On a recent trip to the fish counter at Whole Foods, I absentmindedly looked over at a large display of white wine across the aisle. Then, turning my attention back to the fish, I did a double take.
Wait -- was that wine really called Little Penguin?
Indeed it was, and next to it was a display of wine called Smoking Loon, whatever that means. A few days later a friend happened to ask me about "that wine with the almost offensive name" referring to the popular French chardonnay Fat Bastard. What's going on, she asked?
So I began paying attention to some of the wine bottles popping up around the area with eye-catching, funky labels to complement their funny names: Goats do Roam ( a play on Cote du Rhone), Love My Goat, Three Thieves, Tin Roof, Jest Red and others.
What's going on, it turns out, is a creative effort by a small but increasingly visible group of winemakers to make wine less intimidating and more popular, especially with the twenties crowd.
But what started as an innovative and amusing marketing gimmick has taken off in a much bigger way because of particularly favorable business conditions in the winemaking industry. Now it's an industry trend, with major wineries introducing their own quirky brands to compete with new labels that are catchier, simpler, more affordable and pronounceable than your average Chaeauneuf-du-Pape, and of surprisingly high quality.
In short, these funky new wines are flying out of stores.
"These are some of our best-selling products," said Marc Jonna, national wine buyer for Whole Foods Markets. And now Jonna, too, is changing the way he buys wines.
"I've been in the business over 20 years -- I would say now packaging is about 10 percent of my decision making," Jonna said. "Before I never thought about it."
A catchy package, whether it's the design of the label, the quirkiness of the name, or both, has clearly struck the industry as an important way to nurture a future generation of wine buyers. Young adults, who are increasingly interested in purchasing wine, are outspoken about not wanting a complicated French or German name they'll never remember or pronounce, much less spell, to their friends.
The industry believes that if it can encourage such consumers to drink wine by offering them something approachable, they will eventually graduate to the finer, more traditional wines that still dominate.
"Wines that are cleverly marketed . . . bring in people who are in that 25-to-30 age group, just post-college, getting into wine," said J.B. Skelton, the manager of the small Washington wine shop Best Cellars. "Then they want to learn more about it, and they do start branching out."
But what makes the funky wine phenomenon so successful -- and increasingly accepted even within the serious and tradition-bound winemaking community -- is that it's not just about the influence of a younger generation. It's actually a movement that has been developing in increments for years, and seems to hold widespread appeal for wine buyers of all ages.
One of the reasons Australian wines have grown so popular is because their labels often feature animals -- long recognized as powerful emotional tools in marketing (along with babies). Yellow Tail Chardonnay, sporting a kangaroo on the label, has been a top seller for years, and retailers say that when it was first introduced, it just stuck in people's minds. Customers would walk into wine stores and simply ask for "that yellow wine."
"They're fun -- people love kangaroos on labels, frogs on labels, rabbits on labels," Jonna said.
And the industry seems to have decided there's nothing wrong with that, if it means selling more wine. But the current state of the wine business is adding incentive to the development of humorous and ironic brands.
In the wake of a wine boom during the red-hot economy of the late 1990s, there has been an explosion in the number of wine labels available to retailers. Anything a winemaker can do to get a shopper's attention -- much less a retail buyer's attention -- is going to help move bottles.
It's a lesson that the New York winery Bully Hill Vineyards learned in the 1980s, when the winery introduced an offbeat label called Love My Goat, featuring an unconventional, hand-drawn design. To everyone's surprise, the wine became the vineyard's best seller, said Adam LaPierre, national sales manager for Bully Hill, and ever since then the winery has used unusual label designs and names.
Recently, LaPierre said, the winery has found much more interest from retailers, especially after the launch nearly two years ago of Bully Hill's Banty Red, which features an enormous rooster on the label.
"There are so many wines that are the same coming out of California, and so many more wines on the market, that the retailer and consumer all want something that's unique," he said. Banty Red has been a hit "because the label definitely stands out on the shelf."
There are not only more wine labels on the market, there is also a glut of wine. The '90s boom prompted intensive growing efforts that in the past two years have produced an oversupply of wine. This bumper crop has created many opportunities for winemakers to buy high-quality bulk wine for relatively low prices and play with the marketing. It's relatively easy now for entrepreneurs to create new labels with lower prices aimed at younger and more value-conscious buyers. "You can buy it and bottle it and get it to market for less than $10 a bottle and still make a profit, which you couldn't do two years ago," said Cyril Penn, editor of industry trade magazine Wine Business Monthly. "These kinds of things are cropping up all over."
To make the point, Penn said he was staring at a bottle on his desk of a new wine called Le Snoot, launched this month by Snob Hill Winery, which features a pack of dressed-up, partying pigs on the label.
The possibilities offered by so much excess wine are irresistible to many veteran winemakers. The well-reviewed and increasingly visible Three Thieves brand, for example, is actually a co-creation of three serious winemakers from Chateau Routas, Joel Gott Wines and Signal Ridge. They've been buying high-quality, well-priced bulk wine -- first zinfandel, then cabernet sauvignon -- and putting it in one-liter jugs (a third bigger than a conventional bottle of wine) that sell for $9.99.
Winemakers are adding to the accessibility of such wines by abandoning corks and instead using screw tops, which are now vaulting into vogue even on high-quality wines. Bonny Doon Vineyard has completely converted to screw tops, and its sales are up 30 percent this year.
"A lot of people will buy the wine because they can open the wine," Penn said.
That might be mortifying to some in the business, but it bodes well for Three Thieves' latest creation: a pinot grigio in Tetra boxes, the packaging that is widely used for shelf-stable milk and other liquid food products.
Will it fly? Who knows? But even more than goofy labels or screw tops, it'll certainly go a long way toward helping the industry shed its elitist image.
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