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Wine labels get friendly

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In the olden days -- like 10 years ago -- most serious winemakers and wineries believed their drinking public wanted drama. Sniffing, swirling and scrutinizing were the mystics of wine, the fraternal handshake, the secret code. Labels were at times almost indecipherable for the uninitiated, with their script fonts and line drawings of chateaus. Old-world wines required a class, or at least some serious reading, to understand their labels. English-speaking wine-producing regions thankfully used English and the names of grape varietals -- like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot -- rather than force the wine aficionado to learn geography.

But now, according to a recently published report by the International Wine and Spirit Record, wine consumption in the United States is poised to overtake the first-runner Italians by 2012. When that happens, the United States will be the numero uno wine-drinking nation in the world. Woo hoo. And while we Americans seem to have no problem at all selecting a can of soup among the countless contenders on grocery store shelves, the wine section is even larger and, quite frankly, boring. Grocery stores tend to class wines by regions. Some forward wine shops organize by the more helpful flavor profile.

So how does a winery make its product stand out? Marketing departments have already realized they need to change what the consumer sees: the label has gone from dreary academic exercises to fun.

Bitch is fun. Bitch is a product of R Wines owned by Dan Philips and renaissance-man winemaker Chris Ringland, a veritable rock star of Australia's wine industry (and whose living room looks like a cross between a library and a high-end restaurant with a high-powered, star-searching telescope, to boot). Bitch is the kind of wine bottle women pick up and giggle about, then buy as a hostess gift for a girlfriend with a sense of humor.

Brilliantly, Bitch is 100-percent Grenache, a Rhône varietal, aka Garnacha in Spain. While Grenache is a widely heralded grape varietal, it is not one a non-schooled wine drinker might choose. Plus, Bitch is priced to move, typically sold for around $11. Bitch has sisters: Suxx, a shiraz, and Evil: "It's just wrong" with an upside-down label. The latter is 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon. These are only three wines of the diverse stable at R Wines that also includes Strong Arms, a McLaren Vale Shiraz featuring the label art of Mel Kadel.

Other wineries offer a catchy name with an eye-diverting image. Charles Smith KingFu Girl Riesling from Washington presents a modern Japanese ink painting label; while The Fight, a California-styled Cote-Rotie from Red Car, is an iconic graphic. Red Car's Hollywood owners knew each bottle of wine should tell a story -- even at a steep price ($60). Named for the old L.A. electric streetcar, Red Car wines have shown up on the list at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry and are rated by Robert Parker.

One curious set of sports labels -- three for the same wine -- are those on Silly Mid On, a Jim Barry winery Semillon Savvy. Winery founder Jim Barry bought the land of an old cricket field in Australia's Coonawarra region, preserved the original pavilion, and planted vineyards on the rest. Although this wine is not made from these grapes, the label of Silly Mid On offers a glimpse into the game of cricket. Named for a potential hazardous fielding position, Silly Mid On labels depict the "heroism and perils," um, bopping on the head, of the sport.

Some labels play on words: Goats do Roam from South Africa, and s/k/n Screw Kappa Napa "Down to our bare skn," a screw-cap wine from U.S. Sebastiani. Others read Kick Ass or the suggestive Good Pinot Grigio, from the Italian-sounding producer Good.

While it seems that cutesy, clever and sexualized labels are showing up with more frequency on the wine shelves, some wineries have found it necessary to "put aside childish things" in order to be taken seriously. This happened to Bink Wines, which had used a comic graphic of a manx within a circle radiating sun rays, but recently moved to a crisp almost Asian-styled calligraphic "B" with a line encircling a pole like a grape vine.

Though the French have not gotten into these user-friendly labels in a big way -- probably the lingering effects of what we did to their mustard -- there is still much to be said about making wine approachable rather than esoteric. Even American high-end: rarely seen luxury wine Screaming Eagle sports a wood block label, while cult wine Hundred Acre boasts a five-starred label with Homer's words (in English) from The Odyssey faded in the background. Sophisticated? Yes. But then Hundred Acre is, after all, named for the home of Winnie the Pooh.


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