Ah, the good old days. Remember when a wine label was pleasantly understated – a time when both the producer and the buyer were focused solely on what was inside the bottle? These dignified labels – often of majestic chateaus – were iconic. Chateau Palmer, Margaux, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Louis Jadot, for instance, have used the same classy label year after year. Mouton Rothschild was an exception because it commissioned renown artists—the likes of Chagall, Picasso, and Dali -- to draw a new label for each vintage of its first-growth Bordeaux. It isn’t cheap.
But as market competition grew – and continues to grow – start-up wineries are going to new lengths to create eye-catching labels to separate themselves from a pack of trendy laboratory wines packaged by large wine conglomerates. Alas, what is in the bottle has become less important than what is on the bottle and consumers are being easily gulled into equating an eye-popping label with a good wine. Some labels even glow in the dark, presumably an asset if one loses power during a nuclear attack.
Labels have gone high tech, too. Living Wine Labels has created a clever label that through an app uses your device’s camera to actually animate the label. Australia’s 19 Crimes is based loosely on British prisoners who were sent to an undeveloped Australia in the 18th Century for committing one of 19 crimes. The rogues later became colonists of Australia. The labels feature these figures and through the app and your camera they tell their stories. The app has been downloaded more than half a million times. The wine is surprisingly decent.
The Walking Dead, a comic strip and hot cable television series, is also a wine that uses Living Wine Label technology. Its “Blood Red Blend” wine has an image of Sheriff Rick Grimes who through the app fights off the undead in a wine shop. The cabernet sauvignon has zombies breaking out of the label and if you put the two bottles side by side, a fight breaks out. The wines sell for about $19 a bottle.
We were in a crowd of millennials recently when someone spotted us holding a Walking Dead label. A millennial spotted it and begged us to hand it over. We wouldn’t unless he could tell us what grapes were used to make the wine or where it was made. He failed.
While some producers turn to technology, others stick with creative names – Mommy’s Time Out, Booger Swamp, Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, Cheap Wine -- and hokey artwork. The label for Boarding Pass shiraz is a boarding label. Inkblot wine has a Rorschach inkblot test to challenge buyers on what they see -- we see a desperate gimmick. David Phinney uses a simple letter in a circle – a take-off on bumper stickers – to identify a wine’s country of origin. “F” is for France, for instance, and he blends grapes from multiple regions. Sacré bleu, as the French are no doubt saying.
Research shows a wine’s label is a powerful draw for consumers as long as the price is also reasonable. But is the wine any good at $10 a bottle? Rarely.
We have fond memories of a dinner with Donald Hess, founder of The Hess Collection, many years ago. Since then, we have enjoyed his wines that continue to impress.
We recently sampled the Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 ($32). A blend of 92 percent cabernet sauvignon with a dash of petite sirah and petite verdot, this classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon displays pure cherry and cassis elements. A terrific price for a wine of this pedigree.
A little higher up the quality and price scale is the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder 2014 ($65). Made from its estate Mt. Veeder vineyard on elevations ranging from 600 to 1,100 feet, the small berries from these steep slopes and poor soils produce an intense wine.
Aged in 80 percent new oak barrels, this powerful wine can easily age 5-10 years or be enjoyed now after a 1-2 hour decant. The blend is 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent malbec, and 3 percent petite verdot.
Steele Writer's Block Cabernet Franc 2015 ($17). This reasonably-priced cabernet franc delivers a lot of fruit for the buck. Simple and medium-bodied, it is an easy drink with plum and raspberry notes.
Bodega Classica Lopez de Haro Crianza 2015 ($15). Another good value, this Rioja tempranillo has enticing aromas of ripe dark cherry fruit, licorice and balsamic. Round and ripe dark berry flavors.
Evodia Old Vine Garnacha ($9). We rave about this wine because of its value. Made from grenache grapes grown on 100-year-old vines in the Calatayud region of Spain, it evokes blackberry pie, plums, and cherries.
Proyecto Garnachas de Espana La Garnacha 2016 ($12). From the Moncayo region, this garnacha has cherry and wild berry notes with a dash of clove and tobacco. Round, delicious and medium bodied.
Paraduxx Howell Mountain Napa Valley Red Wine 2014 ($80). Very dense and rich, this blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and zinfandel breaks the mold. Deep black cherry and ripe blackberry flavors with a dash of mocha.
Binomio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva 2015 ($50). Binomio is an ancient clone of Montepulciano and produces small berries. Stefano Inama and Sabatino di Properzio restored a vineyard with these grapes to produce this extraordinary wine. Extracted, rich blackberry and strawberry flavors with a ripe tannins and long finish.
Chateau des Cres Ricards Oenothera Languedoc 2015 ($25). From winemaker Jean-Claude Mas, this fabulous blend of syrah and grenache noir exudes luxury. It has spicy, mocha aromas and blackberry, currant flavors with a good dose of licorice on the finish. Full bodied.