

Marty said, “I chose The Clown because it represented Miller’s easy going and playful feelings about life and the warm feelings conveyed in this artwork.” Passion aside, he was still a practical business man and ever aware of the marketing angle. He said, “Also, its dimensions and warm color were suitable for the label of a bottle.”

As a young writer in Brooklyn, Miller was no stranger to horse trading his talents for vittles. So, he wrote to Marty that he found the offer equitable and even mentioned his fondness for local cabernets citing Mondavi’s cabernet sauvignon as one of his favorites. He offered the rights to the Clown painting for use on the bottle in exchange for 9 cases of wine up front and 5 cases of the vintage with the Clown label when it was available.

All to presciently though, Miller asked Marty to forward the balance of the wine to his children should he not live to see its release. He died a year after his last letter to Marty on June 7, 1980. Kenwood kept up their end of the bargain and forwarded the remainder of the wine owed Miller to his children. His son, Tony Miller recently remembered receiving the “Clown label” wine and said that he “even ordered more, using it as gifts for friends.”

Following the ironic success of the Goines label and the chance to next work with one of his heroes in Henry Miller, it was clear to Marty that Artist Series labels were something significant that should last. He continued to hunt down meaningful artwork to grace the label of the Artist Series from local artists and legendary masters alike. Over the years, labels have even featured some of the same artists that Ch. Mouton-Rothschild used like Picasso and Miró. And there was a label by an old friend of Henry Miller, Paul Kleé.

“Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song.”Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

2012 Artist Series, courtesy Kenwood Vineyards
2012 Artist Series, courtesy Kenwood Vineyards

Under the label is a real work of art. The wine from the Artist Series is a barrel select reserve blend or what Kenwood’s longtime winemaker Pat Henderson calls “the best of the best” from Sonoma vineyards, created from cabernet sauvignon and accented with “Bordeaux blenders” such as merlot, petit verdot and malbec. They are not as thick and meaty as some of their cab cousins from Napa, but rather very smooth without sacrificing complexity. Henderson notes that the presence of the malbec “adds brightness and takes away some of the astringency of the cabernet sauvignon without thinning out the tannins.” The result is a very bold yet clean wine, slightly woody with a pleasant spice undertone which highlights plum and cherry flavors.

Just as their Artist Series label has continued a tradition which is fast approaching 40 years, Henderson is proudly sourcing fruit from the same families they bought from 40 years ago, or as he puts it, “We’re buying grapes from the kids of people who sold grapes to the founders.”