Wine labels exist so that wine drinkers may know what they are buying. Basically a good label easily conveys the name and the particulars of the wine, but it also serves many other functions, from the practical to
the sublime. Labels promote wine. They suggest the sensibilities of the wine-maker and often the sensations inherent in the unopened product. Labels can reflect the winemaker's image of himself and his winery; they can provide a forum for a winemaker to preach. In short, labels are subtle indicators of the winemakers' egos and efforts, and therefore worthy of consideration.
Nowadays, it seems, the more elaborate the label the worse the wine. Generally I avoid depictions of young women in sweatbands, or bearded ancients sipping from beaded goblets, and run from excessive verbiage about cold stabilization or the choice of names for blanc de noirs. Likewise tinsel, flower arrangements, embossing and cameo history. A wine that tries too hard to explain itself is often justly obscure; one represented as "artistic" is usually overpriced. There are exceptions, of course. The labels of Chateau Mouton- Rothschild, probably the most contrived and famous on earth, are attached to a first-growth bordeaux.
America's winemakers are limited in their label design by what they consider restrictive regulations enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Labels must state the brand name, the class (sparkling, dessert, etc.) or type (cabernet, "burgundy," or inventions like Ripple). A varietal designation has to contain at least 75 percent of that grape. The label must also give the appellation of origin (where the grapes were grown) and the name and address of the bottler. It must state the alcoholic content or the type of wine, like "light table wine," unless it is 14 percent or more, in which case the content must be listed. Beyond that, winemakers have a fair amount of latitude within the BATF's notions of design and propriety.
It is surprising that there have not been more memorable California labels. The relationship between simplicity and quality clearly pertains in the case of Ridge Vineyards, whose labels are as austere as they are informative. Another quality producer, Beaulieu Vineyards, has stuck with an old-fashioned label. The German expressionist-like labels of the renowned Heitz Cellars show a winemaker who could just as well be working on a blast furnace. Mondavi's labels offer a handsome typeface and a traditional view of the winery, but the modern architecture doesn't quite jibe with the feeling of age.
Stag's Leap's label is one of the more successful blends of image and information, showing a small stag on a field of white. Another successful label is William Hill's, with minimal words and an imaginative telescopic window opening onto Napa Valley. It shows vineyards, water and mountains; it suggests the arch of the Spanish missions where grapes were first grown in California, and the roundness of good California wine.