Wine labels should make us thirsty, but this one made me blush.
The wine was Zin-Phomaniac, with a reclining nude on its bordello-red label, her naughty bits barely covered by gold vine leaves. The back label promised to slake my passion with the “most hedonistic of wines,” its “arousing aromas” and “bold, voluptuous mouth feel” leading to a “long, satisfying climax.” The wine seemed more appropriate for a frat house than a dinner party.
After I stopped gawking and wondering how the label got government approval, I discovered that the wine was quite good. It hails from Lodi, an area of central California known for its old-vine zinfandels, and features the textbook zin flavors of raspberry and cranberry, with fine texture and concentration. Zinfandel is a high-sugar grape, and Zin-Phomaniac clocks in at a generous 14.9 percent alcohol. But the fruit and acidity balance the heat. The wine has received critical acclaim from Wine Advocate and the Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wine.
Whenever I see a label that’s too cute, I immediately assume that the marketing department had more control over the product than the winemaker did. Yet here was another reminder not to judge a wine simply by its label art and marketing hype. Whether the label is artistic or over-the-top, the proof is in the bottle, not on it. I wanted to hate this wine because of its label, but the quality wouldn’t let me.
Because the label is provocative enough to warrant a brown paper cover, I envision using Zin-Phomaniac in a blind tasting. The conversation once the bottle is undressed — I mean, revealed — would be titillating, to say the least.
Over the years, California wineries have had fun with wordplay on “zin.” The mayhem might have begun in 1978 with the Wetzel family of Alexander Valley Vineyards in Sonoma County. Although they bottled cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay under their winery’s label, at that time they sold their zinfandel grapes to other producers. Late that fall, after all their clients had claimed their crop, Hank Wetzel noticed several vines with grapes still hanging. He picked them, made the wine and bottled it. His sister, Katie Wetzel Murphy, was in charge of marketing. She named the wine Sin Zin and, for the label, chose an old German painting of a scantily clad person frolicking in a bacchanalian way. The Wetzels gave the wine from that first vintage to friends and relatives.
You can probably fill in the history from there: Those who tasted the wine loved it and demanded more. Within a few vintages, the Wetzels were marketing Sin Zin commercially. For five years in the mid-1980s, they dropped the moniker in favor of their Alexander Valley Vineyards estate name. But customers complained, so they brought it back. Today, Alexander Valley Vineyards markets a trinity of zins: Temptation, a California blend; Sin Zin, from their estate vineyards in Alexander Valley; and Redemption, from Dry Creek Valley.
The Sin Zin label has evolved over the years. For the 2012 vintage, the 35th anniversary of that initial bottling, the original rendition is back in play.
Naturally, other wineries joined in on the fun. Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard and perhaps California’s slyest and most subversive winemaker, created Cardinal Zin. (Bonny Doon no longer owns the Cardinal Zin brand.) Michael David Winery markets 7 Deadly Zins, a blend of zinfandel from seven older vineyards. So far, no one to my knowledge has come up with Twilight Zin or Zinto Darkness.
These playful names and risqué labels are intended, of course, to make the wine stand out from a sea of bottles on a retail shelf. In a recent study, the British market research firm Wine Intelligence surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. wine drinkers, measuring their reactions to 11 label styles. Traditional, “stately” labels polled highest for all-around preference, seen as appropriate for formal and informal occasions, while light-hearted or “themed” labels scored well among younger drinkers. That suggests we’ll see fewer labels depicting vineyards and chateaux and more that show wine as a means to an end rather than an object of our desire.
And of course, sex sells. Especially when the wine is good.