Back in August, the UPI published a piece called " Wine Lovers Suckered By Fake Labels." Are they competing with the National Inquirer or what? The subject of this sensationalism was research by Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell University showing that people respond to labels. Duh, give them the Golden Fleece Award! No, seriously, this was good research showing what we've know all along - the importance of labels.
Wansink labeled half the "$2 " bottles as being from California and the other half as being from North Dakota. In a restaurant setting, the "California" drinkers stayed at the table longer, ate more food, and ranked the food and wine highest, even though they were drinking the same wine (Two Buck Chuck?) as the "North Dakota" drinkers. Come on, admit it, you probably would have done the same thing. Wouldn't you prefer a California wine to a North Dakota wine? It would have been interesting to have a direct comparison tasting of "California" and "North Dakota " wines, side by side, for each taster.
I once bought a twenty dollar bottle of Santa Clara Chardonnay for five bucks because the winemaker hadn't gotten the labels. That means the label was worth fifteen dollars. Kind of like shopping for designer cloths at Loehmann's. Perhaps the label is worth three quarters of the price. Why is this? At the simplest level, consumers are forced to depend on labels, unless they've tasted the wine or gotten a tip from a friend or yours truly or some other wine writer. The array of wines on the supermarket shelf is overwhelming, so we choose a label that stands out. It has been said, that women, who buy most of the wine for dinner, are particularly influenced by labels. These days a cute animal on the label seems to do the trick, whereas years ago a picture of a chateau might have served as well. Even people who fancy themselves knowledgeable about wine are buying a label, too - perhaps a Chablis Montmains from William Fevre or a Bordeaux from the 2000 vintage.
The label is a sign in the language of a rhetorician. What is in the bottle is the referent, the real stuff. But these days, everything is about signification. The label signifies a concept. The concept may or may not have anything to do with the wine in the bottle. Until recently a screwcap signified a cheap poorly made wine lacking in prestige. These days the label is more closely connected to a demographic - "cool," hip, housewife, busy professional, collector, connoisseur, player, rich, powerful, etc.,. Sometimes the wine is related to the demographic, sometimes not. What do Marilyn Monroe, a little red truck, a wallaby or a black sheep have to do with wine? Tributary, Trilogy, Onyx, Matrix, Maya, Insignia, Screaming Eagle - full of sound and fury signifying something!
An animal on the label signifies something warm cuddly and friendly. Honestly, what is warm, friendly or cuddly about Yellowtail. The concept is warm and cuddly, but the wine isn't. In Japan, Opus signifies power and prestige. I suspect very little of it is drunk, as it is saved as a gift for the boss when it comes time to discuss the promotion. Cult wines signify prestige, status, power and exclusivity. For many, French wine signifies snootiness. American wine signifies easiness. The signification of "pink" wine is in the eyes of the beholder.
So what's in a label? Everything! But, can you tell a book by it's cover? Nah!