Judging a wine by its label

Michael Shaps and Philip Staffords’ Virginia Wineworks label got an overhaul courtesy of Watermark Design after its original rendition didn’t resonate with buyers. Michael Shaps and Philip Staffords’ Virginia Wineworks label got an overhaul courtesy of Watermark Design after its original rendition didn’t resonate with buyers.

Looks are everything. Wait, what? No matter what your mom tells you, looks do matter—especially in a crowded marketplace. When it comes to wine, unless we’ve had a bottle before, we base our buying decision on its label. And thank goodness there are producers who make downright ridiculous labels. How else would we know which ones to avoid? I’m certain there are exceptions, but I often find that the “punnier” the name or the fluffier the animal, the crappier the wine. In this age of wine-drinking millennials with visual ADD, how do wineries make sure to get their labels right?

Darcey Ohlin-Lacy, owner of Watermark Design, a local graphic and web design agency that counts eight Virginia wineries as clients, thinks packaging is the most important marketing tool a producer has. “Having and presenting a strong brand is the best way to stand out in a saturated market,” said Ohlin-Lacy, who landed her first winery client, Afton Mountain Vineyards, in 2009 when the Smith family bought the 30-year-old vineyard from another family. The Smiths knew they had to come up with a new label that would stand out, as well as reflect the vineyard’s new ownership and personality.

“There’s a joke in the industry about not telling the winemakers that for many customers it’s more important what’s on the outside of the bottle than the inside,” said Hunter Smith, Afton Mountain Vineyards’ marketing manager. He and his parents collaborated with Watermark on a label that combines bold colors with a silhouetted outline of Afton Mountain and the vineyard’s initials, AMV. The entire design process, which also included their new slogan (“Grapes don’t grow in ugly places”) and website, took six months and won them an Overall Excellence in Marketing award from the Central Virginia Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Gimmicks abound on the crowded wine shelves, all in hopes of making that big first impression. Besides puns (Cardinal Zin, Marilyn Merlot, K Syrah) and animals (a recent study revealed that 18 percent of wine labels use critters for appeal), there are dirty names (Horse’s Ass, Frog’s Piss, Bitch, etc.) and downright smutty ones (Cleavage Creek, Big Ass Red, and G Spot). Some slap on a family crest or a stately chateau to woo traditionalists—even if the winery was just established in 2010. There are labels with braille, peel off labels that allow you to keep a record of what you’ve just consumed, and labels that double as original artwork. You can get party-specific bottles (like the eye-rolling “This party better be worth the gas it took to get here”), and why not give a bottle of Liquid Panty Remover to your next date? “Wine buyers around here are very educated, so producers need to focus on being different without going so far that they lose respect,” said Ohlin-Lacy.

So, how does one develop a label that turns heads without turning us off? “We try to match the personality of the winery and strive to tell the story of each. In Virginia, that’s easy because every winery is so different,” she said. For Ankida Ridge Vineyard, a family-run, micro-boutique vineyard in Amherst, Watermark Design incorporated four stars on its label (to represent the owner’s four children) as well as a sheep (herds of them live on the property fertilizing the soil). The result is an elegant label that matches the high-quality wine and is a crowning exception to my stigma against labels with fluffy animals.

When Michael Shaps and Philip Stafford first started bottling under their Virginia Wineworks label about five years ago, their bottles featured a pop arty rendition of two men—one bearded and one moustached and wearing overalls—and women, who statistically buy the majority of wine in our country, weren’t drawn to it. They hired Watermark to rebrand the packaging. It’s still colorful and eye-catching, yet more gender-neutral.

And what about the cost of hiring design professionals to help you make that important first impression? “It’s something many wineries overlook, relative to the expenses they encounter in the cellar. But for the price of a few new barrels and some real thinking-cap time, we created an award-winning marketing campaign,” said Smith. Now that Virginia’s the fifth largest wine producer in the nation and receiving tons of media attention, that’s nothing to shake a stick at. “Our wineries are now competing on the same level as California, so we have to appear on the same level too,” said Ohlin-Lacy.

Commemorate this
Twenty-three Virginia wineries, including Monticello AVA’s Keswick Vineyards and Democracy Vineyards, are creating special Civil War 150th Anniversary wine labels for the wine-drinking history buffs out there. A pocket-sized passport with winery and Civil War battlefield information will serve as your guide as you aim to get a stamp on each page.

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