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First Impressions: The Art of the Label
— Napa, Sonoma, & Marin


The label on the bottle is often the first thing that attracts many of us to a wine. More than just conveying the necessary information on varietal, vintage and origin, labels speak to us visually and emotionally, telegraphing signals of what we might expect to find inside the bottle. Wine, like art, evokes an emotional response. Both wine and art appeal to our sense of aesthetics, focusing our awareness on the contemplation of beauty and taste.

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  • Writer
    Lori Warner

The label on the bottle is often the first thing that attracts many of us to a wine. More than just conveying the necessary information on varietal, vintage and origin, labels speak to us visually and emotionally, telegraphing signals of what we might expect to find inside the bottle. Wine, like art, evokes an emotional response. Both wine and art appeal to our sense of aesthetics, focusing our awareness on the contemplation of beauty and taste. As with artworks, the quality of a wine is dependent more on the interpretation by the receiver than the skill of the creator. Composition, complexity, texture and balance are the hallmarks of greatness in wine and in art, allowing a deeper enjoyment the longer partaken.

For centuries, wine has inspired artistic creation and been celebrated in great works of art. But art also inspires wine, which winemakers seek to express by the artwork on their label designs. If the label tells the story of the wine, then labels designed by famous artists promise excitement, intrigue, depth and charm. A surprising new label project by Cuvaison Winery, paradoxically four decades in the making, is one such story.

This year Cuvaison, located in the Carneros region of Napa Valley, will unveil a series of new labels designed by none other than the iconic Andy Warhol, celebrated king of the pop art movement. The labels will appear on a series of three limited edition box sets to be released over the next several years. The story of these labels began 35 years ago with Alexander Schmidheiny, a serious collector of modern art, the youngest son of the Swiss industrialist Schmidheiny family, and a friend of Andy Warhol. In the early 1980s, Alexander was charged with overseeing the development and expansion of the Cuvaison estate, recently purchased by his family. As the story goes, when asked what he thought of the Cuvaison wine being poured at dinner with the Schmidheinys, Warhol famously responded, “What a lousy label!” What followed was a challenge for Warhol to create a new label for Cuvaison.

As was his method, Warhol first took dozens of Polaroid photographs of grapes scattered across a surface. From these he conceived, designed and screened patterns of grapes, as only Warhol could, creating more than 50 beautiful images for the Cuvaison labels. The grape images were then incorporated with the other label elements, with Warhol paying attention even to such details as font design, letter spacing and overall label layout. Amusingly, Warhol’s eye for detail apparently did not extend to proofreading, as some of the early label designs included a misspelling by Warhol designating that the wine originated in “Nappa Valley.” Though Warhol artworks have been used to decorate other wine labels a time or two in the past, the Cuvaison label images are believed to be the only ones designed entirely by Warhol. Nonetheless, those label images were somehow tucked away and mostly forgotten about.

It would take another quarter of a century before Cuvaison breathed new life into the label project started by Warhol so many years before. Working closely with The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., the winery resurrected the treasure trove of Warhol’s label images, selecting nine to grace each of two wines and the collector’s box in the planned three-edition series. The first series release is expected in September 2016. It will include a 2014 estate-grown chardonnay from Carneros and a 2014 estate-grown red Bordeaux blend from Brandlin Vineyard on Mount Veeder. The commemorative keepsake box will also feature another of Warhol’s labels.

The marketing of wines with beautiful labels was first conceived of by the visionary Baron Philippe de Rothschild, legendary owner of Château Mouton-Rothschild, one of the most revered brands in the world of wine. In 1922, when he was just twenty years old, Baron Philippe took over as proprietor of the winery. Two years later, in a bold move that would revolutionize wine production, Baron Philippe decided that all of Mouton’s wine would be bottled at the estate. This was a departure from the custom of the day of sending it in bulk to wine merchants for maturing, bottling and marketing. He enlisted the prominent poster artist Jean Carlu to design the artwork for the 1924 vintage label. It would be twenty years, though, before Baron Philippe, in an effort to increase the brand’s marketability, returned to the idea of commissioning a leading artist to create label art for Mouton’s prized wines.

Since 1945, Mouton has sought out a prominent contemporary artist to create an original work to adorn the label of each year’s release. With the exception of occasional years when special commemorations were made, this tradition has continued for seven decades. The works that grace the Mouton labels are from the some of the most notable artists of the 20th century, including Salvador Dali (1958), Joan Miró (1969), Robert Motherwell (1975), and Balthus (1993). Each artist is given complete artistic freedom in creating the art for that year’s label, although many designs have incorporated the château, vineyard scenes, grapes or Mouton’s symbol, the ram. Andy Warhol produced the artwork for the 1975 label. True to form, he worked from photographs to create side-by-side line drawings of Baron Philippe in profile, which he then splashed with color.

On two rare occasions, more than one label was issued for an artist. In 1978, Montreal abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle created two versions of the label for Mouton: overlapping circles of color evocative of the bottoms of wine bottles. Baron Philippe could not decide between the two, so he released half the vintage with one label and half with the other. And in 1993, when a line drawing of a nude woman by French artist Balthus was rejected by the licensing board for distribution in the United States, Baron Philippe released the vintage in the U.S. with a blank label in honor of Balthus’ work. While each of the labels from those vintages is prized by collectors due to the special circumstances, the very collaboration of the premier cru Bordeaux with the foremost artists of the last 70 years has resulted in a product that is clearly as much about the label as the wine.

Nearly all brands commission their label designs, and many include artwork as part of the label. However, only a handful of wineries have followed Mouton’s model of a sustained, regular program of labels by different artists each year. Since 1974, Vietti, one of the first importers of Italian wines to the United States, was also one of the first to label certain special wines with commissioned original artworks. The first hundred labels of the print run are signed by the artist, and each artwork is used only once for the wine of that particular vintage.

Vietti originally focused exclusively on the works of leading contemporary Italian artists, featuring the creations of such greats as witty illustrator Claudio Bonichi (1974), master engraver Gianni Gallo (1989), and more recently, photographer Oliviero Toscani (2013), the genius behind the controversial Benetton ads of the 1980s and 1990s. In later years, however, the winery broadened its reach to include other internationally prominent artists. From the United States they included realist painter Robert Cottingham, photographer Jerry Uelsmann and pop art artist Wayne Theibaud, as well as works from Russian and Chinese artists. Since the 1982 vintage, the “wine with art label” collection has been reserved exclusively for important vintages from the winery’s Villero vineyard.

Closer to home, Kenwood Vineyards in the Sonoma Valley was the first United States winery to follow Mouton’s marketing lead. Kenwood introduced an artist series label with the 1975 vintage. Every year since then, Kenwood Vineyards’ Artist Series cabernet sauvignon has featured a significant work of art on the label of every vintage. Now in its fourth decade, it is the longest running artist series release, after Mouton. In general, Kenwood has selected artworks and sought permission to use the pieces for its Artist Series labels, though on several occasions it has, like Mouton, specially commissioned artworks from contemporary artists.

The first commission was for its inaugural release, when Kenwood commissioned noted San Francisco poster artist David Lance Goines in 1978 to create an original work that would dress its first reserve-style cabernet sauvignon. Foreshadowing Balthus’ work for Mouton, Goines produced “Naked Lady,” a painting of a naked young woman reclining on a vineyard hillside. At that time the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the agency responsible for approving the label, ruled that it was obscene or indecent, and insisted that the figure be deleted from the image. Somewhat in jest, Goines redesigned the label with a reclining skeleton on a hillside, but that piece was also rejected. The label was eventually issued as simply a grassy hillside without the nude. Goines and Kenwood, however, ultimately prevailed. Twenty years after the first submission, Kenwood re-submitted the original nude watercolor of “Naked Lady,” and it was approved without comment. Thus, the very first Kenwood Artist Series label actually became, in 1998, the 20th-anniversary label for the 1994 vintage of the reserve cabernet sauvignon. Clearly, in the intervening two decades, times had changed.

After a decade or so of purely contemporary artwork, Kenwood began incorporating various influential artists of the past, using fine works of art from masters such as Joan Miro (1987), Pablo Picasso (1989), Henry Miller (1992), Vincent van Gogh (2003) and Paul Klee (2005) for its Artist Series releases. Kenwood interspersed these classics with works from significant modern artists, including Wayne Theibaud (1996) and popular street artist Shepard Fairey (2004), who has been called the Andy Warhol of his generation.

Though it was relatively short-lived compared to Mouton and Kenwood, another notable artist series from California was the original duck stamp artwork for Napa Valley’s Paraduxx Winery. In this artist label series, which ran from 1994 through 2008, a leading wildlife artist was selected each year to create the artist’s expression of a pair of ducks from any that were native to the Pacific Flyway. The artist was free to choose the duck, scene, style and medium to render a work in the form of a wildlife conservation stamp. In addition to becoming the artwork for the label, these bold and colorful creations also were released as limited edition prints, hand-signed and numbered by the artist, along with an original label from the vintage.

Over the fifteen-year run, the labels showcased artworks by prominent award-winning contemporary wildlife artists including Daniel Smith, a well-established conservation stamp designer from Montana whose acrylic painting of the Canvasback duck appeared on the 2002 vintage, Quebec artist Patrice Wolput, who created an oil painting of Red Head ducks for 2005, and Colorado artist Jay Snellgrove, who illustrated a pair of Hooded Mergansers in pastel pencil for the 2007 vintage. One of the most unusual pairs of ducks was painted by San Francisco native Rich Radigonda. For the 2000 vintage, Radigonda painted a real Widgeon drake huddled next to a Widgeon decoy that, in the painting, had unmoored and washed up to shore. The Widgeon decoy used as a model for the composition was an antique 1930s carving that is part of a collection of antique carved decoys owned by the winery.

With roughly 9,000 wineries in the United States alone, and literally hundreds of thousands of labeled wines available for purchase in the United States, winemakers will continue to be pressed to distinguish themselves by reputation, branding, innovation and, of course, marketing. Key to marketing is creating a product that appeals to consumers because of what is on the outside as well as what is inside. The rarity of great works of art gracing limited edition and reserve-style wines creates a product that is greater than the sum its parts. Whether motivated by the wine itself, the artwork on the label or, in all likelihood, the combination of the two, collectors covet these wines.

Today, the 1975 Mouton is generally considered to be past its prime, possibly disappointing and even potentially undrinkable. Nonetheless, that wine, with its label designed by Andy Warhol, still sells on the secondary market for hundreds of dollars a bottle. Undoubtedly this is a testament to the value of the whole product: wine, bottle and label. Clearly, the best time to buy a collectible wine is at the time of its original release, to capture the appreciation that comes with aging a wine to its peak. And with the multitude of beautifully rendered label designs, special commissions and master artworks adorning the special release wines of near and far, there is simply no reason to choose a wine with a lousy label.

Lori Warner is a lawyer, a writer and the manager of Lincolnwood Peck, a company founded to support creative artistic endeavors.

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