I don’t know about you but I’m addicted to the graphic image and the printed word. As a child I ate quietly and obediently, absorbed with the nutrition charts on jars of (my) baby food and later with the marketing drivel on the backs of cereal packets. My first instinct on visiting someone’s home is to scan the walls for literature and, if that’s all there is, I will settle for a framed Lord’s Prayer in crotchet. There is a small library in our toilet where I am reading Herodotus in bathroom instalments and I cannot enjoy a new bottle of wine without reading both front and back labels. In fact, when it comes to the overall enjoyment of wine, the label seems to play a not insubstantial part.
If I’m looking at a choice between two previously untried, similarly priced wines, I let the label decide. Is the front label a thing of beauty, with the gravitas that signals a noble drop or has the design work been given to the winemaker’s niece who is in her first year at TAFE? Worse, are you looking at an excruciatingly poor attempt to appear cool and funky.
‘Avoid any wine with an Australian animal on the label’ says top Sydney sommelier Tim Watkins. Good Food.com goes further, advising us to shun any wine with a label bearing pink goannas, holograms, fuschia, animals smoking or wearing glasses, PowerPoint clip art, bananas, wedding invitations and any using the font types, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curiz and Chiller.
These are the labels of the counter-culture, a reaction to what is still sometimes perceived as the domain of the cultured and the elitists. It’s easier to break down elite doors than to become part of the elite. Defenders of the pink goanna will simply tell you it sells wine.
Then there are the so-called celebrity or Rock and Pop wines. Some are serious winemakers and label accordingly. Top of the list is Queen Elizabeth II with her conservatively labelled Windsor Estate sparkling chardonnay. The label on Francis Ford Coppola’s Californian cabernet sauvignon is also in classic style. Brad and Ange’s Mirval Rose (shortly to be sold in halves) comes in a display-sized Eau de Toilette bottle while Sting spoils some fine Tuscan reds by naming them after his songs – ‘Sister Moon’ and ‘When we Dance’. Very naf, but positively restrained compared to ‘Chateau Madge’, Madonna’s Napa Valley winery, which, in 2006, produced ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ showing the producer, hand-painted, dancing under etched disco lights.
Celebrity Cellars, a wine company owned jointly by Barbra Streisand and her manager, Marty Erlichman, takes a different approach, partnering with celebrities to market etched or labelled bottles using the stars’ logo and imagery. Apart from Barbra herself there are bottles etched or labelled with the images of KISS, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, or rather Mick’s tongue which sticks out on the particularly grotesque ‘Glitter Tongue’ six-pack.
‘We are not selling what’s in the bottle but what’s outside’ says Marty, adding that ‘only one in five buyers actually drink (the wines)’. Yes, better they remain unopened on display in the den where, if they remain there long enough, they may appreciate in value like the 1995 ‘Frank Sinatra’ cabernet, seen recently on sale on e-bay for US$540. It was a very good year.
At the other end of the spectrum are the labels of Chateau D’Yquem, Romanee Conti and the other great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which only change in respect to the year of vintage or to accommodate new wine regulations; then, why would you pay for new art-work when your wines are retailing for US$1,000 a bottle. There is one Grand Cru Bordeaux however that changes its label annually. In 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild first used a well-known artist to illustrate its label and, since 1945 has continued the practice for every vintage. Paintings by Jean Cocteau, Braque, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon have all been featured on the label. In 1965 Dorothea Tanning was chosen over her husband Max Ernst and, as a ‘special’ in 2004, Prince Charles contributed an incredibly dull effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale, currently being extinguished by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
David Hockney’s 2014 label salutes the passing of his friend the Baroness Philippine Rothschild, while the 1989 label by George Baselitz, with its two upside-down rams, is a reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Druben sein jetzt hier’ he wrote, ‘Over there is now over here’.
Dining alone with Scarlett (Johansson) in a private room at Antoine’s last week, I chose a bottle of 2010 Celebrity Cellars’ Honeymooners Collection Edition. Our waiter, Chuck, holding the bottle as if it was the infant Jesus in his white-gloved hands, complimented me on my choice. ‘I think you will find the wine focused but unobtrusive, supple yet intense, sir’, he added, and unscrewing the capsule, poured a tiny sample into my glass, which could have accommodated a dozen goldfish. The wine had almost evaporated before it reached my lips, but I could already tell that the acidity and tannins were beautifully balanced. ‘I think you’ll like this’, I told Scarlett, ‘it’s fruit-forward with some aggressive notes of spring’. Chuck loaded both glasses and watched with disinterest as Scarlett tasted the wine. Still holding her glass she leaned back against the red velour banquette and closed her eyes, savouring, inhaling. ‘There are definite notes of graphite and pencil shavings here. I think I can detect cigar and tiger-balm too, perhaps even a hint of cappuccino’. I took another sip, trying hard, to no avail, to pick up the pencil shavings, but as the malic acid reacted to the air, my taste-buds suddenly detected additional, intense notes of incense, sea-weed, saddle-soap and chocolate. And, yes, the wine was elegant, enticingly layered, with a buttery nose and a velvety finish. Meanwhile Scarlett had found something else in the inky cabernet. ‘O my God’! she said, after dipping her petite, retrousse nose deep into the goblet, ‘I’m getting childhood summers in the Catskills!’