From my wine-geek perspective, it’s easy to lose sight of this marketing reality. I look askance at a cute label as a sign the wine is lacking. That’s not fair, and I decided I needed to recalibrate my perspective.
So I consulted my daughter. Emma, 19, is a 2018 graduate of the Visual Arts Center program at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, Md. Aside from being a more talented artist than she gives herself credit for, she has a keen cynicism for how corporate America manipulates us with marketing. Emma is not at all interested in wine (or so she lets on), but she agreed to accompany me to three stores in Washington to pick out some wines at each that appealed to her just for the labels. I would buy the wines and then evaluate them from my jaded, wine-geek perspective.
We went to Trader Joe’s near Union Market to sample inexpensive grocery store wines. Then we visited Domestique, a boutique shop specializing in natural wines, and Grand Cata, which features wines from South America, Spain and Portugal. Here are the wines she picked out, with her explanation of why she liked the labels.
The Delicious Monster 2018 from McGregor, South Africa. $6 at Trader Joe's. Emma immediately spied this on the bottom shelf — not prime real estate — and said, "Oh, this is so marketed to millennials." The name refers to the monstera plant, which, to be honest, I had never heard of. "The green-and-white label, the water color painting of the plant leaves are very millennial," Emma explained. The wine is 60 percent chenin blanc, with the rest chardonnay and muscat. It is pleasant and citrusy, with some floral notes. And at $6, worth stocking up for a party or even as a summer house white.
Lazy Bones Cabernet Franc 2017, Paso Robles, Calif. $7 at Trader Joe's. The white-on-black label depicting a nude woman reclining on a sofa with a riot of pillows and checkered throws, lazily stroking a cat, appealed to Emma's artistic side. "It has a Matisse feel to it, and I like the way the lettering is integrated into the illustration," she said. The wine is rather good, if simple. It has some of the white pepper, Bing cherry character of cabernet franc, with a moderate finish.
La Boutanche Melon 2016, Vin de France. $19 at Domestique. "Okay, I'm so predictable, but I just love French bulldogs," Emma said, spying this wine almost as soon as we entered the store. "I also like cartoons," she added. The drawing on this label shows a bulldog with an attitude, clutching a wine glass in one paw and a bottle in its mouth, glowering at the viewer as if it suspected we might be hiding another treat in our hands. "It kind of looks like Danny DeVito," Emma said. Melon is the grape of muscadet in the Loire Valley. This label tells us nothing of where the wine comes from, except for VDF for Vin de France. The wine doesn't reveal much either.
Cantina Indigeno Vino Rosato, Italy. $23 at Domestique. This label stood out in part for negative reasons. "I like this drawing, though it doesn't make sense," Emma said of the red-ink cartoon of several European-looking revelers raising their hands toward a Native American totem pole emblazoned with the word Indigeno. "Why is an Italian wine using indigenous imagery?" This is not your typical rosé. Deep pink, almost red in color, and made with the montepulciano grape, it is hazy and almost fizzy. It tastes a bit sour and vinegary, with bright cherry flavors. It's unconventional, and it tasted different with every sip. I liked some sips more than others.
Longavi Glup! Cinsault 2017, Itata Valley, Chile. $25 at Grand Cata. "I like the name," Emma said. And her eye caught a wine from one of Chile's most sought-after regions. The Itata Valley in southern Chile was where the Spanish first planted grape vines in the 1500s. Cinsault came later. While the label suggests a chuggable wine splashed about at a party, this wine rewards patience. I recommend decanting it for an hour, or at least letting the open bottle sit awhile before drinking. It features cherry and plum flavors, with wild herbs and an iodine quality that soars upward to enhance the fruit with a little time. There is also a Glup! Chenin blanc aged in amphorae.
Our limited sample shows that you can hit or miss when choosing wines by the label, but with the right company, you can have a lot of fun.