Yes, Sometimes We Judge Our Wines By Their Labels

Does a quirky wine label turn you off? Perhaps you’ve fallen victim to faux-chateau branding for too long. Vv Magazine’s Alexandra Gill investigates the rising trend towards cool (and even funny and profane) when it comes to new age wine labels...

On the eve of April Fools’ Day, a courier arrived on my doorstep with a bottle of red from Church & State Wines. The label, printed in bright hand-stitched felt letters, read: “I’D SHAVE MY LEGS FOR YOU.”

Is this a joke?

The package didn’t include a press release or tasting notes. There was just a single sheet, printed in the same cute felt font that read: “HASH-TAG THIS MOTHER F#CKER — #Lost Inhibitions.”

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Okay. I’ll play along. After posting photos on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and even Tinder, I soon discovered that journalists and bartenders all over British Columbia had been simultaneously bombed with similar bottles. They all bore their own cheeky label, each one funnier than the last: Namaste Bitches, I Fu#cking Love You, I Swear I Won’t Text My Ex, Shut The Front Door, Aren’t You A Fu#cking Ray of Sunshine, Mom I Can’t Talk Now.

This Is Some Freaky Sh#t! (That’s another label, actually  — in total, there were 100.) Even though I was home alone on a sunny afternoon, it really felt as if I were in a dark bar surrounded by sloppy drunks. The phrases were eerily familiar. OMG, how many times have I said that? And that one too!

Some of the more serious recipients were sober enough to inquire about the contents of the bottles. (Red and white meritage blends.)

A couple uncorked theirs right away and promptly posted tasting notes. “Lost Inhibitions White 2014 sports aromas of apple and pear, followed by a surprisingly full-bodied palate with hints of citrus, peach-nectarine from the Viognier and even some rose petal from the Gewurztraminer, all wrapped in juicy acidity (90 points, $18.00 to $20.00),” wrote wine critic Tim Pawsey

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More than a few still couldn’t help but wonder if it was an April Fool’s Day prank. (That was the point – it wasn’t.) Many dismissed the labels as “silly” or “tacky.”  And mine didn’t really work as a Tinder “moment.” (I had to unmatch one humourless fellow who replied, “You damn well better shave.” Pardon me? Left swipe, goodbye.)

The response was even more “effing epic” than Bernie Hadley-Beauregard had hoped for. For more than a decade, he and his whip-smart team at the Vancouver-based Brandever Strategy Inc. have been rattling the conservative wine establishment with cleverly provocative branding. They first exploded onto the scene, so to speak, in 2002 after rechristening the nearly unpronounceable Prpich Hills as Blasted Church Winery, a local reference to an historical church that was disassembled with the help of explosives before being relocated.

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A few of Brandever’s many memorable labels – which have racked up numerous international awards and been displayed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – include Dirty Laundry (inspired by a 1990s Chinese railway labourer who ran a laundry that became a front for a brothel), Laughing Stock (the label features a swirling ticker tape of selected equities on the day the grapes were harvested), Megalomaniac (named after the winery’s larger-than-life Niagara owner), and Small Talk (with talk bubbles that trace the arc of a dinner conversation – the polite chitchat on the front of the bottle and what you really thought on the back).

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But Lost Inhibitions, a label that lubricates the dinner conversation before the bottle even gets to the table, is Brandever’s most daring campaign yet.

“There are 8,000 wineries in North America and 27,000 in France,” says Hadley-Beauregard, explaining his philosophy. “Each of those wineries produce five to 10 different wines. Consumers are overwhelmed by choice. There are so many products on the shelf. You can’t be a shy, retiring product in the market right now if you want to have a fighting chance.”

He understands that many people still equate cheeky marketing with cheap plonk. “But let me turn that argument around,” he offers. “There is an incredible amount of cheap wine that is embellished with faux-chateau labels, the lipstick-on-the-pig scenario. People believe that it must be good if it has such a stately label. That, to me, is a disservice.”

Brandever won’t work with those so-called faux chateaus and have turned down many. “We recognize that we get the first date with the consumer. If they like the wine inside the bottle, it gets a second date. We can only be as successful as the quality of the clients we work with.”

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Church & State was an obvious yes. The privately owned winery with operations in Victoria and the Okanagan Valley has a stellar track record and long string of top awards, including a nod from the esteemed critic Jancis Robinson, who declared its Coyote Bowl 2009 Syrah the best red wine in Canada.

This wasn’t a winery in desperate need of a makeover. But when the Brandever team dropped in on the winery by surprise last August, they couldn’t make the connection between the winery’s stoic, reserved packaging and the lively, energetic vibe at the tasting bar. “We play a lot of rock and roll and have some pretty good parties,” John Pullen, director of marketing explains.

It wasn’t an easy campaign to execute. First, Brandever had to come up with all the sayings. Late nights and lots of wine apparently helped. Realizing that open minds come on a sliding scale, they created two separate lines, Prude and Lewd.

The innocent felt lettering in nursery pastels had to be cut and stitched by hand. “If we put those very bold, crass sayings in black lettering it would have looked like a biker jacket and people would have run away,” Hadley-Beauregard laughs.

They went to Toronto to find a leading-edge printer that could roll out all 100 labels for both lines in sequence to ensure there were no duplicates in each mixed case of 12.

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Then they went online to stalk all the journalists who would be receiving bottles to ensure an appropriate fit. (I’m still not sure what that says about my personal grooming habits.)

And then they braced themselves.

“My phone’s been ringing every 10 minutes,” Pullen said a few days later. “It’s been an absolute riot. We bottled 7,000 cases and we don’t have enough.”

Retailers have been knocking other brands off the shelves to make room for bigger displays. The Lewd series is outselling the Prudes, and not just with younger buyers. “Middle-age moms see the humour in this,” says Hadley-Beauregard. “We weren’t trying to target a younger generation.”

Besides keeping up with demand, they now have to come up with a 100 new sayings for next year. Pullen wants consumers to send in their own suggestions.

“Sure, there was some internal anxiety, especially in the days leading up to the launch,” he reflects. “But now that it’s out there I have to say this is the coolest thing we’ve ever done.”

Related Link: The Vancouver International Wine Festival: Is It Still The Best?

Do you judge a bottle of wine by it’s label? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.

Alexandra Gill

Alexandra Gill

Alexandra Gill is the Vancouver Editor at Vv Magazine. The West Coast restaurant critic for the Globe and Mail, she has covered every imaginable topic – from fashion and gossip to arts and business – in her long, illustrious career. She is currently writing a motion picture screenplay and developing a reality television show. Follow her on Twitter @lexxgill.
Alexandra Gill
  • gregory graziano

    I would never have trash like that on my dinner table!