What's In a Label

It's what's inside that counts


I’m one of those wine drinkers. You know the kind. Pays no attention to the type, age, winemaker, etc., of the wine in her glass. Has to call someone when she’s picking out a bottle of red to bring to a party, and never remembers the name of her favorite blend. But in my defense, I do love wine! Really, I do. I’m an enthusiastic wine enjoyer. The only thing I’m concerned with, frankly, is the taste. Heck, I barely care if it’s red or white half the time, as long as it’s smooth going down and has a lovely complexity to complement whatever I might be pairing my glass with.

As I’m sure you can imagine, my disinterest in the finer details of the bottles of Chardonnay lining my refrigerator shelves or the Cabernet Sauvignons on my kitchen counter inevitably causes some struggles when the time comes to restock my stash.

I know I’m not alone here, right?
Often I’m swayed by pretty labels and catchy winery names when I’m faced with the endless rows of fancy bottles at my local wine shop – I’m a marketing agency’s dream come true. I’d never stopped to wonder, however, if that laissez-faire attitude was actually sabotaging my passion for good wine.

During a recent trip to the grocery store with a friend, I decided to do a little experiment. I had her select five bottles based solely on the appearance of their labels – vivid graphics, quirky names, and bright colors were all game for making a final decision – and paying literally no attention to make, variety, or region any of the wines derived from. Once on the checkout line, our wine collection was eclectic to say the least, and belonged to no well-known winemakers.

The contenders: Petit, a 2010 Chenin Blanc; Pancake Cellars, a 2010 Big Day White; Project Happiness, a 2009 Chardonnay; Mediterranean Red, a Tempranillo and Merlot blend; and ? (the name is a question mark), a red table wine that is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In a taste test, the final verdict was pretty clear, and perhaps unsurprising to anyone who has developed their palate to appreciate a true, flavorful wine. Clearly that’s not me, because I had high expectations for each of the wines we brought home.

Two out of three of the whites were completely flat in terms of flavor, and left a bitter yet slightly tart taste in my mouth after just a few sips. “Project Happiness” was slightly silkier with a lighter feel, but still left me craving a more well-balanced glass.

The reds fared slightly better, as both were relatively smooth going down and would have been just fine paired with a simple steak or even a bowl of pasta blanketed in marinara sauce. Although both of their vibrant labels had me hopeful about their respective tastes – even more so than the whites – I was still rather let down at the plainness of each glass. The flavor notes of both reds were stagnant, leaving nothing more than an abstract “red” taste to linger in my mouth. No richness, not a hint of spice, nor any varying level of complexity as I would usually desire in a delicious glass of Cab or Merlot.

Clearly, I need to stop and review the qualities of the next glass I especially enjoy! You can’t judge a book by its cover, and it looks like that principle applies to wine as well. I know what I like when I’m drinking it, but perhaps it’s time to pay attention to why. Not to say that a bottle of wine hailing itself as “Pancake Cellars” won’t find its way into my shopping cart again from time to time…

What? I’m still learning.

How do you choose a new wine?

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: mrsflew
    210769 0

    yeah--label and price. but i do try to remember wines and winemakers i have liked in the past.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 12:36 PM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 5,324

    Great idea! I'd love to see this done in a more scientific way. (Experiment and control group, some way to pick the wines and do it double blind, many iterations etc)

    Not to knock your point - the end result might be exactly the same. Thanks for the article.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 12:53 PM

  • Snooth User: TanyaSub
    239087 0

    Wow, this is sooo like me! I've bought bottles of wine called "The Middle Sister" (because I am one! LOL!), "Barefoot" (because I like to be), and "Silver and Black" (because I live in San Antonio and this winery is owned by the Spurs' head coach). I do have my fave types of wine (Moscato), but I admit I tend to be drawn to the pretty/intriguing labels, too! =)

    Jul 28, 2011 at 12:59 PM

  • Great read!! I, like you, am more enthusiastic than enthusiast and know what I like when I taste it. A trip to the supermarket wine section can be a daunting task and if I don't know what I'm looking for, I'm left with "which bottle speaks to me the most". =) Glad I'm not alone..... Happy wine drinking!!

    Jul 28, 2011 at 2:17 PM

  • Snooth User: swinnea
    483269 16

    Of course I do like Laughing Magpie. Footbolt, etc. Maybe it's just the Aussies.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 2:44 PM

  • Just wrote something similar for Marie Claire about wines marketed to women. Pretty labels, but often not so pretty inside ;)

    Jul 28, 2011 at 3:02 PM

  • Maybe instead of buying a bottle at the supermarket a few hours before drinking the wine, take some advice from a good winestore, check out on the internet and buy the wine you will drink within the next months. I deliberately omit to put any number of bottles here.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 3:10 PM

  • How do I chose new wines? Snooth, wine blogs, friends, tasting at stores. The label would never be a selling point although Big Ass Cab has a great label and is loved by many!!

    Jul 28, 2011 at 3:18 PM

  • My decisionmaking process with respect to wine varies. When I am indecisive, I fall back on old favorites or I look for vibrant labels (I've had my share of disappointments too!). Other times, I look for specific varietals - I may be in the mood for Malbec one night, Chianti the next, a Rose' the next, and so on). Then, I rely upon recommendations, my own experience and palate, etc. Beyond the label, I like to read the proprietary description on the back to have some idea of what I might expect from the bottle.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 4:52 PM

  • Snooth User: mudbug11
    878251 6

    I have done exactly this same challenge before...and to similar mixed reviews. I will most likely not do the label chase again. My new strategy is to try wines that receive a 90+ review for under $20...so far I cannot complain. The Ironstone Cab has been the real hit thusfar.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 4:53 PM

  • Snooth User: RCFINK146
    884066 20

    I like to try wines from Lot18, but I get lost in their descriotions. There must be abetter way of describing a wine

    Jul 28, 2011 at 5:26 PM

  • Snooth User: cyclephil
    179634 4

    secret to remembering that last great bottle is to take a picture with your cell phone and show it to the vendor to get some more!

    Jul 28, 2011 at 6:16 PM

  • We have our fav`s so we usually get that wine 1st then try another simular not going by label sttraction but by what we think the discription is saying.
    some lables are had to refuse though.

    Jul 28, 2011 at 6:32 PM

  • Snooth User: NewDog
    477139 3

    If you like an Aussie (pronounced Ozzy) wine you only have to remember the region it came from. Then look to the price range. The Labels are sometimes directly taken from the region ('three rivers' is named so as there are 3 rivers running through the vineyard) but are more often than not 'made up' to appeal to the beginner.

    Wines tend to be rather consistent in style/region and obviously price determines the quality or expression of that region. For example a Pinot Noir from the Adelaide hills will always be on the 'bright berry' side - but one from Victoria is more likely to be 'funky', a Shiraz from the Barrosa is going to be big, fruity, layered with berry/coffee/toffee undertones whereas one from McClaren Vale is going to be a little more astringent with peppery overtones.

    The only real challenge is if you're looking in the upper price ranges. A Semillon from the Hunter valley will have one set of characteristics (sort of resembling a German Riesling/NZ Sav Blanc cross when young - but an aged one is a magic blend of kiwifruit/buttered toast/apricot with the most amazing mineral/flinty finish that lingers). Grange is the best example - when young it's like chewing grass - aged (8 years at least) it's every bit what it's reputation indicates (if you haven't heard of it you're missing out ….. BIG TIME). But then, if you're in this price range you know what you're looking for (or have more money than sense!).

    Jul 28, 2011 at 7:18 PM

  • Snooth User: stephanieJ
    893135 39

    a few days ago i told hubby to just grab any wine off the shelves. I drink the same 3 wines and wanted an adventure. He chose a wine called Shot in the Dark from Austrailia. Fitting name for what he was doing. lol. Wow. It was great! smooth, lots of flavor.... loved it! now I have a 4th wine. :)

    Jul 28, 2011 at 7:25 PM

  • I pick my wines the same exact way that I pick my horses, IF I LIKE THE NAME...not very scientiific, however I tend to remember the wines that my grandfather and great-grandfather made in our wines cellar and since I cannot find any wines to equal the taste or smoothness I am lost in a store.

    However, I did like this article and enjoyed the author's style and sense of humor about the whole process. Very good!

    Jul 28, 2011 at 11:23 PM

  • Names are deceiving, but ratings tend to be an additional help that your choice will possess some sort of character. I tend to rely on ratings more than image, unless someone else tells me about a great new wine. I never would have tried Molly Dooker wines had someone not recommended the wine (not to mention doing the shake). It's funny that I can tell you which valley the wines come from, but this happened after trying the wines and liking them. The images are deceiving. Does the label of The Boxer give you any indication of what is inside? No. The wine reviews help, as does word of mouth. And when in doubt, I can always pose a question here.

    Jul 29, 2011 at 4:02 AM

  • Oh dear...

    A dining table is surely a place we care about, a place where our friends and families sit for hours. That's why we care about our crockery and our cutlery, maybe indulge in candles, take care with the way in which our food is served... so of COURSE a wine label matters if the bottle is going to sit upon that table!

    Just look at the repellent labels in the picture which illustrates this article. Look at that garish Pancake label, or that hideous magenta question mark. Would you really want those in front of your guests, alongside your crockery?

    Perhaps you decant all of your wine (surely ridiculous with, say, a sparkling white?) Or perhaps you genuinely don't think about what's on the label, however joky, garish or just plain ugly it is - in which case be aware that it can spoil any mood you're trying to create in your dining room.

    Please, unless you're going to throw all of your other aesthetic judgments away, don't pretend that it's only "what's inside that counts", and don't pretend that the label really doesn't matter - because it does.


    Jul 29, 2011 at 4:19 AM

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    Jul 29, 2011 at 4:57 AM

  • Snooth User: dotagain
    791878 34

    I loved this article! I don't really pay a lot of attention to how the labels look, but I do a lot of "grab a new flavor and try it". Unfortunately, too much of the time I don't really like it so I've started keeping a small notebook with my own comments and a rating of "buy" or "don't buy" again. I have discovered one irrefutable fact -- I DON'T LIKE OAK. Now the trouble is finding out which wines have been "oaked". Anyway, I love wine but am an absolute amateur. I love reading all your postings, even though they are really over my head. So, I'm here, reveling in your expertise!

    Jul 29, 2011 at 3:45 PM

  • Snooth User: onirovins
    828576 13

    I don't know what is worse, the disregard for labels or the growing idea that these should not have anything to do with the wine inside the bottle

    Jul 29, 2011 at 4:43 PM

  • This is an adorable article! It's something that I think more people struggle with it than are willing to admit (myself included). Marketers have us by the short hairs! Consumers should be armed with the understanding of how to wade their way through a wine label--Lord knows there's a lot of marketing hooey that blurs the information that helps us make informed choices. You inspired me to write an article that does just that. Check it out at: http://marriedtowine.com/2011/07/29...

    Jul 29, 2011 at 6:10 PM

  • When you find a glass or bottle you like, write it down! Plus then even if the market or shop doesn't have the exact wine, they can probably make a great suggestion based on the characteristics. I bet too you'll start to notice patterns with your pallet and be a wino in no time! :)

    Jul 30, 2011 at 11:21 AM

  • Snooth User: Mjfranci
    816474 39

    Great article.
    I have bought wines because of their label and had mixed results too. Honig cabernet was awesome, as was Mettler 2006 cabernet. Yeah, I'm very new world.
    The bad ones I don't remember because I haven't sought after them again.

    Aug 01, 2011 at 11:53 AM

  • It's definitely OK to choose by the label - that's called having fun and taking risks, and you can get a fun surprise every now and then! However, knowing a few basics about wine can help ensure you don't get something you won't like and also make you feel more "in control" of the situation. You can choose by favorite grape (i.e., chardonnay, cabernet), by favorite vineyard/winemaker, and even by price. As Georges Wagner commented, a real wine store/liquor store can help you narrow your choices through recommendations. Don't hinge your entire life's happiness on whether you've made the "right" decision: no such thing exists, and there is always "next time." On our blog, we try to remove the mystery around wine, because we wanted to be empowered around wine, and heard from others they wanted to, too.

    Aug 01, 2011 at 1:04 PM

  • Snooth User: jpdemers
    118721 21

    Last-minute grabs from the supermarket shelf are bound to be a crapshoot, unless you stick to wineries you know from experience (or reputation ... it's hard to go wrong with Beaulieu or Beringer, for example.) I prefer to buy in advance, using review sites like Snooth, and some of the better-managed wine shop sites like zachys.com, to do my shopping. Also, if any nearby wine shops have tastings, you should get on their mailing lists, and attend -- a good time is pretty much guaranteed. Find a good shop, where you trust the salespeople, and patronize it regularly ... they can point you to their favorites, and you'll quickly learn if you have shared tastes.

    If I find a wine I really like, and I consider it a bargain, I'll buy 6 to 12 bottles, so I have some on hand whenever those "bring a bottle" occasions arise. I've found a wonderful (90pt) sauvignon blanc that was being cleared out at $5 a bottle, and a very good (89pt) Boredeaux for $12... both of them ended up as my "party" wines.

    Admittedly, I don't do ALL of my shopping logically. Occasionally, we all get seduced by a name or a label we just can't resist, because it appeals to us, or perhaps it's just perfect for the person receiving the bottle as a gift. "Smoking Loon" called out to me for a variety of reason; fortunately, the wine itself was actually pretty good. Don't be afraid to have fun: the label on "Educated Guess" made it the only possible bottle to bring to the home of a professor of chemistry, and by the time we got around to pouring it, nobody much cared about the contents!

    Aug 02, 2011 at 3:59 AM

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