Wine marketers share secrets for labels that effectively blend digital and sensory worlds

The role of wine labels in selling wine has increased significantly over the past three decades.

'In the '70s and '80s, not a very designed label would not off-put a person, if they were looking for a specific type of wine,' said Paul Tincknell of Healdsburg-based branding consultancy Tincknell & Tincknell. 'They were walking the shelves, looking for a French chablis. It didn't matter how ordinary the label was. But nowadays, because the competition is so fierce in the U.S. wine market the label does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of making the sale.'

And like they're changing the way companies in a number of industries do business, millennials are impacting the wine packaging design. This demographic is more interested in how products are packaged, branded and marketed than previous generations, Tincknell said.

'They understand they're being marketed to,' he said. 'That's part of the appeal. They want to see people being clever and catching their interest in a direct way.'

Treasury Wine Estates, whose Napa-based Americas group produces a number of North Coast brands such as Beringer and Chateau St. Jean, is amping up the tech to satisfy this desire for clever marketing and brand story-telling.

'It helps the consumer make the decision at the shelf, which we know is the most important,' Michelle Terry, chief marketing officer, told the Business Journal. 'A well-designed label that stands out is one of the most important investments a winery can make.'

In July, the Australian company released a smartphone app called Living Wine Labels that recognizes bottle labels put in front of the camera then delivers an augmented-reality experience. The first brand set up to work with the app was the newly launched 19 Crimes. Pointing the phone camera at the label reveals stories of British criminals of yesteryear.

After more than 1.3 million app downloads and double-digit sales growth from 19 Crimes, Treasury's AR label experience expanded at the beginning of this year to four other brands: The Walking Dead, produced in conjunction with the hit television show and graphic-novel series; Beringer Brothers; Chateau St. Jean; and Gentlemen's Collection.

Pointing the phone at the Walking Dead label will bring up video of characters, and two characters on bottles put side by side will interact with each other. The Beringer Brothers label will come alive with stories of the brand's long heritage in Napa Valley. Chateau St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren talks about her approach. Gentlemen's Collection provides tips for being a modern man.

Retailers have been helping with promotion of the new AR app with store displays encouraging the download of the app and by posting about it on their social media.

An introductory video for the app on Facebook has been viewed 19 million times and shared 25,000 times, Terry said. Over 2,000 Facebook videos of consumers using the app have been posted.

Treasury's isn't the only AR venture for the wine business. Petaluma-based Paragon Label last year rolled out its Out of the Bottle augmented-reality service, which uses Apple iOS and Google Android apps by that name to connect video and other content to labels on the store shelf.

Wine labels must be considered as part of the overall marketing campaign, and that effort is becoming more integrated and digital, according to Christine Martin, owner and creative director of Revel Brand Design in Healdsburg.

'A wine label is no longer a standalone event,' Martin said. 'It is just one important piece of a greater brand universe. It used to be that shelf pop was everything, and now, the tasting room or the shelf at the store isn't necessarily the first place consumers interact with your label.'

That may first come through the sharing of images of the bottle or label online, so labels should be designed to be 'Instagram-friendly,' Martin said. Social media platforms such as Pinterest and Facebook's Instagram are photo-focused.

'There is an adjustment in the market, where wineries realize that the label has to be the brand ambassador and tell the story, and not just have a pretty scripty font,' Martin. That means more focus on graphics and less on typography, heritage and region.


Working with the rise of photo-forward social media is the growing popularity of simplified front labels. When Orin Swift Cellars founding winemaker Dave Phinney introduced The Prisoner Napa Valley red blend in 2000, it's iconic art-focused front label became part of the meteoric rise in the brand. Orin Swift sold it and other brands to Huneeus Vintners in 2010, and those wines were sold to Constellation Brands in 2016 for $285 million.

The front label of The Prisoner features a dark-colored rendition of 'The Little Prisoner' etching by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, who lived 1746–1828, and the brand name in a handwritten-style font. The rest of the information, required by the federal government and to tell the story of the brand, was moved to the back label.

The federal Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates verbiage on beverage alcohol labels, has increasingly taken to treating the back label as the brand label, with its required statements such as varietal name, vintage year, appellation of origin, percentage of alcohol and health warning.

'We're getting a lot of inquiries about looking like The Prisoner,' Tincknell said. 'Our line is, we can do edgy and contemporary, but it must look like your personality and not like a knockoff of The Prisoner. Lightning is not likely to strike the same place twice.'

And part of the minimalist approach is keying into the quest for 'authenticity' from brands, stripped back to their core meaning, Tincknell said.

Two approaches that lean toward the black-label look are CF Napa's work with Larkspur-based O'Neill Vintners & Distillers on the Exitus label and Tincknell & Tincknell's work with Byron Blatty Wines of Los Angeles on the Tremor brand.

Because Exitus was going to be aged three months in Kentucky bourbon barrels, CF Napa went with a look that was more like spirits than typical for wine.

For Tremor, Tincknell gave feedback on Mark Blatty's interest in the dark but contemporary look that's quite different from The Prisoner.

For mass-market wines, typically at a suggested retail price of $6-$10 a bottle, the varietal name is the most important element on the front label, according to Schuemann.

'They will go looking for chardonnays on the shelf, then the part of the shelf in their price point then for what's on sale,' he said.

For higher-end wines, brand and proprietary names, like The Prisoner or Joseph Phelps' Insignia, may be all that's needed, Schuemann said.

'That consumer is already aware of the winery behind the juggernaut brands,' he said.

But imports may need to have a different label to appeal to U.S. consumers, Shuemann said. A frequent job for CF Napa is fixing the hierarchy of elements on the label. For example, French wines tend to have the varietal name played down and the appellation name played up.

'U.S. consumers may have less familiarity with those regions,' Schuemann said.


A general rule of thumb is labels in wider distribution should be refreshed every three to five years for brands that are in wider distribution, consultants say. More direct-to-consumer or boutique brands, commonly vintners producing less than 100,000 cases annually, tend to be redesigned less often, sometimes left unchanged for decades.

'They are not dealing with the market saturation that distributed brands are,' said Dave Schuemann, owner and creative director of CF Napa. 'If you think about in grocery stores in California, there are literally thousands of choices. There is always a fight for attention on the shelves.'

Those tweaks on the larger brands tend to not be dramatic, updating fonts and what's said on the label, shifting artwork.

Brands owners also seek to target brands to the younger set of beverage-alcohol consumers. And as Generation X is aging, the focus has been shifting to millennials.

'Consumers are aging out every three to five years, moving into a different bracket,' Schuemann said.

And the trend toward increasing sales of adult beverages at higher prices and decreasing sales at lower prices is prompting brand owners — these days called 'premiumization' — is also driving redesigns.

'Continuing to look more premium than one's competition, to build in some intrinsic value at its price point, as a way to stave off some of the discounting,' Schuemann said.

For example, a $15-a-bottle brand could be redesigned to look $10 or $15 more expensive, so it can hold its target $15 price point on the store shelf. Otherwise, a retailer may discount the brand to below $12 to appeal to shoppers looking for savings.

Before new labels show up on the next release of a wine, there's at least a two-part process of redesign that can take months. The design work and interaction with the client vintner can take three to five months, or longer, according to Tincknell. And once the new design is chosen, it can take a year or more before consumers see it en masse for a white wine and two or more years for red wines.

The cost of hiring a design and branding team is partly why smaller-scale vintners delay label redesigns, Tincknell said. Another key reason is tradition.

'Wineries are very conservative; they're very cautious,' he said. 'Once they're working on a brand they don't want to lose whatever momentum they have, whatever brand recognition they've built up in the marketplace.'

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at or 707-521-4256.

CLARIFICATION, May 2, 2018: Tincknell & Tincknell gave a second opinion to Mark Blatty on his Tremor label design, but Blatty designed the label himself.

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