With so many bottles on the shelves calling out for attention, it’s increasingly common to see labels that appeal not only to our artistic senses, but our sixth sense, which seems to be especially prescient around this time of year.
Edgy, dark, and sometimes sinister, many wine and spirits producers use dark imagery as a way to tell a story—real or created—about their estates. I became interested in the idea while perusing the offerings for a Halloween-themed wine story for Wine Enthusiast. My research turned up the usual suspects that make a ghostly appearance each year: Concha y Toro’s Casillero del Diablo (the devil’s cellar), Louis Martini’s Ghost Pines, Michael David Winery’s 7 Deadly Zins and Freakshow, and many others that had murky themes.
But, when I dug deeper, I found many other labels that went beyond the gimmicky “fear factor” and showed beautiful intentional, and still haunting, designs. Some such as Murder Ridge or Sinister Hand, told a haunted tale or dark narrative. Others used supernatural or mystic imagery to tell other stories—about heritage or craft. Some producers adopted trends in the craft beer sector, wanting to brand themselves as edgy or artistic.
“The whole beverage sector borrows from each other,” says David Schuemann, owner of CF Napa Brand Design, a California branding agency specializing in the alcoholic beverage industry. “What started in craft spirits is finding its way into wine, and I think there’s been a real move by wineries to market their wine in that way.”
Jed Glavin, owner of Split Rail Winery in Boise, Idaho, said that while he was inspired by the local artistic community for his Horned Hare labels, it was trends in the craft beer industry that motivated him to push the envelope.
“I love wine labels that are out of the boxes—a lot are like dogs with ducks in their mouths,” he said. “We like to mimic what the craft industry is doing; they are more cutting edge with what they’re doing with the labels.” He added, that giving the label a “kind of Gothic and wacky vibe” was a way to “get past the traditional concept that [wine] has to be so boutique and structured.”
Shuemann noted a movement toward carved or sketched labels like Glavin’s, which evoke something artisanal. “That hand-drawn sensibility brings a sense of craft to it—it looks more hand-done and probably speaks to how the wines are made.”
Such was the inspiration behind The Reaper, a Cabernet Sauvignon blended from Paso Robles vineyards. Ari Walker, president of the company that owns the brand, said, “We wanted the label art to reflect that sense of artistry and craft.” He admitted the label was not without its controversy.
“The artwork can also be polarizing in the sense that some people just adore it while others feel it is somewhat macabre,” he said. “We like it [and] the Reaper name because of the way it celebrates a key lifecycle event both in our own lives and within an agricultural context.”
Shuemann says bottles in this dark and gloomy field have plenty of attitude and interest on the shelf. But, he warns, while such labels are provocative, they can also harm a brand’s image if not done properly.
“One of the potential pitfalls of taking on an edgy and slightly sinister or darker theme is that you walk the line of accidentally being categorized as novelty, and as not a serious wine, if it’s not done correctly,” he says.
In Vancouver, B.C., a graphic-design firm combined artistry, mystery, and strong design principles for Evil Spirits, a bespoke vodka. Inspired by the iconic Ouija board, the bottle began as a capabilities promotion for the agency.
David Walker, partner in Saint Bernadine Mission Communications, the agency that created the packaging, said while their designer had fun “complement[ing] the tone of the Ouija lettering, it [still] had to be appropriate and have shelf presence.” They paid attention to things like high contrast and legibility from a distance.
“We use words like findabilty and shopability,” Walker said. “To be able to find a product from a distance is very important and then once you’re in front of it, you consider shopability: Is there something deeper in the design that makes you want to pick it up and take a look? And once someone does that and engages in the product, it’s incumbent on us to have a design with layers of meaning.”
Upon closer look, the Evil Spirits label reveals formations of little spirits, and once the customer discovers the devil in the details (word play intended), Walker says the product delivers a richer, deeper experience.
Espolón Tequila created a special screen-printed black-glass bottle with a Day of the Dead funeral scene to evoke both a festival and Mexican history. Christine Moll, spokeswoman for the brand, said the glass came from a traditional mold and the ceramic cork stopper is hand-painted. The designer, Steven Noble, created the calavera motif—popular in Mexican folklore—as a form of visual storytelling for the limited-edition product, a six-year-old tequila.
“From a packaging standpoint we wanted to do something that really stood out on the shelves,” Moll said. “This plays directly to the true Mexican story and culture.” And, indeed, holding the heavy bottle feels like handling a piece of art.
Moll called the response from consumers “incredible” with people posting pictures on social media with their own bottles of Espolón.
Here are a few examples of labels that combine high spirits and high design.
Legend has it that during a 17th-century rowing competition between two Irish families over land rights, a member of the team on the trailing boat cut off his hand with his sword and threw it ashore, thus being the first to touch—and claim—the land. It was a ghastly trick that worked: The land still remains in the family.
The Reaper (photo above)
Paso Robles, Napa Valley, Chalk Hill
Designed in house
Though it looks somewhat macabre, the Goya-esque charcoal sketch of a reaper reflects “the cyclical, and interconnected nature of things” says Ari Walker, president of Integrated Beverage Group, which owns Reaper. The hand sketch, he says, reflects the wine’s craft sensibility.
The ominous sky on the label is the backdrop for a harvest horror story for winemaker Joel Peterson. As a storm moved in, Peterson raced to haul his crates of harvested grapes before the sky opened. “Between the clouds and the dust, it seemed like a fruitless task. At that time, two ravens came into the vineyard and started their call—“it was surreal and really weird,” he recalled. “It rained around me but not on me and the ravens stuck with me the whole way. It was mysterious and like magic.”
Central Valley blend
Designer: Tony Austin
Chris Catterton, of Bogle Vineyards, remembers a 10-year period of time when workers in the winery would regularly hear footsteps on the catwalk, or see a shadow of work boots walking through the building. When it came time to name their new wine, they wanted to reference the Old Vine Zinfandel that inspired their beginnings, and also give a nod to the unknown spirit that haunted the cellar. Rather than portray a ghost—an already popular theme—Catteron said, “We wanted it to be kind of haunting through a thought-provoking picture.”
Horned Hare (photo above)
Split Rail Winery
Grenache and Syrah
Designer: Conrad Garner
The label was taken from a mural the winery designed for its building in Garden City, an artistic enclave of Boise. Though the skeletons were restrained on the mural, the designer made them up front and center on the label.
Brothers Jake and Josh Beckett wanted “something edgy and fun, and kind of irreverent” that would also attract new consumers to their red blends. The designer came up with the Day of the Dead theme, and carved each woodblock by hand. Jake colored the labels himself. “We have unorthodox branding and my brother is an unorthodox winemaker,” says Jake.
Murder Ridge (photo above)
Murder Ridge Winery
Pinot Noir and Zinfandel
Designer: Amy Alden-Rinaldi
Owners Leslie Sisneros and Steve Alden created their label to not only leverage the dark history of a 1911 murder on the property, but to reflect their own artistic interests which lean toward the melancholy. “We like dark stuff—dark pictures and we wanted to tie it all in and crows was one of the things we like: They are the harbingers of bad, evil things and there’s a lot of mystery that surrounds them.” And, she says, that a group of crows is called a murder and is the icing on the label.
Curious Beasts, a red blend from California, touts itself as a “blood red” wine made from five varieties. Designer Kevin Shaw used detailed Day of the Dead woodcut stylings in a full-bottle wrap that shrouds the bottle.
Photo credit: Andrea Boldizsar (Unsplash)