What's in a wine label?

The name of the winery and the kind of wine, you're thinking, and not much else. Well, think again. Labels ring subliminal gongs. Some people buy wines simply because of the roses behind the word "riesling" or the suggestion of romance in a picture of a French cha~teau on a bottle of bordeaux.

Often those pretty flowers and grand piles of Gallic stone exist only in a marketer's imagination. The rigors behind label choice and design lie unsuspected by the general public as they view a vintner's shelves. A label can be a keyhole through which we peek at a wine's contents as well as the proprietor's personality and the world in which he operates.

Fine wine, and by that I mean anything in a bottle without a handle, has a built-in problem in this country: the notion of exclusivity. Most winemakers must decide whether to capitalize on this image or to minimize it in the interest of a broader appeal. The resulting strategies, as expressed in label design, include a fascinating array of brilliance, candor, snobbery and sometimes even calculated hilarity.

Because the price of wine is often maintained partly by the image of its exclusivity, the look most often sought by wine labels is "elegant." Something elegant is usually well made -- and expensive.

But wine in general might seem less daunting -- and less precious -- if winemakers presented their products less somberly. Consider the label on the Pat Paulsen Vineyards American Gothic Red (gamay beaujolais): "This . . . is an attempt in low-overhead, high-profit, cheap Commercialism," the label tells us. "Red and dry as the Southern sands that buried their old outside facilities this wine will go well with chitlins, biscuits and gravy, or the gal next door."

Another master of the madcap label, Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, has put Marcel Proust on the labels of some wines and a flying saucer on others. His most recent addition is something called "Grahm Crew," which shows a demented-looking group of sailors, under the mad eye of Captain Grahm himself, sailing in a staved-in wine cask.

In fact, Grahm Crew's chardonnay and his generic red sell very well. That has more to do with the quality of the wine than the glued-on whimsy. "I do this mainly to amuse myself," says Grahm, who admits that some of his colleagues in California are less than thrilled with his irreverence.

If elegance, puns or flowers don't sell your wine, then you as a winemaker can always have your winery painted by an artist in a way that suggests age and tradition. If that doesn't work, you could put a national hero on the label, tacitly suggesting that if the hero were alive today, he would almost certainly be drinking your cabernet.

I know one winemaker who put his hobby on the label. David S. Stare, of Dry Creek Vineyard, likes to sail and so graces his wines with sailboats. I wouldn't think a sailor would want to be up a dry creek, but the prospect apparently doesn't bother Stare or the people who buy his generally superior product.

There are, of course, a few things that must appear on a wine label, as required by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. These are brand name, alcohol content, the name and address of the producer, the net contents of the bottle and the class or type of wine.

The BATF's permissible options include a varietal designation on the label (provided the wine is at least 75 percent of the grape designated); the vintage; the appellation of origin or the viticultural area; and the words "estate bottled." The BATF's reaction to the rest, including art and humor, is hard to predict.

A few wineries have had their wrists slapped. In a celebrated case a few years ago, the BATF rejected a label application by Kenwood Vineyards to launch a series that included a print of a nude girl on a hillside. "The drawing of the young lady must be deleted," the BATF ruled. "More specifically, the Bureau regards the picture as 'obscene or indecent' under the regulations."

As a joke, the label was resubmitted showing a skeleton in the same position, instead of a "young lady." "Rejected," said the BATF, "particularly in light of current opinion on the fetal alcohol syndrome and alcoholism."

The Italian cooperative Livon, a producer of excellent white wines, recently ran afoul of the BATF. The Italians were told to redesign a quite beautiful label they had commissioned from the world-renowned artist Erte'. Unfortunately, Erte''s rendition of a mythic winged female figure included discreetly drawn breasts.

Livon was told by the BATF -- occasionally more vigilante than vigilant -- to transform the Erte' figure into something androgynous (and considerably less beautiful). When 350 cases of Livon wine were discovered in San Francisco last year with the original label, a BATF employe ordered the importer to draw brassieres on 4,200 mythic winged female figures. The importer had to comply -- using a tiny brush and gold-leaf paint -- or lose his shirt.

All of this suggests that a label is an acutely personal object that can evoke entirely different responses from different people. Small wonder that winemakers and wine marketers spend so much time thinking about the bits of paper they paste on otherwise indistinguishable bottles. ::