Sunday, December 25, 2011

What makes a good wine label?

What makes a good wine label?  I don't know.

My next WSET diploma assignment is to write a paper about what makes good wine packaging, which can include labels, back labels, and other packaging like non-bottle containers.  I've been doing a good amount of reading in the marketing literature, and I'm still confused.  This is a seriously soft science.  If you thought tasting wine comprised lots of variables, try selling wine! 

Marketing professionals claim that the wine market is split into at least two and maybe as many as five segments that are looking for different things.  At lower levels, there are commodity consumers that are highly price sensitive.  Labeling matters less to this group as they are looking across a fairly narrow range of products for which they have some knowledge.  If it's Gallo or Vendage or Charles Shaw, they are largely interchangeable, thus packaging and price is far more important.

At the highest price bands, labels aren't very important either.  For example, if a consumer is about to shell out $250 for a bottle of Cayuse Bionic Frog, the odds are excellent that they know a lot about it and could care less what the label looks like.  They care more about the wine itself, its scarcity and cult status, awards won, etc.

It's in the middle, I think, labels become really important.  Consumers in the middle band are not particularly brand loyal.  They love trying new wines and having new experiences, and when they look at the wall o' wine, it's the label that often makes the sale.

Here are some labels that have won recent awards.

But really, there is no formula.  Simple or complex, colorful or monochrome, graphic or text based, etc. even award winning labels can run the gamut.  I remember when I was a wine novice, being bewildered by the range.  I used to frequent a grocery store in a section of DC where lots of embassy and consular families lived.  I would follow a foreign-looking shopper around and just get whatever bottle they bought.  Catching the eye of the middle price-band consumer, and making the sale of an unknown amidst that giant intimidating wall of wine, is the goal of a huge industry constantly asking - what makes a great label?

I can find only one contribution to the discussion, and it comes from studies of blind tasting.  According to numerous studies, consumers are very suggestable.  If you tell a person you taste smoke and cherries in a wine, they will often find those flavors too.  If you tell a person that Parker rated a wine very highly, they will enjoy it more than if you told them it got a low score.  I'll be doing reviews of several studies in future posts, but for now take my word for it.  fMRI machines confirm that if a person thinks the wine is good, the pleasure centers of their brain will light up during tasting.  This is some hard damn science.

Thus, my theory on wine labels is that if they can manage to convey the idea that wine in the bottle is good, it is a successful label and it will help sell bottles as well as spur repeat sales.

So how can I quantify that?  Dunno.  Yet.


  1. At work, I get an email containing links to articles mentioning Oregon State University. I remember reading at least one, if not more, on this subject specifically. As befits my role as an unhelpful sibling(-in-law), I can't remember when or even what other key words to search for. However, my recollection is that it contains data about what elements certain groups of shoppers are most drawn to. It might be a wild duck chase (go Beavers!) but you might want to check it out!

  2. Thanks for this - it was well written and informative.