A blog about life, language, writing, and other trivia.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't Judge a Wine by Its Label

When I was growing up, most Americans thought there were only three kinds of wine to choose from—red, white, and white zinfandel, depending on whether one was having meat, fish, or an insulin reaction.

In the last decade and a half, though, the U.S. wine market has exploded, and now even casual wine drinkers may, over the course of a year, experiment with ten or fifteen different grape varieties from countries as diverse as the U.S., Italy, France, Spain, Australia, Chile, and Argentina.

This fact has been both a boon and a burden to the growing world wine industry. For established producers, it has meant greater sales potential but also greater competition. For those just trying to break into the market, it means unprecedented opportunity but also struggling to get consumers’ attention as they scan an ever-swelling sea of bottles on the shelf.

The result? Flashy labels designed to amuse, shock, or even titillate. There is an entire line of wines whose labels look like 50’s horror movie posters, while another bottle boasts a seductive image of Marilyn Monroe. There are in-your-face names like “Fat Bastard,” “Cleavage Creek,” and “The Bitch.” There is even a wine called “Mommy’s Time Out,” whose label depicts a single chair facing a forlorn-looking corner, suggesting, I surmise, that if the burdens of contemporary parenthood become too great, then you can always turn to closet alcoholism for help. How uplifting.

To be sure, I'm not entirely critical of this phenomenon. I know it’s hard to break into a competitive market. But there’s also a cynicism to it, namely, that most consumers will drink just about anything as long as you can get it into their hands. More often than not, then, the wines inside of these clever bottles just aren’t very good.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Australian Shiraz “Boarding Pass,” whose label looks like a plane ticket, can boast a lovely combination of intense, dark berry fruit and spicy complexity. And the impishly-titled Zinfandel “7 Deadly Zins” recently earned a coveted 90 point score from a well-known and influential wine publication.

But most good wines, from old and new producers alike, have traditional, relatively unassuming labels. After all, the bottle is just a vessel in the end. If you really want to find the best wine for whatever occasion you happen to be celebrating—whether an all-out Christmas dinner or just Spaghetti on Tuesday—then buy it from a shop where the staff know what they’re doing and can steer you in the right direction.

They may indeed point you to a fancy bottle that will also look nice on your bookshelves after you drink it. But chances are just as good that you’ll take home an off-white label with black letters. Oh, and also a delicious wine. Let’s not forget that.