You can spot a natural wine before you taste it: a hazy, jewel-toned color fills a clear bottle with a child-like illustration sprawled across the front. Sometimes there’s a playful visual metaphor—a lightning bolt, perhaps. Or maybe there’s barely anything to it at all. Like its muddled viticultural definition, natural wine labels take many forms, but almost all of them are designed as a signifier of taste.
Natural or not, modern wine labels are a marketing tool. “Wine purchases have always been based on the label,” says Talitha Whidbee, the owner Vine Wine, a natural wine shop in Brooklyn. Labels are a visual shorthand for what you’re going to drink and, more often than not, who you’re going to drink it with. Whidbee remembers 20 years ago when Californian vineyards were fashioning their labels after France’s Bordeaux region so that French wine loyalists would gravitate toward American wine. Today, a similar phenomenon is happening with natural wine, as winemakers coalesce around an aesthetic ethos designed to attract a younger, more design-focused, and sustainably minded customer.
A decade ago, “natural” wine—the messy umbrella term for all things biodynamic, low intervention, sulfite-free, and/or organic—comprised less than 10% of the market. Today, the genre is still niche, but is growing rapidly. That growth can be partially credited to label design, which has become an art form in and of itself. “Social media made wine a visual art for the first time,” says Marissa Ross, Bon Appétit’s former wine editor and one of the original wine “influencers.” Before social media feeds, it was the local wine shop that made selecting a bottle more accessible. The less informed amongst us browsed the endless rows of bottles by seeking out labels that would look best on our table (versus what actually paired well with the fish). Instagram has codified this behavior by standardizing what is visually appealing to the masses, and making it more accessible to those normally excluded from the traditional wine bubble. It’s no longer enough to cite an impressive valley or producer. Winemakers and importers are increasingly aware that they need their bottle design to stand out, too.
“These wine labels are being created by people who don’t know typefaces or design trends.”
Product marketing isn’t new, but in some ways the narrative behind natural wine’s ascension is actually the antithesis of marketing. “These wine labels are being created by people who don’t know typefaces or design trends,” says Katherine Clary, founder and editor of wine publication The Wine Zine. Coming from a background in creative production, Clary is now launching the fifth issue of her zine this spring. Clary’s insight on the familial, amateur design approach to natural wine labeling is largely true. Jason Edward Charles of Vinca Minor, for example, advises handing the crayon over to his daughter for their label design. For Bloomer Creek, employee Tim Sellon found a simple sketch of the owners’ dog Otie, and feeling inspired, tapped their friend Jimmy Wright who offered a doodle from his dream documentation. Vintners Stephanie and Eduard Tscheppe-Eselböck of Gut Oggau called on a close friend and amateur artist to personify the wine portrait sketches (and won a golden lion in Cannes for the work). Distinguishable labels don’t follow a single style; the most popular embrace a handful of aesthetics including sophisticated cartoons, kindergarten-esque drawings, and grocery store list doodles, to name just a few. Bloomer Creek has used drawings from their founder’s childhood; meanwhile, Superglou invented a drunken cat character as its mascot.
As varied as the labels might be, people already have expectations of how natural wine bottles should look. Whidbee says that customers are now refusing wines because they don’t fit into the mold of a cloudy, wax-sealed, clear bottle filled with a brighter color than that of your mom’s favorite chardonnay. “Rosenthal is a wine label that has barely changed, save an updated font. It is a classic wine, and we have to twist people’s arms to buy it,” she says. This attitude has changed the way buyers and importers think about the brands they represent. Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny and François, a renowned NYC-based importer of natural wine, says she’s taken a more hands-on approach with her winemakers in the last couple of years. “I never questioned them,” she explains of how she operated in the past. “Now I feel confident in saying, ‘I love your wine, I love what you’re doing, what do you think if we change the label—and would you let me take artistic direction?’”
Lefcourt’s husband is a commercial photographer, and together they have redesigned labels for a variety of their wineries with the help of artists and illustrators. There is no definitive look to their imports’ designs, but Lefcourt says she looks for collaborators whose work is “outside the box.” As importers-turned-art directors, they’ve created a recognizable canvas for countless vineyards. With Christina wines, for example, they wanted to highlight the insects beneficial to the organic wine growing process. The resulting bottle has a charming, hand-scrawled quality with colorful illustrations of insects surrounding the logo. Other Jenny & François labels feature drawings that pay tribute to your high school watercolor class or evoke the Rorschach test; there are bottles with illustrations that delicately nod to nature; sophisticatedly silly cartoon scenery; and elegantly minimalist typography.
These bottles’ distinctive styles translate to more than just a photogenic tablescape. The right label can make a significant difference in sales. After Lefcourt redesigned La Patience’s staid label with a brighter and more painterly illustration, sales rose 750%. A recent illustrative redesign of Fermina, formerly known as Flos de Pinoso, increased sales by 250%. Stephan Lublin of Natural Wine Company says the shop has seen certain wines sell out quickly when their label design changes. “We had a wine we carried for a while that wasn’t selling. They switched the current vintage to a donkey on a bike, and before we had a chance to buy it, it all sold out.”
By its very nature, natural wine invites an unorthodox marketing approach. “There have been a lot of unconventional wine labels in the natural wine world,” Lefcourt says. “These are not corporate wineries, they’re small producers.” Smaller, locally focused vineyards are intent on telling an intimate story that deviates from the history-dense narratives of more traditional winemakers. “Wine labels from the Old World have developed over hundreds of years; the information that is listed on the label is an outgrowth of laws and tradition that go way back,” says Debra Bermingham, co-owner of Bloomer Creek. “The region is too young for us to feel bound by tradition,” adds her partner, Kim Engle. “We don’t have anything that important to break away from as we look at visuals.”
“The region is too young for us to feel bound by tradition.”
While natural wine has historically had a more casual design process, its ascension (aesthetically, culturally, and monetarily) has spurred the professional design world to get involved. Apartamento Studios, known for their indie publication, designed the label for Vivanterre, a small French winery operated by Patrick Bouju and Justine Loiseau of Domaine La Boheme and owned by Max and Rosie Assoulin, which blew up upon launch last August. “Wine is a great opportunity to express yourself as a graphic designer and have a connection with a product you drink,” says Omar Sosa of Apartamento Studios. He compares the rise of natural wine to independent publications—both went from novelty to mainstream with the help of good design.
There’s no universal authority dictating what counts as good or bad label design, but it’s hard to deny that the bigger natural wine grows, the more professionalized (and potentially homogenized) its label design will become. For the Vivanterre project, Sosa’s team designed something they felt was a singular representation of the winemakers. Drawing inspiration from the architect Gaetano Pesce, they dipped the top of the bottles into wax. They then translated their vision to the label using cut-paper shapes. “We try and use design to express the care that goes into every aspect of this very natural process,” says founder Max Assoulin. “Packaging is an important tiebreaker for someone browsing the shelves at their local wine shop.” The result is pleasingly abstract. There’s organic shapes and dusty colors. A hazy bottle and colorful wax. It looks like a natural wine, and that is, of course, the entire point.