Wine Labels: Make or Break?

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In all my years of wine writing there are two topics that have garnered incredible feedback, much of it negative. One is commenting on wines sealed with fake wax – those bottles seemingly encased in impenetrable plastic – the sort used by NASA to place heatproof nosecone shields on returning space capsules. The other is any negative comment on label design.

Winery sensitivity to any label critique is in some ways perfectly understandable. Most often a great deal of time and care and effort is given to coming up with a label. For small, non-corporate wineries, it may be designed by an owner, a friend, or a family member. They may feel that it’s somehow unfair for a wine writer to critique a label – it’s bad enough to have their wine subjected to a less than flattering review, let alone the label they labored over.

But…

That label is your billboard. It’s a visual tagline, an emblem, a logo representing your brand. It’s a marketing and sales tool with the potential to establish a specific identity for your product, whether intentionally or otherwise. And it’s that ‘otherwise’ – the unintended consequences of poor label design – that on occasion have prompted me to offer well-intentioned criticism.

1970 Ste. Michelle Cabernet labels

I’ve done this because the package can have a major impact on sales. Marketing studies have shown that casual wine shoppers in particular buy on price and label. How does your label design attract or repel them? How much useful information does it convey? What does it say about the care and concern for quality that has gone into making the wine?

In the days before warning labels became mandatory there was a relatively vast amount of label real estate available that could be used to educate consumers, many of them new to wine. Note the amount of useful information on this 1970 Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon – both front and back labels (the vintage was on the neck label).

Check out this 1980 Associated Vintners Cabernet (from the cellar of one of the founding partners!).

Here again the back label is almost encyclopedic!

When the Washington wine industry was still in its infancy, labels such as this one could provide consumers with a wealth of useful information.

These days most back labels are a clutter of warning labels and plastered with inscrutable icons for such credentials as “Salmon Safe” and “LIVE Certified”. Toss in ingredient labeling, another trend that manages to combine the fear factor of a warning label with a confusing list of things that sound terrible even though they are perfectly safe. And for added pizzazz there’s just enough room left to put in a line or two about your passion. Does any of this help a potential customer make an informed purchase decision?

It’s possible to make things even worse. I’ve seen labels printed almost entirely in black, rendering them unreadable. I’ve seen cartoonish labels on expensive wines that make them look cheap. I’ve seen labels so overloaded with technical gobbledygook that only a chemist could unravel them. I’ve seen wines with no paper labels at all, just indecipherable imprinted glass.

Imagine my joy at finding labels that bring a personal, artistic touch to the overall design. The hand-drawn, letter-printed labels of Big Table Farm are just one example of such exceptional work (with good, informative back label details).

Granted that not every winery has a talented artist at the helm, and simply tossing money at a design firm is no guarantee of success. But creating a clean, readable and informative label should not be out of the reach of any winery. Pick a style that suits you – classic, artistic, pretty, colorful, black and white, whatever. Tie all your wines together with a signature look – what is the point of having every wine sporting a completely different label design? And once you find a good design, stick with it. Build on it. Make it a familiar face on those crowded shelves. And please don’t spoil it with a great glob of plastic wax!

More musings on a summer day…

Chillable red wines

This is a popular trend, somewhat controversial (though not as provocative as red wine ice cream, which is also making news). In hot weather a chillable red may answer the call for something more substantial than white or rosé. Bear in mind that a red wine chilled down to sparkling wine temperatures will lose all of its aromas, much of its flavor, and any trace of complexity in the finish. The best bets for chillable reds are lighter, less tannic, moderately alcoholic wines fermented and aged in stainless steel or neutral wood. Barbera, Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Noir (some, not all) and Sangiovese all spring to mind. But give the bottle a light chill – cellar temperature – somewhere between 52 and 57 degrees. Not refrigerator temperature. And if you want to get it to the right temperature quickly, try this. Pour yourself a big glass, put an ice cube in it, give it a swirl, count to 20 and pull the ice out before it begins to melt.

Aging Pinot Gris

On one recent hot day I was rooting around in my wine cellar and thinking I wanted a white wine, but not a brand new release from a current vintage. I was in the mood for something older. Of course the first thought is Riesling, which can age gracefully for decades. Chardonnay? Hit or miss, depending upon the winery, the vintage and the winemaking. Sauvignon Blanc? Love them, but I want them fresh. Chenin Blanc? Hard to find older versions, though I do believe that Chenin, like Riesling, is a can-do grape that is delicious in a broad range of styles. Pinot Gris? Aha!

I happen to have a fair amount of Oregon Pinot Gris going back a decade or so. I grabbed a bottle from 2016 – an especially good vintage in the Willamette Valley – and pulled the cork. The wine was at a perfect drinking age; young enough to retain plenty of luscious fruit, old enough to have developed aromatically and smoothed over any rough edges. It reminded me that Pinot Gris, so often assigned an also-ran identity in the world of white wine, deserves much better. And part of its under-appreciated appeal is that it can and does age well. A general rule of thumb for Oregon Pinot Gris, assuming that the wine was well made and interesting when first released, is to consume it sometime between the original release date and the ten year mark.

Catching Up – highlights from recent tastings

DanCin

I’ve followed this southern Oregon winery from its beginnings, when a broad variety of Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs were its calling cards. Those wines are still very good, but it’s the winery’s success with Barbera that most impresses. Here are four recommended wines from the current lineup.

DanCin 2022 En Croix Chardonnay – All estate-grown, this multi-clone blend saw just 10% new oak. It’s the fruit that shines here – clean, fresh, ripe, full-bodied and detailed with flavors of flesh and skin. Peaches and apples are front and center, with hints of tropical fruit at the borders. 102 cases; 12.8%; $36  (Rogue Valley) 91/100

DanCin 2022 Allongé Chardonnay – Fermented and aged in a concrete egg, this is already wide open and ripe for drinking. The expressive fruit flavors center around Meyer lemon, ripe pineapple and Cosmic Crisp apple flesh and skin. It comes to a focus mid-palate and stays consistent through a lingering finish, seemingly gaining strength along the way. This is a sturdy wine that should age beautifully through the rest of the decade. 155 cases; 12.9%; $36  (Rogue Valley) 92/100

DanCin 2021 Sorella 63rd Barbera – Sorella means sister in Italian, and this wine honors the 1960 bonding of Medford, Oregon to its sister city of Alba, Italy. DanCin’s Barberas never fail to delight, and with each new vintage the case for making Italian varietal wines in the Rogue becomes irrefutable. This is spicy, sappy and dense, with layers of berries and cherries almost ripe to the point of jam. The acids keep it lively and fresh, and hints of fresh Italian herbs add further interest. 179 cases; 14.8%; $60 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

DanCin 2021 Onore Barbera – This captures the grape’s natural acids and immediate approachability. Light red fruits, hints of tomato and Italian herbs, good balance throughout – all combine to make this especially good with pastas and tomato sauced Italian dishes. But wait – this is one of those rare wines that improved significantly on the second and even the third day. Decant it to get the most flavor. 160 cases; 14.8%; $55 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Gramercy Cellars / Lower East

Founded by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington, the pursuit of ageworthy, at times austere wines has been a focus throughout this winery’s history. The Syrahs, once so lean as to be a bit of a turn-off, have found the right balance between stem and fruit. This current lineup is excellent across the portfolio. The lower priced Lower East wines reflect the same care as the top tier bottles. The Rosé is one of the best I’ve tasted this year.

Gramercy Cellars 2023 Picpoul – Clean, very fresh and lightly salty, this is an all-purpose, chillable white. It should work well with cold chicken, cured meats, mild cheeses and Dungeness crab. 720 cases; 13%; $25 (Walla Walla Valley) 91/100

Gramercy Cellars 2023 Olsen Vineyard Rosé – Modeled on southern French rosés, this is half Cinsault and 25% each Grenache and Syrah, co-fermented in stainless steel. A lovely rose/copper hue, this substantial yet elegant wine dives down through flavors of citrus, tart berries, rhubarb and pie cherries before gliding gently through a smooth finish, dappled with spice. All in all a wonderful rosé, designed from the vineyard on to create a profound drinking experience. 620 cases; 13%; $28 (Columbia Valley) 94/100

Gramercy Cellars 2020 Gramercy Estates Cabernet Sauvignon – This is 95% Cabernet and 5% Merlot, all from the winery’s JB George vineyard, a cool site on the valley floor. This is beautifully balanced, a showcase of complex, nuanced flavors mixing black fruits, espresso, graphite and baking spices. The tannins are ripe and firm, with a hint of grippy texture. This is the fifth time that the winery has done an Estates release, and though I’ve missed the previous vintages, it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t the best yet. 241 cases; 14.5%; $72 (Walla Walla Valley) 95/100

Lower East 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon – A wonderful quartet of vineyards – Phinny Hill, Pepper Bridge, Octave and Gramercy Estate – contribute to this wine, which includes 9% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot. It’s delicious, forward, toasty (aged in 28% new French oak barrels), with cracked walnuts, black cherry, black tea and a touch of Dr. Pepper among the highlight flavors. It finishes with good length and a savory frame. A helluva deal. 2234 cases; 14%; $28 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

Lower East 2019 The Bowery – This Mediterranean blend is two thirds Syrah, the rest split among Mourvèdre, Carignan and Grenache. Sourced from the Olsen vineyard, it’s relatively light, aromatic and immediately drinkable. Cranberry fruit, savory herbs and firm tannins hold it together. A fine value. Drink now through the end of the decade. 1550 cases; 13.5%; $25 (Columbia Valley) 91/100

Lower East 2021 Syrah – This is labeled Columbia Valley but sourced entirely from three Walla Walla vineyards. It brings the herbal, umami-driven flavors typical of the grape in this AVA, well-rounded and balanced against firm, green tea tannins. As with The Bowery southern Rhône-style offering from Lower East, this is very well made and offers exceptional value. 1146 cases; 13.5%; $25 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

Gramercy Cellars 2020 Syrah – Although this is priced lower than the single vineyard Syrahs from Gramercy, the components – Holy Roller, Les Collines and Forgotten Hills – are all first class. The combination brings together three quite different terroirs from different parts of the AVA, yielding a finished wine that is emblematic of the overall Walla Walla character. It’s juicy, tangy, spicy and youthful, with citrus and rhubarb and strawberry and blood orange as well as more typical hints of tobacco and pepper. 299 cases; 13.5%; $40 (Walla Walla Valley) 92/100

Gramercy Cellars 2020 Lagniappe Red Willow Vineyard Syrah – The Red Willow vineyard was the first to plant Syrah in Washington, back in the mid-1980s when such an experiment seemed quixotic at best. It remains a popular site with many leading winemakers, especially those who value savory, subtle wines more than fruit bombs. This is one of the best Syrahs I’ve had from Red Willow, beautifully balanced, with those savory herbal notes set against juicy citrus and flavors of tomato and rhubarb. It’s persistent and compelling, with a lingering finish that seems to add to the complexity as it fades away. 560 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Columbia Valley) 93/100

Gramercy Cellars 2020 Forgotten Hills Vineyard Syrah –This vineyard dates back to 1999 and has been renovated, upgraded and farmed organically since being acquired by Gramercy. The Syrah was fermented in concrete with wild yeasts and 3% Viognier, giving the aromatics a floral lift. Moving away from the inclusion of stems, this uses 40% whole clusters, keeping the savory notes in abeyance and popping up the blueberry and blackberry fruit. There’s plenty of supporting acid, and at 13.5% abv it seems to reach an optimal point of ripening. It was aged 22 months in neutral barrels and puncheons, with a welcome hint of toast in the finish. 180 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Walla Walla Valley) 94/200

Troon

The biodynamic renovation of this heritage Applegate Valley estate is ongoing, and highlighted by the introduction of unique and uniquely pleasurable wines.

Troon 2022 Grenache Blanc – This is the first vintage for this variety at Troon. It was fermented in neutral oak and left on the lees for an extended period post-fermentation. As is generally true of young vines this is fruit forward, showing apricot and peach and melon first and foremost. The fruit has decent acidity, and the lees aging has softened it up a bit, though you wouldn’t call it creamy. A good and promising first effort. 75 cases; 12.6%; $40 (Applegate Valley) 88/100

Troon 2023 Glou-Glou – This nouveau-styled wine is 62% Cinsault, 38% Grenache. It fits neatly into the suddenly-popular chillable red category – though closer to a dark rosé than a full-on red wine. In fact it’s lighter than the winery’s 2021 Glou-Glou which was all Grenache. Lovely aromatics of cherry blossoms, fresh loam and coffee grounds set up the palate. It’s slightly earthy, crisp and showing strawberry, raspberry and cranberry fruit; definitely a wine to drink young. Note the clear glass bottle – another reason to enjoy it over the next year (maybe with that Thanksgiving turkey!). 275 cases; 12.6%; $25 (Applegate Valley) 90/100

Troon 2023 Ascendant Rosé – This is part of a series of estate wines blended from the typical varieties of the Rhône, Provence, and Languedoc-Roussillon regions in France. Future releases in the Ascendent series will include red, white and amber wines. This rosé is 38% Cinsault, 33% Mourvèdre, 11% Grenache, 10% Counoise and 8% Carignan. It’s a coppery gold in color, scented with wet hay  and dried apples, light in flavor but palate-pleasing. Not yet released. 200 cases; 12.5%; $40 (Applegate Valley) 90/100

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.

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