Wine: Cute Conquers Quality Again

by Jeff Siegel*

Want to shed a light on how marketing to consumers works these days? Look no further than the wine business.

In the last decade, the emphasis has been on selling consumers what’s on the bottle, as opposed to what’s in it. This is a revolutionary change in the wine business, where, for literally centuries, the only thing that mattered was the quality of the wine. Yet, today, that is becoming increasingly secondary to the label design, especially for wines aimed at the mass market. These new-style labels may feature a clever name like Smashed Grapes or Marilyn Merlot, a sweet-looking critter (kangaroos and lizards, but also fish, sheep and turtles), or nifty artwork like Red Flyer, Red Truck and Red Tractor. But the goal is the same. Cute labels not only sell wine, but they’re bringing in new customers – especially women, and especially women between 21 and 35 years of age, a demographic that’s all the rage these days.

And it’s just going to get worse. As designer Thomas Reiss of California’s Kraftwerk Design told Wines & Vines magazine: “Most likely you will see more labels with new, edgier, less traditional design. The wine industry is evolving to reflect more and more the styles and themes of popular culture. As generations X and Y become more involved both as consumers and label designers, this process is going to accelerate.”

This does not mean that a cute label means bad wine. What it means is that wine is being marketed like toothpaste or laundry detergent, and that speaks volumes about the changes in the marketing business (as well as its cynicism). In the old days, which probably ended in the mid-1980s, there was an element of education in advertising, something that has all but vanished. Consider: Do most consumers know why one toothpaste or detergent is better than the other? Nope. And no one tries to explain why. Instead, we get babes with dazzling teeth or incredibly cute housewives washing clothes. This doesn’t necessarily mean marketers think consumers are stupid; rather, it means they figure they don’t have to explain anything to sell their product. All they have to do is whip out the razzle-dazzle

It’s the same thing with wine. Why bother selling it on its merits when you can put a kangaroo on the label or call it Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush? One reason that Robert Parker, whose wine criticism drives so many wine writers crazy (including me), is so successful is that his 100-point scoring system complements this kind of marketing. It allows consumers to get their cute label and a quality product, too – assuming they don’t mind substituting their judgment for Parker’s.

Which they apparently don’t.

*When he isn't writing here or for the Advocate magazines in Dallas, Jeff Siegel is the wine columnist for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.

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Anonymous said...

I do not wish to lurge uncontrollably from a conversation about wine into yet another rant about politics and American culture, but unhappily I cannot resist.

In Italy where I live, the Italian Government has carefully legislated how wine must be produced and bottled right down to how the label appears. I know because the company I work for sells machinery that is used in wine packaging (and many other products for that matter). Have you ever seen the wax filling in the bottle tip of a some wine bottles..? Yes, it is illegal here (of course, not that there is any thing wrong with wax filling of the bottle tip, heavan forbid anyone think I believe that...)
The bottom line in any case, is that if you buy a bottle of wine in Italy you better be informed about which ones are the best (they're really all quite good) because you sure the hell won't have a label looking much differnt from one type to another.

Now I shall devolve from wine.... For those who believe blindly in less government I must point out, that the price you may pay is that you shall never drink a red or white wine that is much better than Coca Cola !

Laura Snedeker said...


I'm curious about your comment regarding government regulation. Have the regulations on wine production remained fairly static regardless of which party held power in Italy?

Anonymous said...


I have only lived here 8 years ... that is 5 minutes in Italy time.

in any case, even Forza Italia, which is a coalition of the center right to hard right, looks much more like Bill Clinton than George Bush.

I have always felt that American less government is a slick marketing con job by the Reaganites that confuses most Americans to vote against their self interests.

So to make a long story short, most Europeans don't see the role of government in nearly the minimalist terms proposed by the American right.

While I can see the seed of liberty in the concept of "less government" and I think that is good, I think the whole thing is abused and used to manipulate the public.

Jeff Siegel said...

I recommend a French film called Mondovino, which kicked up a lot of dust discussing just these issues. The wine business, which is now controlled by handful of multi-nationals, aided and abetted by Parker (see Elin McCoy's book The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste), has become the poster child for the evils of globalization in several European countries, and especially France. I don't know that I agree with all of it, but the wine business is different, despite attempts in countries like Italy to prevent these kinds of changes.

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