Confessions of a wine-phobe: I choose wine based on what the label looks like

Wine bottles without labels, for the moment, in Cahors, France.

‘Fess up.

At some point in your life, you’ve bought a bottle of wine based on what the label looks like.

I say good for you. It means you’ve tuned into the whole aesthetic experience of wine, and let’s face it, a good-looking exterior – be it a bottle of wine, a car, a jacket, a certain someone – can be awfully persuasive.

Choosing a bottle based on the look of its label, however, also means that you’re participating in a well-considered marketing tactic that’s designed to appeal to our weakness for all that is visually good-looking.

A few times a year, a hefty publication called Communication Arts lands in my mailbox and each time I read it, I am impressed both by the artistry of communications professionals and by their strategy. In my experience with this periodical, wine labels are called out as choice examples of a category called Packaging.

Other examples of Packaging highlights range from candles to bottled green tea, and some of them, when seen in the context of design from a technical and functional perspective, easily could land in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

But it is the wine labels that I notice and consider most.

A brand called Meteor, for example, contracted a design firm in Richmond, VA, to design a label that “created the feeling of looking up into the night sky, searching for meteors,” a representative of the firm said. “We had never seen a 360-degree visual on a wine bottle, so that helped shape the design.” (From the November 2008 issue.)

Wine labels are prime real estate, and some wineries choose to use that space to highlight certain aspects or motivations of their brand. Vista Hills Winery, for example, wanted to promote “drinking for the common good. It’s an honest approach,” a representative of their design firm said, “and one consumers could get behind, so we put [their] mission to donate 10% of their wine profits to working college students front and center” on the label. (From the November 2008 issue.)

You might think that a winery who puts that much thought and effort into the outside of their bottle isn’t putting quite as much into what’s inside. That isn’t necessarily true, of course: witness first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild, whose labels have been designed by different artists – including Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí – every year since 1945.

Savvy? Sure.

Distracting? Maybe.

But paying attention to consumers’ attention to how a bottle looks is a realistic assessment that is – or perhaps should be – part of every wine brand’s business plan.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.