Wine Labels and their Discontents

They say that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do exactly that all the time. You probably shouldn’t judge a wine by its label, either, but in fact labels can be quite powerful by making a favorable first impression and then, once that initial sale has been made, establishing a memorable identity.

Take a few minutes to examine the range of labels the next time you are at your favorite wine retailer. Note the ones that stand out and make a positive impact and those that seem to blend into the background.

My favorite is the label for Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley. John Williams was working at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars  when he and Larry Turley started making wine in a facility that once served as a frog farm supplying San Francisco restaurants. Frog’s Leap, which sort of combines Stag’s Leap and Frog Farm, was an unlikely name for a winery, but Chuck House’s famous label design makes an indelible impression, don’t  you think? And the elegance the label suggests reflects the elegance of the wine — a perfect match. A great wine label even if you don’t know the back story.

Brussels Rules the Back Label

A lot of time and money is spent getting the front label just right (imagine how many focus groups were consulted for the 19 Crimes label and associated marketing material!), but these days the real action in around back. Starting January 1 of this year the European Union is implementing regulations to require wine labels to display some basic nutritional information and allergy alert disclosures, plus a QR code linked to full nutritional and ingredient information. Consumers who want to know what’s in the bottle will have access to that information via their smart phones.

The wine industry has long resisted pressure to provide more information about what’s in the bottle. Here in the U.S., most of the information that wine producers are required to list on their labels is actually quite negative — alcoholic content, for example, a sulfite disclosure (a negative because most people don’t understand sulfites and therefore assume that it must be problematic), and a required government health warning.

This is not much information for the legions of consumers who study the nutritional labels of other kinds of products that they purchase. A skeptical person might assume that, if the things wineries do list are negative, the things they don’t list must be event worse. W. Blake Gray has recently argued that U.S. wineries should embrace more detailed product labeling if only because the real story about nutrition and ingredients is more positive than many consumers suppose. I think Blake is probably right.

For Better (or for Worse)?

One of the wine market niches that has been growing recently is the “better for you” category that pitches its wine as being healthier than other wine products because of what it doesn’t have — sulfites, sugar, higher alcohol levels, and so forth. Buyers must imagine that other wines are packed with chemicals and as sweet as Coca Cola, and perhaps some of them are.

Sue and I found ourselves testing wines from a Prosecco producer a few months ago and were struck by the careful positioning of two of their products. One was their standard Brut Prosecco, the other a special Zero Sugar wine clearly aimed at the “better for you” market. They were nice wines, to be sure, but you can probably guess what we found when we tracked down technical sheets. The residual sugar in the two wines was essentially the same — zero — as you would expect from wines fermented to complete dryness.

Clearly the wines were aimed at different consumer groups. But does the “better for you” brand make consumers think the rest are “worse for you?” Is there a better way to shape perceptions of mainstream wine?

Too Much Information

What would happen if a winery put complete product and nutritional information on the back label? Would consumers take one look at the calories and additives and run screaming to the beer aisle? Or would they take in the information (or not — the way they do with other types of products) and still make a purchase? Like Blake Gray, I think the information might be a plus, but at the very least it wouldn’t be much of the negative.

Why do I think this? Not because I have some special insight into consumer minds. It’s just that I have seen what has happened with Stella Rosa.

Stella Rosa is one of the fastest growing wine brands in the United States. The wines, imported from Italy, are sweetish low-alcohol products (like some of the traditional Moscato D’Asti). The alcohol is so low — as in the wine label shown here — that labeling must follow both TTB rules (sulfites, government warning, etc) and FDA rules (ingredients, nutritional info panel, etc).

This makes for a fact-filled back label, as you can see, especially when the producer also provides descriptive text (in both English and Italian), a sweetness scale (so that buyers looking for sweeter wines know what they are getting), and even a gluten-free tag. I don’t how many buyers read the label closely, but the information is there if you are interested.

Significantly, the story Stella’s back label tells is not a shocking one. The calorie and carb counts, for example, are less than for a serving of orange juice — a fact that the cautious buyer who studies this label is likely to appreciate. Sulphur dioxide is included in the list of ingredients, but labeled as an antioxidant. That takes a potential negative and gives it a positive spin.

Machiavelli’s Rule

Maybe the Stella Rosa label is a case of too much information, but it is where the regulatory road is taking wine, so you might want to give it some thought. American wine producers tend to resist calls to add information to labels, but maybe some advice from Machiavelli applies: it is better to do willingly what you will otherwise be compelled to do. And taking the initiative allows the opportunity to shape the result.

Yes, I know it is hard to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fit it, the old saying goes. But, looking at wine sales trends, maybe the way we communicate wine is broke! More on this topic in next week’s Wine Economist newsletter.


Speaking of bad wine labels … apparently Decanter magazine used to give awards for the worst wine labels and an Oregon winery had the distinction of winning the prize twice! Here is one of the winners (or losers, depending on your point of view), a Cabernet Sauvignon called “Chateau Mootom.” Mouton. Cows. Moo. Get it? Neither do I, but it made me smile.

5 responses

  1. I want the ABV number printed in larger and easy to read manner. That is the only change. Alcohol is by far, by very very far, the most risky ingredient/component. All the talk aboout enzymes and fining and SO2 is ignoring the main course. I buy, drink, and recommend mostly in the 14 and under bracket. 14.5% is OK for some, like Zins. But I like to be awake at the end of the bottle, not half asleep.

  2. When I was a retail vintner, I was particularly sensitive to front labels and what might most attract the eyes of consumers scanning my shelves. The worst was a Jackson Pollack like modern art label from a just launched Napa winery. The best – I thought – was an embossed label that when you looked at it invited one to touch it just to feel the raised embossment. I reasoned: If a label could get you to touch it, how close must the next step be to buy it? Wrong! The embossed label winery very soon thereafter went out of business. Overall, my “All Time Wine World Winner” was 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild whose exquisite ram’s head label was designed by the brilliant art deco poster artist Jean Carlu. I once sold an Imperial of it for $10,000.

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