Labels: windows on content

It’s a well-known fact that we, as humans, live with our eyes. If we don’t like the way something looks, chances are we won’t involve ourselves with it. This applies to clothes, furniture, art, food and even drink. Many folks buy alcoholic beverages based on what the label looks like, regardless of what’s inside.

Aside from what’s in the bottle, the label is a window to a beverage’s content. Of course labelling laws dictate exactly what information has to be displayed on a wine, beer or spirit bottle. Beyond that, it’s all about art.

Millions of dollars a year are spent on label design. Graphic and fine artists are often hired to create distinctive works of art for products. Many, like the labels of first-growth red Bordeaux Mouton Rothschild, have become collector items and the original works of art worth a fortune. Others are turned into prints and lithographs sold by galleries. Numerous beverage competitions around the world actually have an award or medal for best label design.

The truth of the matter is beverage sales are affected by label design, so a poor label can negatively affect a product’s movement. Subject matter used by wine, beer and spirit producers on labels is varied. Sometimes they reflect the content, other times they’re just meant to attract your attention. Here are but a few.

Let’s start with nature-designed labels. They could be nautical, rural or floral. Many products display a flower of some sort on the label, perhaps something indigenous to a specific region where the product was made. They usually don’t have much to do with describing the product within, but they do appeal to the naturalists among us. This style of label appeared on wine bottles a lot, but has died down somewhat over the years.

Also nature-inspired are animal labels. A cute picture of some local wildlife on a label was very popular for a while, especially of animals indigenous to the region where the product was produced. Perhaps if it was a rare animal, it implied how rare the product was. Sometimes there is a reference to the character of the contents as displayed by the animal on the label. A lion or bear on a label of beer, for example, might imply that the content is strong and bold.

Some producers go for historical labels depicting some important figure, event, venue or act. This type of label often reflects that the product itself dates back to that time somehow or has some sort of relationship with the date and image portrayed. Many spirits utilize this style of label.

Some of my favourite labels are mystical, fantasy- and humour-inspired. Depictions of devils, fictitious creatures, cartoon characters, odd domestic events and many more add a touch of whimsy to a package and can imply many things about the contents. The product within could be easy drinking, fun, wildly different, aggressive, bizarre, or the label could even display, in some colourful or funny way, how you might be affected by what’s in the bottle. One thing is certain about most of these styles though – they’re definitely unique and, from a merchandizing and marketing perspective, really stand out on a shelf. Beer producers tend to use these styles a lot.

Regardless of what’s on the label of an alcoholic beverage, trying to figure out its relationship to the content, if not spelled out, can be an interesting exercise.


Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator, judge

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