It may not always seem that way, but every label on every bottle of wine in your shop has been designed by someone. A person with the artistic ability of a chimp, perhaps, but some thought must have gone into it, if only to comply with stringent legal requirements. Why is the wine called Draadtrekker?* Why is there a picture of a goose on the front? There are reasons, possibly good ones, for every element of the branding.
Labels may once have been designed in a hurry by clerks with access to Letraset, but these days the task is usually outsourced to a specialist agency. The trend is towards simple, elegant designs conveying useful information, and away from vacuous "critter" brands and labels cluttered by pointless swirls of colour and meaningless advice giving permission to drink the wine "with pasta" or indeed "on its own".
Neil Tully MW's Amphora agency is one of the most respected in the field, admired for its ongoing work with Tesco. Tully believes the general standard of label design is improving.
"The fact there are designers getting involved at all is a good thing compared to how it was a few years ago. We're only just scratching the surface in a category which has a lot of rules and is fairly conservative. There's a lot of scope," he says.
Are clients better behaved now? "Very much so. There are many more design-literate individuals within organisations who know how to put out a design brief and make a piece of packaging really work and do its job. That is a very strong part of what's driving things forward."
Tully's priority is for the label design to accurately represent what's in the bottle - a rule he believes is obeyed more often than it used to be.
"Design for design's sake is my pet hate, which sounds a bit weird coming from a designer - gratuitous design that's not doing a job. Funny brand names are not so good - the consumer doesn't want to see any more Creeks and Ridges. People want to see something more authentic."
Christian Foster, marketing manager for Kingsland Wines & Spirits, agrees. "I try to look for simplicity on a wine label," he says. "Designers who try to use every trick up their sleeve can end up with a label that's over-faced."
Kingsland uses Dare Design in Leeds for its labels. "Sometimes we've got a really good idea of what we want in our minds, and that can include the brand name, but other times it can be quite a loose brief and that's when we see some of their best work," Foster says.
Spar has a similar relationship with an agency called Appetite. Wine buyer Liz Aked says: "When we brief them it's really a two-way process in terms of where we think we're going to pitch the product, and whether we think it's going to be a stand-alone product or part of a series.
"With our Discovery range obviously we've had that trademarked and that was a process of us brainstorming and seeing what was available. Generally speaking we start out with a concept and the name might come later. Sometimes it starts with the wine.
"There are, generally speaking, a lot of me-too copies in terms of own-label and we try to move away from that. There are quite a lot of split labels out there at the moment. It does evolve and you've got to look at your labels every two years."
Even the best designs can be let down by shoddy printing, Foster adds. "In the New World the printing is often excellent, as it is in the UK. But on some more traditional labels the standard is very poor. There are so many elements you can use: embossing, foil, screens, ink, paper stock ... all of which can add a premium."
According to Aked, black is a non-starter for own-labels, but there is more to consider than just colour and artwork - notably the text itself. "The words are an integral part of the brief," she says. "Anything that talks down to the consumer is a no-no for us. Most people's perceptions of wines has changed - it's a much more everyday drink than it was 20 years ago and people are expecting a higher level of visual appeal.
"I don't necessarily think consumers are more knowledgeable, but they know what they like more, which is a slightly different thing."
Aked is impressed by the new-look Blossom Hill varietals, which have yet to hit retail shelves. When the original range was launched, retailers enthused about the brief tasting note on the front label - a tactic that has been
copied by rivals. This is partly because consumers are statistically unlikely to read back-labels while shopping and partly, Foster
says, because so much space is now required for unit labelling, drinking guidelines, Drinkaware details, sulphite data and so on.
Foster admits that creating brands with credible names can be a challenge. "It's becoming much more difficult to develop things that catch the consumer's eye and names people will remember," he says. "There's quite an element of research that goes into it
and obviously the process of trademarking names is quite lengthy."
It all adds up to conclusive proof, perhaps, that the world of wine branding is not controlled by arrogant frogs, fat bastards and old tarts.
* Presumably because the creator was fluent in
Afrikaans swear words.
Invent your own wine brand ...
1 Think of one word (a noun, verb or adjective) to describe the person sitting next to you.
2 Think of an animal you don't recall ever seeing in the flesh.
3 What's the most obvious geographical feature in your field of vision?
Put two of these words together - or possibly all three - and voila!
Winning results include Weeping Emu, Coelacanth Canyon and Ungrateful Leopard. Two-timing Pufferfish Sandstorm did not do well in the focus group.
Wine label trends: in and out
Fake coats of arms
"Good with chicken"
Wedding invitation typefaces
"Sublime with oak moss and truffle toast"
Obscure references to Incas and
Courier - ironically, of course