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Wine, Quackers, and other unfortunate turns of phrase.

August 10, 2013

Last weekend featured an important milestone in my Californianization process*: My First Ever California Wine Tasting.

I had only been to couple of wine tastings before, and my taste buds are not quite what you would call "sophisticated" (eg. "Oooh, this food has a delightful food flavor to it!') so I knew I would be about as inconspicuous as Luke Skywalker in Mos Eisley if I made an appearance. At the same time, however, the wine tasting was completely free, and according to physics, there is no possible way for someone of my general age, height, eye color and income level to successfully resist the offer of free alcohol.**

In the end, I did achieve a unique level of awkward, but the trip wound up being totally worth it. Because I was not part of some Chain Gang of Wine, I was able to go from one winery's counter to another at my own pace. Since I'm nosy and irritating, this was a pretty slow pace, but I wound up learning some interesting things about the participating Loomis wineries along the way.

All of the wineries at High Hand took home ribbons at the California State Fair, but none of the owners gave the impression that they were coasting off these recent victories. Competition in the California wine industry is fierce, and as one winemaker told me, getting the bottle noticed to begin with is a battle unto itself. I had seen plenty of creative branding strategies while purveying east coast grocery stores for beer, but it had never occurred to me that an equitable amount of blood, sweat and tears goes into the marketing of wine. In fact, I was more or less under the impression that the packaging of wine was a sort of cheat sheet for restaurant owners rather than a marketing tool:

  • French-sounding name = pair this wine with a snooty French waiter.
  • Italian-sounding name = pair this wine with a less-snooty, yet equally knowledgeable Italian waiter.
  • Animal imagery = pair this wine with whatever unfortunate creature is featured on the label.

My parents never really got the Yellow Tail pairing down quite right, but I think it's safe to say that if you ran into kangaroo meat in upstate NY, the last thing you would want to do is eat it.

So, putting the research skills I acquired while completing my liberal arts degree to use, I executed and In-Depth and Very Important Study on wine labels, and here are my findings: Unlike the wacky images on beer bottles from local brewers, wine label designs must re-create the same imaginary universe of elegance, nostalgia, and natural beauty, all while appearing unique and original. This is not an easy feat to pull off, and in my Intensive Research, I noticed that in striving for that same imaginary universe, labels typically fall into several large categories:

Serf's Up!

These labels tap into our appreciation of a simpler era - one where alcohol in general was probably safer to consumer than the water, and the upper crust of society lived right up to their 50's. Take one look at these bottles and you'll be transported away to your chateau in the French countryside. Save a bit of wine for the little woman, though - nothing eases the pain of natural childbirth like a good Syrah!


Doesn't This Make You Hate Your Desk Job?

The winemakers that feature the actual landscape of their own wineries have great lives. They get to frolic around in the sun all day, talking to grapes and taste-testing their product. They probably get special winemaker tax breaks. Whatever.

The Enigma of the Duck

OK, so even your recently certified Wine Label Expert had a hard time decoding this one. Out of everyone in the animal kingdom, I would say ducks are not the most graceful nor the most noble species, yet it is impossible to avoid their fluffy, football-shaped bodies in the wine and beer aisle.

In fact, nature's walking bread vacuums are so integral to the wine industry that vicious label wars have been waged over who should be allowed to use what mallard and when.

In a move that I would call pure genius in today's Anas Platyrhynchos-centric industry, one winemaker we encountered at the tasting used a rooster for their logo. Granted, the thinking behind this choice may not have been, "We'll show these fools - if they think wine drinkers like large, fluffy birds, wait till they see THIS," but I would still consider it an important innovation.***

To conclude, all I have left after at least thirty grueling minutes of study is even more questions. Luckily, I am sure I will encounter plenty of opportunities to go out in the field and conduct more research. Until then, I will be focusing all my efforts into getting this song out of my head. Again, you're welcome.

*Title in Progress

**I have tried wearing different colored contacts to see if they diminish the Free Alcohol Effect, but to no avail.

***Rooster-shaped wine pourer aside, their stuff is really, really good.

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