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State of the Packaging Art:
Educational Wine Labels Help Consumers Make Smart Choices

by Sharon Kapnick

Winemakers have just a few square inches of real estate on the bottle from which to make the sale. They’ve tried many different ways to close the deal. For years, whimsical critter labels with cute animals meant to grab attention and win hearts were all the rage, but the craze is waning. Voluptuous movie stars and other sexy entertainers appear on bottles to lure the celebrity-obsessed among us.

Lately labels that educate, inform and communicate with shoppers are being used in novel and intelligent ways by an increasing number of producers. This movement is expected to grow, as consumers are eager to learn more and as winemakers realize the potential of labels that teach.

Most notable perhaps are the new taste designations that first appeared on Rieslings in 2009. More than a million cases of Riesling sold in the US this year will feature a "Riesling Taste Profile,” which indicates whether the wine is Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet or Sweet (see This is especially helpful because Rieslings are especially versatile. The wines range from bone dry to very sweet, which is both a strength and a disadvantage. The new labeling smartly eliminates the disadvantage. The profile makes Riesling more consumer friendly and prevents food-and-wine-matching disasters.

Some labels communicate specific information about the contents of a particular wine. South African punster Charles Back has for years used clever names for his popular Goats Do Roam wines: Bored Doe, Goat Door, Goat-Roti (takeoffs on the French Côtes du Rhone, Bordeaux, Côte d’Or and Côte-Rôtie). In 2009, Back decided that entertaining was not enough. He also wanted to educate. He knew that consumers were curious about the varietals in his blends, and he now uses the back label to specify the exact percentage of all varietals in his wines. He also wanted to convey why these particular varietals were chosen, so he provides each one’s specific contribution to the mix. For example, Goats Do Roam Red 2009's label reads: 61% Syrah for structure, 14% Cinsault for softness, 13% Mourvèdre for spice, 8% Grenache for fruit, 4% Carignan for freshness.

Like Back, Randall Grahm, president for life of California’s Bonny Doon Vineyard, has long recognized the value of a clever label. But he’s gone serious too. Since early 2008, Grahm has been listing all ingredients on the back labels of his Bonny Doon wines. Included are wine components (for example, biodynamic grapes and the preservative sulfur dioxide) as well as products used in winemaking (such as indigenous yeast, organic yeast nutrient and bentonite). Grahm hopes to bring greater transparency to the industry and to nudge winemakers to be more natural.

Other labels communicate via pictures as well as words. Pacific Rim, Grahm’s new venture in Washington, specializes in Rieslings ( A couple of them feature labels that offer subtle visual food-matching advice. A Chinese dragon breathing fire onto an iron cauldron on the Sweet Riesling, for example, is meant to illustrate that it complements fiery fare well.

Some front labels are much more obvious, featuring the food the wine pairs with best. The Fish Label of Selbach’s Rieslings, a second label of Germany’s Selbach-Oster family, is a blatant association that links the wine with piscine meals.

The dessert wines from Languedoc-Rousillon’s Château de Jau take this concept a step further, with color associations. The labels sport a fruit on the front. The back labels say, “We suggest pairing a food, flavor or spice [that’s] a similar color to the wine. Here are some suggestions.” The lemon on the Muscat de Rivesaltes goes best with yellow desserts like lemon, creams, ice creams and pineapple. (It also has an affinity with foie gras, Roquefort cheese, peach desserts, exotic fruits and mint.) The apricot on the Grand Roussillon color-associates apricot, orange, caramel and cinnamon-flavored desserts. (Foie gras, goat cheese and coffee desserts are also recommended.)

Most impressive of all is the label that speaks eight languages — English, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese and Russian! It was introduced in the US in October 2009 by Allegrini, a prominent producer in the Veneto. The Ecocoder technology, available in select markets, combines a hand-held scanner that releases information stored in a special layer of ink with a speaker that plays an audiofile stored in its memory card.

The loquacious label first appeared on the 2006 Palazzo della Torre, the company’s most widely distributed wine. It shares information about the wine’s history, origin, production and flavors and suggests appropriate food pairings. With this technology, Allegrini hopes not only to educate consumers but also to establish a relationship with them. It had me at hello.

©2010 Sharon Kapnick for



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