Labeling can have its perks

Marketing: Women do the bulk of wine buying, so the labels on the bottles have evolved to catch the female eye and hold it.

September 02, 2001|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

Our friend Susan flies to Paris for a living (she is a flight attendant), and while the rest of us might bring paperwork home from the office, Susan brings wine.

When we ask how she chooses which wines to purchase from the country of so many fine ones, she replies, "by the label."

Do you mean the information about region, grape, age and acidity on the label, we ask her, trying to sound sophisticated?

"No, just the label," she replies. "I buy the ones with the pretty labels."

Her candor inspires us to confess: We all buy wines with pretty labels.

Or colorful labels, or artistic labels, or novel labels or eye-catching (for whatever reason) labels.

Women drink 64 percent of the wine consumed in this country, but most merchants will testify that women, who continue to be the purchasing agents for their families, buy much more than that.

"The lion's share of wine decisions are made by women," says Evan Goldstein, master sommelier and vice president for public relations for Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines Co.

That's because most wine is sold in grocery stores, except in a few states, like Maryland, and it is women who do the shopping.

"Women drive the wine business, so a tremendous amount of marketing, packaging and imagery is directed to women," says Goldstein.

"A true wine drinker looks for information on the label," says Gene Merolla, wine consultant at Wells Discount Liquors in Towson.

"But most women look for an aesthetic, something pleasing to the eye."

There are thousands of wines to purchase, and a retailer like Wells might offer hundreds of kinds. Wineries are learning that one thing can set their wine apart on a crowded store shelf: the label.

"They make soup labels so women will buy them. Why not wine?" says Bill Malley, owner with his brother, Paul, of Pinky's in Annapolis.

Malley says that his women customers are more likely than men to ask for help in choosing a wine for sipping, or wine to go with certain food or as a gift.

"But if left to their own devices, women seem to gravitate toward attractive labels."

And, Malley said, women are more likely to describe a wine they liked by something they remember about the label.

"Men are influenced by labels, too. They just don't want to admit it," said Stan Bliden, owner of Midway Liquors in Baltimore. "If labels didn't matter, they wouldn't make them so fancy. Price is important, but the first thing that strikes any customer is the label."

Wine merchants are acknowledging this set of facts by including label judging in most important wine competitions.

And though a great many labels are designed with heavy input from focus groups, market research and advertising art directors, other label designs are just as likely to have been born in the imaginations of free-spirit graphic designers like Jim Moon of Mill Valley, Calif.

"I love doing wine labels. It allows you to really focus on a really small piece of paper," says Moon.

Although he has worked with plenty of clients with very strong ideas about what they want their label to reflect, Moon would rather interview the wine-makers and find inspiration in their personal stories.

"It is fun to listen to them and then see what ends up on the bottle."

He tells of an investment banker who lost all his money in the crash of the Asian financial markets. His wife left him, so he met a beautiful woman, bought a boat and sailed away with her. They landed in New Zealand's Marlborough Sound, the heart of wine country, and settled down to make wine.

"Their winery is Whitehaven, and the label is a drawing of that boat," says Moon.

One can only imagine how drawn to the wine women would be if they knew the romantic tale behind that label.

"That's the kind of thing that drives my thinking," says Moon.

Not all his designs are based on romance. Some are just artistic fliers, like the one for Benton-Lane wineries in Oregon that recalls one of the rarest postage stamps in philatelist history. The story behind this label is that Moon used to collect stamps as a boy.

"You'd be surprised how personal this process is." There is whimsy, too, and a postmark floats on the neck of the bottle.

Another label, for Red Shoulder winery, is a cut-out red T-shirt with the winery's name printed -- where else? -- on the shoulder.

And Moon's design for Front Yard winery, where the vineyard is literally in the vintner's front yard, has a trace of humor in it: Look for a little red hand mower among the rows of grapes etched in pen and ink on the label.

"Sometimes I just do something and the client just says, 'Wow!' "

The biggest roadblock to creativity in labeling has always been the glue machines, which are expensive, and the quality of paper stock that can be used.

Pressure-sensitive labels, silk-screen, painted labels, dye-cuts and see-through stock are saving bottlers lots of money and allowing creative types like Moon a free hand.

And a tour of your local wine store, with an eye for labels, not prices, reveals how much fun everyone is having these days.

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