John JuergensWhat's in a name?

At last count there were a little over 100,000 different wines available worldwide. To put that in perspective, a large wine store might carry 2,500 to 3,000 different wines, but most carry less than a thousand. With all this competition, how does a wine find its way to the store shelf and get noticed in the crowd?

Certainly, not all 100,000 plus wines are available in every market. In California, for instance, there are over 800 wineries, but only a small fraction of them actually ship their products out of the state. And national advertising is an option only for the largest wineries and those that are members of large corporate conglomerates. Therefore, most wineries are left with the traditional methods of marketing that include knocking on doors, knocking on people, giving away samples as promotional wine tastings, and getting noticed by the major wine publications.

The best thing that can happen to a wine is to win a couple of medals, preferably gold, at some prestigious wine competition. But, for the vast majority of wines -- as with any other consumer product -- you have to have an attractive package to get noticed. Unlike many other products, however, wineries have the advantage of being able to apply almost unlimited creativity in their package and labeling design.

The label, then, can play a huge role in the success or failure of a wine, regardless of its quality. Go into any wine shop and scan the racks and you will see everything from the minimalist approach to the outrageously flamboyant in label design. This is far more the case in the U.S. than in Europe and most of the other New World wine producing countries. We Americans seem to respond very well to the flash and glitz in most any advertising effort.

A big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that most Europeans have a long and intimate history with wine. They buy wines based on the region of origin and the producer, not so much the grape variety. In the U.S., most of us know a lot of wine comes from California and Europe, but beyond that we have very little sense of place in our wines. Instead, we buy on grape variety such as Chardonnay and Merlot. And while European wine labels traditionally provide a lot of information about where the grapes came from and who made the wine, American wineries tend to focus on the name of the grapes in the wine.

From my experience in teaching wine classes and conducting wine tastings, I know that a lot of frustration among Americans with European wines is that we have a hard time reading the labels and figuring out what kind of wine is in the bottle. We stumble over words and phrases such as Mis en Bouteille blah, blah, blah; negotiants so-and-so et fils, Maison this, Chateau that, trockenbeerenauslese, and a bunch of other words our native tongues were never meant to pronounce. Itís not uncommon to hear something like, "But where in the hell does it say whether this is a Merlot or a Cabernet?"

Since most Europeans buy their wine based on region and producer, there hasnít been much need to put a lot of effort into coming up with flashy labels. Many French wines carry very simple black and white labels. The Germans seemed to like to use pictures of vineyards, churches, or the village where the grapes were grown. Most of the other countries also have this utilitarian approach. And, certainly, many of the high end European wineries use this minimalist style.

However, the escalating demand for wine in the potentially huge American market has been enough to make even the French rise above their principles in wine labeling. Most European wines in the moderate price range now carry somewhere on the label the major grape type contained in the wine, while maintaining their more or less subtle style.

In the U.S., however, Madison Avenue style packaging is almost a must to get noticed on the rack. In some of the larger wine stores you can find just about any theme you can dream up on a wine label. Some go for high art, others for cartoons, and animals of all sorts, including frogs, seem to hold special attraction for label designers. Some wineries have opted for a retro-look in an effort to instill the notion of sophistication, and others have gone with the basic black and white label with a fancy script font to align themselves with the classic ultra-premium wines of Europe to cash in on snob appeal.

Wineries know full well that many people buy wine simply on how appealing the label is. That is why they invest so much time and expense in producing something that is eye-catching. Of course, all of this goes on under the watchful eye of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in Washington, DC, which uses a jewelís loupe to examine and approve every single label on the U.S. market. We certainly wouldnít want the bared breast of Botticelliís Venus to appear even microscopically on our dinner table now, would we.

As a little experiment, the Oxford Wine Club recently conducted a tasting in which all of the wines were selected by a non-wine person solely on the basis of how attractive or interesting the labels appeared to them. The price range was under $15 and the wines were tasted blind, that is, we didnít know which wine was which.

As you might image, there was absolutely no relationship between the artistry of the label and the quality or drinkability of the wine. However, over the years I have noticed somewhat of an inverse relationship between wine quality and label flamboyance. That is, as the label decoration increases, the wine quality tends to decrease. Gallo wines illustrate this notion very well. On most of their low end wines they have their prettiest labels. However, their very good wines have very modest and subtle labels.

Itís fun to browse the wine shops and wonder at the range of label themes. Sometimes a label is so irresistible that I canít pass it up and Iíll pay $10 just for the label. And sometimes I get a nice surprise in that the wine is very pleasant as well. I guess my advice, then, is to enjoy wine label art and buy something if it really appeals to you, but donít overlook a wine with a plain-Jane label. And donít use just the label design as your guide to quality. If you find a wine that has a label to die for, but the wine is so-so, get rid of the wine and use the bottle with the label as a decanter for something you enjoy drinking and would serve to your guests.

My wine picks of the week are Gundlach Bundschu red "Bearitage" and white "Polar Bearitage."

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