Judging by Appearances

New Orleans artist Matt Rinard has a storefront gallery on Royal Street and produces posters for a variety of community events, but his work sees the most exposure, by far, thanks to an Australian wine maker called Big Ass Wines. The wines, distributed internationally, feature designs on their labels of an iridescent kangaroo created by Rinard. They grace the shelves of wine shops and grocery stores and even the sides of delivery trucks.

“They approached me a few years ago and wanted something really dramatic to get people’s attention,” says Rinard.

That’s the mission of many winemakers and marketers these days as the number of vineyards grows and the competition for consumer attention intensifies. Classic wine label design might feature the name of the winemaker, a drawing of a chateau and a clinical breakdown of the wine’s provenance and characteristics, plus the obligatory government warning about the dangers of over-consumption. But that was a design aesthetic that never anticipated the market success of wines with names like Fat Bastard or Goats Do Roam, a South African vineyard’s riff on the classic French wine Cotes du Rhone.

“Fat Bastard went from being a shock name to becoming the best selling French wine in the U.S.A.,” says Peter May, a British wine writer whose book Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape chronicles such eye-catching wine names and labels. “It succeeded because it’s darn good wine and the name is memorable.”

Fat Bastard has since been joined on shelves by a Syrah from the same winemakers called Utter Bastard and a plethora of other bizarre, descriptive or just plain funny names and labels. There’s Flying Pig, Old Fart, Old Tart, Perfect with Pasta, Writer’s Block and What the Birds Left, to name just a very few. The label of The Cataclysm, a Cabernet Sauvignon from J. Lohr Winery in San Jose, Calif., features an earthquake monitor graph and explains that the grapes for the wine were harvested on Oct. 17, 1989 — the day a major earthquake hit nearby and ruined the freshly picked vines. The Unpronounceable Grape is the English-language label name of a Hungarian wine more formally called Cserszegi Fuszeres.

Zinfindel in particular seems to invite puns, and gets them from wines like Tex Zin from Texas winemaker Messina Hof, Sin Zin from California and Cardinal Zin, from Bonny Doon Vineyards also in California, which sports label art from Ralph Steadman, the artist who illustrated many of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s books. The label of Bonny Doon’s Big House Red features a drawing of an inmate scaling down a prison wall on bed sheets and takes its name from the vineyard located near a California state prison. Therapy Vineyard in Canada has a whole series of wines with Rorschach inkblots on their labels.

The Harper Hill vineyard in California makes a Chardonnay called White Trash White along with a red table wine called Redneck Red, whose label brags of the “deep aroma of true, undiluted petroleum” to be found within. Sonoma’s Cleavage Creek bears a photo of a female model in a low cut dress and a promise that 10 percent of the wine’s profits will be donated to breast cancer research.

Toad Hollow, a California vineyard operated by Todd “Toad” Williams — the brother of actor Robin Williams — uses a distinctive toad figure on its labels. Right after Hurricane Katrina, the vineyard quickly redesigned the label for a newly bottled Merlot, called it Katrina Recovery Merlot and shipped it out with the pledge to donate all winery proceeds to hurricane recovery efforts here.

“We were looking at this really nice wine that hadn’t yet been labeled and thought, ‘let’s do something special with this,’” says Erik Thorson, chief financial officer with Toad Hollow. He says they raised $120,000.

Other winemakers bend their creative impulses toward helping the consumer in various ways. For instance, France’s M. Chapoutier vineyard began printing Braille labels in 1997, offering all the usual information on their bottles for the visually impaired. A French Chardonnay called Ten Degrees has a thermometer on its label that indicates, in Celsius, when the wine has reached its proper serving temperature. South Africa’s Rude Boy Chardonnay and Rude Girl Shiraz, take it a step further, with temperature sensitive labels that appear to disrobe the models pictured on the bottles when the wines reach their optimum temperature.

May, the wine writer, traces the trend of eye-catching labels back to 1945 when France’s renowned Mouton-Rothschild winery began printing the work of famous artists on its bottles of first growth Bordeaux. And May says that as early as the 1960s an Australian winemaker was marketing red wines as Kanga Rouge.

But May says an important factor in the recent proliferation of unusual wine labels in the U.S., at least, was a change in government regulators here. He says the previous regulator, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, arbitrarily rejected applications for such off-kilter labels. But in 2003, the job of approving alcohol labeling was moved to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, part of the Department of Treasury.

“They have been much more liberal, hence the amazing increase in different names and pictures you see now,” says May.

Still, the American market does not always get the full monty when it comes to creative or risqué wine labels. Most bottles of Peter Lehman Semillon from Australia, for instance, show a stylized painting of a bare-chested woman admiring a glass of wine. For the U.S. market, the winemaker asked its artist to add a dress.

By Ian McNulty.