The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way wine was purchased and sold, possibly forever. The ubiquity of in-person tasting events has been transformed. Even as wineries, bars and retails shops reopen, the vibe is more restrained and the wine less free-flowing. It’s hard to imagine a return to the days of sampling multiple wines at your neighborhood corner store. Communal spit buckets are surely a thing of the past.
And yet even as the opportunities shrink to get products into new drinkers’ glasses, the number of wine brands on the market steadily grows. There are now more than 11,000 wineries in the U.S., an increase of more than 40% since 2009, when there were just over 6,300.
These days, with fewer opportunities to try the numerous new wines out there, consumers who are eager to sip something novel are more likely than ever to be swayed to purchase a particular bottle by what appears on the outside, as opposed to what’s inside.
So what motivates a wine lover to grab that bottle off the shelf and head to the register, and how can producers capitalize on these desires? Winemakers and branding experts shared their insights on which often-surprising minor adjustments have juiced their sales.
1. Know the Facts
“Proving” what motivates someone to buy a bottle is like “proving” why they fell in love with their partner. There are certain factors that can be pointed to, but the actual emotional, psychological and cultural factors at work behind each individual decision are impossible to calculate.
That said, a few things are clear. Some 36% of wine drinkers in the U.S. are confused by wine labels, and 51% say that the labels of imported wines are difficult to read, according to a study from Wines Vines Analytics.
For wine that costs less than $20 a bottle, consumers look for brightly colored labels, according to the global marketing research firm Nielsen. Younger wine drinkers, meanwhile, are looking for brands that match their values, which on labels, at least, often means they’re looking for farming methods.
“Consumers of all ages want brands they can connect with,” says Cassandra Rosen, the co-founder and president of alcohol marketing agency FK Interactive. “We’ve found the best results come when producers have a purpose behind their label design. Once they know what their brand narrative is, the foundation for a good label is there.”
It also helps, says Rosen, when labels exude joy and fun, along with the brand’s mission and philosophy. “Animals on wine labels are frequently a point of contention with retailers, but consumers like them,” she says. “Tussock Jumper, for example, uses creatures that are indigenous to each country and region its grapes are grown in as part of its storyline, and thus the wines are more positively received by both buyers and consumers. The contrast to this would be something like a label with a cartoon frog. Retailers typically won’t pick up a brand that looks like a gimmick, and it can negatively impact sales.”
2. Explain but Don’t Dumb Down
“Wine labels should be used to communicate what’s inside the bottle,” says Zac Robinson, the owner and operator of Philo, California’s Husch Vineyards, with 40,000 cases in annual production. “That sounds straightforward, but often it’s not. We talk about it all the time, and whenever we have an opportunity to explain in plain English what’s inside a bottle and to clarify what we see as confusion around a grape or style, we do so.”
Robinson attempted to do just that with his winery’s gewürtztraminer in 2015. “There’s so much confusion around gewürtztraminer,” says Robinson. “No one can pronounce it; it’s in a hock-style bottle; people don’t know if it’s going to be dry or sweet, but most people assume it’s going to be sweet. We added the word ‘dry’ in front of the gewürtztraminer to clarify matters.”
The results were so positive that it created a problem. “We saw a 20% bump in sales, which we did not expect,” says Robinson, explaining that Husch now produces about 3,000 cases of gewürtztraminer alone. “We actually had a shortage, but I’ll take that kind of problem. It’s better than the opposite.”
Some French brands are also trying to more clearly communicate what’s in the bottle by changing their labels for the U.S. audience. “There is a completely different way of understanding wine in France and the United States,” says Romain Teyteau, the export manager at Les Vins Georges Duboeuf. “There’s not always someone available to hand-sell our wines, so we need to make sure the bottle speaks for itself. In France, consumers understand wines through the appellation system, but in the U.S., it’s through varietals.” That is to say, French consumers focus on where a wine comes from, whereas Americans want to know the type of grapes used.
To accomodate American drinkers’ wishes within the range of wines produced from domaines under its own labels, Georges Duboeuf began changing its labels in 2016. On the front of the label, instead of merely focusing on where a wine was produced, the brand decided to also turn a spotlight on the grape. In Mâcon-Villages Domaine de Chenevières, for example, the lines and colors are cleaner, and chardonnay is clearly stated in block letters. Duboeuf did the same with Morgon Jean-Ernest Descombes and other domaines. On the back of the labels, the producer’s history is briefly explained, as are the aging methods used and suggested food pairings.
“We wanted to help the consumer but also our distributors,” says Teyteau. “If they have a big book of producers, they don’t have time to go online and research every single one when they’re making a presentation to retail stores. Our next big project will be redesigning labels so they’re more readable by apps like Vivino.”
3. Consider the Image
Pictures sell better than 1,000 words, Il Molino di Grace has found. In 2015, the labels of the certified-organic vineyard in Panzano-in-Chianti, Italy, were transformed to reflect the spirit of the brand, primarily through images and colors, says Daniel Grace, Il Molino’s director.
“The Volano label went from being traditional and conservative, with a picture of our windmill, to a whimsical and colorful depiction of the winery’s entrance gates,” says Grace. “We wanted to reflect approachability and delight and show the entry-level nature of this value-driven IGT blend.”
Il Molino also made its Chianti classico cleaner and whiter and highlighted the sangiovese inside. The shift on its riserva label was the most dramatic.
“After the wine earned 95 points in Wine Spectator, we wanted to make a bolder statement about the red and black fruit notes in the wine,” says Grace. “While black and silver is a seldomly used color combination in Italian wines, we decided to embrace the noble elegance and confidence of a black-and-silver label. We also accentuated the commitment to 100% sangiovese grapes, because we believe the best riservas should be 100% sangiovese, although most also feature merlot and cabernet now.”
The distinctive, bold graphics and the focus on the star grape increased sales considerably. Volano increased from 40,000 to 50,000 bottles sold, Classico went from 60,000 to 70,000, and the most dramatic upgrade, Riserva, surged from 30,000 to 50,000, an increase of more than 60%.
4. Acknowledge Market Realities
Grapes and production practices move into and out of favor periodically. So some producers wonder, Why draw attention to something that may be considered less desirable?
For Patricia Ortiz, the owner of Fincas Patagónicas with three wineries under its umbrella, including Zolo in Lujan de Cuyo, it seemed foolish to ignore the market’s preferences. “Every year, we bring retailers and distributors to our winery to discuss what’s working and what isn’t in their markets,” she says. “I was consistently told that oaked chardonnay was no longer the preference. Seven years ago, we changed our production methods slightly and reduced the amount of oak. But finally, we eliminated it completely and put “unoaked” on the label, and the change was instantaneous. We went from not even being on the list to being the number-one chardonnay from Argentina.”
Ortiz also changed the name of another wine in deference to, of all things, a grumpy character in a fictional film. You guessed it: “Sideways.” Director Alexander Payne’s film, released in 2004, hit merlot sales hard when Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, declared: “If anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking a f*cking merlot.” Miles loved pinot noir, though. Soon, so did wine drinkers. According to a case study by Sonoma State University economics professor Steven Cuellar, sales of merlot decreased from January of 2005 to 2008 by 2%, while pinot noir sales increased by 16%.
“Our importers told us that people loved the wine, but they hated the word ‘merlot’ being on the bottle,” says Ortiz. “We replaced the word ‘merlot’ with ‘traditional,’ and sales went from less than 1,000 to more than 4,000 cases in the U.S.”
Sometimes, says John Skupny, the co-owner of Napa’s Lang & Reed, the entire look of the label needs to change to reflect the evolving market. “We loved the label we designed for our North Coast cabernet franc,” says Skupny, who founded the winery with his wife, Tracey, in 1996. “Before turning to a career in wine, I had a background in fine arts, so this was a mini obsession of mine. We collaborated with Jeanne Greco on the first label, which was inspired by ‘The Tracey Ullman Show.’ Like Tracey, it’s off-kilter and fun.”
In other words, it’s perfect for a $30 bottle of well-made cabernet franc but not for an aspirational wine. “In 2007, we started getting a different cabernet franc clone from Sugarloaf Mountain, the 214,” says Skupny. “It was a really special wine, and we wanted to appeal to a different sector of the market.”
Skupny and Greco spent months perfecting that label’s minimalist monograph-style design on a cream background, which Skupny says reflects the “classically Burgundian expression of the 214 instead of the fun new-wave version we got in the North Coast.”
The prices for the Lang & Reed Monograph Collection start at $85. They also began bottling the chenin blanc, from Napa and Mendocino, under the Monograph label. The North Coast line runs about 2,500 cases per year, while the 214 produces 400 and the Mendocino chenin puts out 500 and the Napa serves up about 300. (The Napa line will miss a few years because of fires.)
“There’s no way we would have found success without changing the label,” says Skupny. “The North Coast label is fantastic, but for $85? It wouldn’t have worked. The audience for each line is completely different, with the North Coast skewing younger.”
5. Engage Consumers
“American Idol” has been a consistent hit since 2002, in part because the viewers are so invested in the outcome. They feel that by voting every week on their favorite contestants, they are part of the process of crowning the winner.
“Five years ago, we decided to crowd-source our labels for the Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais nouveau,” says Teyteau. “Because the wine is seasonal, we always want to make it fresh and new and exciting, and we thought that by creating a contest in which American artists can compete to create the label, we’d not only end up with something beautiful and fun but we’d get art and wine lovers excited.”
This year, they received almost 1,000 entries from emerging artists, with more than 8,000 wine- and art-lovers casting votes. “When we gathered to look at the finalists this year, we had a clear favorite, and it ended up being the winner, Felice Kate,” says Teyteau. “The contest generally brings a new energy and provides a form of validation before the wine even hits the market.”
The last few years of import tariffs have affected sales for Georges Duboeuf, but if all goes well with harvest, Teyteau says that the brand hopes to ship 1 million bottles to the U.S. in anticipation of a big 2021.
6. Wear Your Values on Your Label
Some wineries use their labels to communicate their spirit and values. At Division Winemaking Co. in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, co-founders Kate Norris and Thomas Monroe aim to make approachable minimal-intervention wines from organically and biodynamically farmed grapes grown in Oregon and Washington states. They have multiple micro-lines and projects, including Division, Division-Villages, Gamine and Nightshade, all with their own singular varietal focus, terroir and vibe.
“We try to reflect the distinct spirit of each line on the label,” says Norris, adding that they created 27 labels in partnership with artists last year alone. “Our Musical Chairs wine is a whirlwind blend of four white grape varieties, unfiltered and lots of fun, and our label reflects that spirit. Ashley Mary is one of the artists we’ve been working with, and I love the way her art makes me feel and reflects the wine’s spirit—alive, lovely, a perfect match.”
At Redwood Valley, California’s Frey Vineyards, the first certified-organic and -biodynamic wine producer in the U.S., the label design has often been done in-house, with the co-founder Jonathan Frey’s late father, Paul, and wine club director Nicole Paisley Martensen often contributing their visions.
But in addition to the fun, graphical celebrations of nature and astrology, and the proud organic and biodynamic certification notations, co-founder Katrina Frey says the winery is often eager to share brief glimpses into its philosophy.
On the 2019 tempranillo label, Frey writes, “Rudolf Steiner, founder of biodynamic agriculture, believed that we can never find harmony on the earth until we understand the relationship between the spiritual and the physical worlds. He classified the unseen spiritual presences in the farm, vineyard and wilderness as elemental beings who occupy the etheric world of the plant kingdom and who nurture roots and shoots with enlivening forces.”
It’s not your average shelf-talker. Then on the newly minted Kwaya release, created in partnership with Nicky Coachman-Robinson, Frey explains: “Kwaya is the Hausa word for seed. Seeds have the power of unity. Our sisterhood, our brotherhood, our tribes, our communities grow from strong roots and interconnected understanding.”
And not to be defeated by the TTB’s refusal to allow wineries to label their products as GMO or sulfite-free, two very hot topics in grocery aisles and on the minds of concerned consumers, Frey added “No GMO Yeast Added” and “No Sulfites Added” to its tin cap capsule at the top of the bottle. They just want consumers to know, says Katrina.
“For generations, the wine industry has found great success by operating under a shroud of mystique,” says Husch’s Robinson. “It has almost been part of the marketing process. But people don’t want that anymore. Younger drinkers have no interest in an inaccessibly snooty and intimidating industry.” Rather, they want to understand what they’re drinking; they want to feel involved; they want to be inspired. Accommodating those desires seems like an attainable goal for winemakers.