The Art of Wine (Labels)

Wine muggles joke about it all the time: “I picked it because I liked the label!” And you know what? Good on them, sez me. But maybe that’s just because I’ve had the pleasure of meeting winemakers who put a lot of thought into their labels. The result? Images and lettering that convey the spirit of who the winemaker is. And what is in the bottle. Another reason to love labels? Much as we’d like to separate all our senses, our clever brains absorb all sensory information and put it together to create an experience. The human brain is a crazily complicated information processor that uses every clue it can to create our reality. So yes, looks can literally can change our brains perception of flavor. Don’t put eyesight in the corner. The first time I became fond of both the label and the wine inside was when my bestie, who didn’t like wine, bought some Ravenswood because he liked the goth-y label. And to possibly both our surprise, it was the first wine he liked. Did the label make him decide to like what was inside? Does it matter? He liked the wine, and to me, the label on Ravenswood DID really rep what was inside. Dark fruited and somehow moody, but accessible. Full disclosure, I decided to write this article after a winery rep wrote me about the late sommelier/artist Valentino Monticello, who used wine labels as his medium. He had a close relationship with Tuscan producer Il Molino de Grace —to the point Monticello was asked to name a wine for the family—and thus the Gratius (for gratitude) bottling, which sports Monticello’s art, was born. I got a chance to taste the 20th vintage of Gratius. The art on the label is Monticello’s “Bouquet of Grace”. The line is blurred for me on whether it’s the producer’s homage to the artist, or the artist’s homage to wine. Most importantly, how would Gratius taste? Would it represent the winery’s stated mission to represent the variety of Sangiovese and terroir of Tuscany? Results at the end. In the meantime, all this got my noggin’ cognizing, and I began to think of all the wines whose labels AND wines I loved—the ones where I save the bottle because it and its contents were dear to me. I got in touch with the winemakers/owners of three of my favorites to learn more. TOP WINERY The name “TOP” came from the child’s toy. But wine is serious business. But (so many buts in this complex industry) wine should be for pleasure and fun. You know what it takes to get all of that in one life/bottle of wine? Balance. Which is precisely what wife and husband team Elena Martinez and Stanley Barrios (she oversees sales, he makes the wine) were seeking when they decided to leave their former work behind to make a wine they believed in. Wine for fun. Wine that is serious. Wine that is balanced…these are all things I find in and outside the bottle (and also in Stanley and Elena; they are wonderful people). How to get a label to convey all that? I spoke to Elena who told me how they liked the juxtaposition of an old-fashioned plaything with wine, a more serious beverage, being made NOW—a modern yet old-fashioned proposition. The labels are strikingly simple in color scheme, just silver and black (albeit rumor has it there is a rosé coming that will diverge), but each features an ornate spinning top. At once elaborate and simple. Umm did we mention balance? Beyond that, something that strikes me about the bottles (and wine within) is attention to detail in a simplified way. The wines are meticulously made, they feel luxurious. Meanwhile, the labels convey the same feeling; they are embossed, the silver finishing feels rich, the tops illustrated are somewhat ornate, and yet, the minimalist black and silver color scheme and the lettering is tasteful AF. The tops look antique and somehow the labels skew modern. I think it is actually the simplicity in color scheme coupled with complexity of texture and design that makes me compare the wine to a hug from an old friend. This all matches with Stanley and Elena, who remind me of the both their wine and the labels. They are both soft spoken but what they say packs a punch. Balanced people, balanced label, balanced wine? There’s a reason I love them. WARR-KING WINES Lisa Warr-King Packer found her label designer, Sara Nelson, two years before she even began making her own wine. Talk about vision. Interestingly, the designer was concerned with both image and verbiage—Warr-King is Lisa’s maiden name, which she self-describes as being “beastly”, whereas her wines are (I can contest to this) graceful. Although I’d venture to say they have a certain power to them—there’s a force, but it never is a pummel, more a gentle push. Once Nelson was sold on the name, the art came in, and Lisa actually cried, as “they were perfect, and she knew who and what I was trying to convey in the label.” The labels feature a striking poppy. Poppies signify, amongst other things (dreams imagination, luxury, and regeneration) remembrance, a tradition born from a John McCrae poem about Flanders field, the site in Belgium where many soldiers died in World War I. For Lisa, poppies were heritage. Her father was from the UK, and Lisa’s grandfather, uncles, aunts and female cousins had served. In addition to the poppy significance, for the color scheme, Lisa picked red and purple to “convey emotions and feelings of warmth and feeling welcome.” So, do these gorgeous labels represent the wine inside? I wholeheartedly say yes. Lisa’s wines have depth and complexity (family, heritage) but aren’t ostentatious or hard to understand—which is not to say they aren’t complex, more like they are inviting. I’ve felt the same way when I’ve spoken to Lisa. She respects wine and moreover, the world. She tells me that this year they are evolving the labels, they’re bolder and bigger, representing her growth as a winemaker. I can’t wait to see what comes next. THOMAS T. THOMAS VINEYARDS So, what happens when the winemaker is also an artist? I tasked Thomas T. Thomas with this question. It’s intriguing, he has a few skews, from the base level (price-wise) to the top reserve wine, and there is a “T” on all the labels, but it gets increasingly smaller as the tier grows. Thomas told me a fair amount of this scheme was happenstance; however, after examining the story, I think it says scads about the type of artist he is and what he creates. As for the iconic T on the label? He’d been drawing with magic markers and didn’t even mean it to be a T, when his son pointed out it would be a cool logo. And then, when a larger than expected harvest brought extra barrels, he conceived adding an entry level wine to the skew. He’d been wanting the other art, besides the T, to be the label focus, but as he added skews, he adjusted the size of the T, differentiating them. To quote him, “none of this was pre-planned or thought out…it just made sense at the time.” That explains the T’s. As for the paintings…there is more. Initially he wanted to go the Mouton route, showcasing different artists. However, he eventually gave into using his own work. Which I think is good. He wanted the art to “represent the style of wines I like to make…wines of balance, reserved in expression, complexity, and wines that leaned more classical…understated”. At the end of it all he stated that “it looks like I had a deep contemplation session, but not really. After it was all put together, I then sat down to determine how to put a philosophy around it”. Rather than dismissing ideas not his own, Thomas paid attention. He made art. He listened. He corralled it into a synergistic collaboration of wine and graphics. Honestly, I think that is what the best winemakers do. They recognize they have limited control over what the vines do, especially vintage to vintage, and work with it. To make it the best. Which is what Thomas does, and it shows in his wines…they are exquisite. AND NOW, ONTO IL MOLINO DI GRACE “GRATIUS” The work on this label is called “Bouquet of Grace”. It is a drawing, with a curvy vase filed with three different types of flowers. At first that’s all I noticed, but on closer inspection, I noted that at the center of the larger white flowers was the name of the winery, and the smaller pink ones said “Chianti” and “Classico”, and the smallest flowers say nothing at all. There is a repeating Grecian style motif in the background of people carrying grapes. And underneath, it is says once again the name of the winery. So, what did I expect? A lot of layers, and a sense of playfulness? I’m pleased to say the wine holds up to that. It opens floral on the nose. On the tongue, there is balsamic marinated fruit that is not quite dried. And there’s a bit of an herbal kick and quite a tangy finish. Lots happening. The tannins are chill though. They are there and even a hint drying if I think about them. A wine to put under a microscope or not, you make the call. Either way, it was wonderful wine. The label made me appreciate the vino and vice versa. IN CONCLUSION Yeah, I stand behind paying attention to labels. Granted, this won’t always hold up in mass operations where there’s a game of telephone between the winemaker and the label. I’ll confess there are brands whose bottles are super cool, but what’s inside lacks. But where visual art and winemakers collide there’s something to be…said? Seen? Tasted? All of the above methinks. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: A Grand Crew Indeed Resolutionary Wine Lit Wine Perfect Pie Pairings Samhain Sips You can also listen to Ellen's podcast , The Wine Situation here . Check out her recent transcripts of the Final Five questions: Wine Situation Final Five! With John Taylor Wine Situation Final Five! With Anush O’Connor

Thomas T Thomas Vineyards

Estate Grown Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2018

This is the middle tier in Thomas’ line-up and I fell hard for the lavender cola vibe. Took it to dinner. It is poised well on its own but versatile on the dinner table. — a year ago

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Axis Grenache Blanc 2017

I think I can say this is the best Grenache Blanc I’ve had. This has more depth and more complexity than any others I’ve had. Great work @Stanley Barrios — 2 years ago

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Warr-King

Wahluke Slope Merlot 2015

Bright ripe lemon, grapefruit and kumquat on the nose with a smidge of gas. More of that on the tongue with that delightful sharp acid that lingers. Plus some juicy peach. Imagine you are biting into a peach that has been doused in lemon juice and someone throws damp gravel in your face. Except in this fantasy imagine that damp gravel is your jam and totally doesn’t hurt. I dig thus winemaker in Woodinville! — 4 years ago

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Ellen Clifford

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@Trixie thanks so much! Cheers!
Ellen Clifford

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@Paul Treadway Huntington Beacher not yet but that sounds likely...
Paul T- Huntington Beach

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Just emailed you the commercial

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Tenacity Stillwater Creek and Rosebud Vineyard Mourvedre Syrah 2017

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Inertia GSM Blend 2016

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Serge S

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Poise Top Roussanne 2017

Viscous and pure. Stones, wet concrete and carnations for days. Excellent wine and a producer you should seek out. — 3 years ago

Mike RDavid LCarl Fischer
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David L

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My kind of wine. I’ve got a six pack arriving at my house next week. 
9.4
David L

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@Shawn R My apologies… This won’t be released for sometime. 
Mike R

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Thanks @Stanley Barrios - made me smile so good
9.3