Wine is not a book, but it may be judged that way!

How does Mr. Winebuyer decide to buy a bottle of wine he cannot taste, smell or even see?

The saying goes, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Those words of wisdom once carried more weight when books were purchased off the shelf of a bookstore lined with thousands of covers. You most likely bought a book that came with some kind of recommendation, like the New York Times best seller list. After all, that is really all you had to go on, and the word from a few friends who read as much as you did. Today, however, most of us download a book to our device, and we choose that book in many cases by how many stars it has and what the readers have to say about it.  We are blessed to have so much data to sift through to find that perfect read, and most of the covers are thumbnails, and are inconsequential to the choosing of a book. We still listen to friends who read and will likely read a book recommended by a friend.

Wine, however, is a different type of buying decision than choosing a book. When you walk down the aisles of your favorite wine store or market, you are bombarded with thousands of choices, and although the same types of recommendations like the NYT Bestseller List exists in the myriad of wine periodical ratings, those same ratings carry less weight than that book recommendation from the Times. Today’s wine buyers are savvy and know that wine is subjective, and a 90 point score may mean something to some people, but to most, it is just another number. Wine producers don’t want to admit it, but the first consideration a wine buyer makes is the price range they are willing to spend on that day.  Once that is decided, the choice of which wine to buy becomes a lot harder.  That decision is the same whether it is made in a tasting room or a big box wine and spirit store.  Budget is the first consideration.

So how does Mr. Winebuyer, or Ms. Winebuyer decide which wine to buy if he/she are not able to taste the wines that are within their budget, and they are not swayed by the numerous scores lining the shelves along with the wines?  By the wine equivalent of the book cover – the label!  Looking at a shelf of $15.00 wines, the consumer will gravitate towards the labels that stand out, are more attractive to the eye, or are somehow more clever than the rest.  I recently attended the Exhibit Only portion of the Annual Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, and my primary goal was to find and meet the vendors who help to package the wine once it is ready for the consumer.  I always marvel at the huge farming equipment, presses and other production equipment, lab equipment and of course barrels.  Millions are spent on these critical pieces to fine wine making, but so often the same care that goes into the wine production doesn’t translate to the wine packaging.  In many cases what ultimately gets the wine into the consumer’s hand is the label, telling the customer who made the wine, what the wine is, and ultimately helping the consumer decide to buy the wine.  The label is the “Face” of the wine, it defines the wine before the consumer has even tasted it.

So back to our wine consumer in the store, shopping for that bottle of wine for the evening.  She sifts through the boring labels and finds two she really likes, and can identify with.  They are in her price range, and she loves the varietal of wine in the bottle.  Now, remember, she is wine savvy, and she knows nothing of either of the two brands, but they caught her eye, and she has to pick one. Now if one of the wines has a rating, this is where it will make a difference, because she has narrowed the field and the 89 rating is enough for her to try it over the other bottle without a rating.  However, if a score decision is not the case, (and I believe that is the majority of wine buying choices) the choice comes down to which bottle looks the best.  Not even the finest wine judges can judge a wine while it is still in the bottle, but consumers do it every day, and they will even say “It looked good, and I wanted to try it”, as if the visual queues the bottle is presenting are translated into a virtual taste of the wine, giving her the impression “It is a good wine”!

NPR did a piece called “Drinking with your Eyes: How Wine Labels Trick Us Into Buying.” The studies are all there to support my assumptions and observations, and being both a designer and a marketer, I understand how the process works. Designers always want to push the design envelope, and marketers want to capture a share of the market. Craft a clever label or unique package and you can imply things like quality, status and perceived value! A label can make a wine look more expensive, appear to be of better quality, and give a certain status to the buyer.  In an article by food and beverage writer Matthew Latkiewicz called “Sloshed: Maybe We Should Be Judging Wines by Their Labels” he flat out says “Like plenty of normal people, I buy wine mostly based on the label. Sure, price is important — and those little cards with the scores help, too — but, frankly, if I do not like the label, I will not buy the wine, simple as that.” He goes on to give examples on his observations and shows example labels.  A great portion is meant to be humorous, but like all comedy, there is truth under all the jokes. I found his “Graphic Design Subclasses” spot on! Even his article title sounds like the old Judge a Book by Its Cover axiom.

I did find some very cool label and packaging ideas at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, and a lot of it I will work to incorporate into my label design projects.  There were no less than 35 label companies represented at the Symposium, far more than any of the wine production or wine storage companies.  When you add in the the packaging, bottle and the closure companies, you get an understanding of the importance that should be placed on this part of the wine to consumer process. Ultimately, if your wine is carefully crafted, tastes amazing and is truly outstanding, you should want to dress it up in a beautiful package that speaks to its quality and accessibility!

Mr. and Ms. Winebuyer should not judge a book by its cover, anymore than they should judge a wine by its label, but the reality is wine IS judged by its label in the vastly competitive world of retail shelf space.  Look at your wine labels with an impartial and critical eye, and strive to make the label and packaging match the quality and excitement that is the wine inside!

Photo from APHOLOS| Brand Identity manufacturers of metal labels.