Despite the warning we received at birth, we all secretly know that people actually do tend to judge books by their covers. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the same superficial first impression controls how millions of consumers buy wine. The sanest course of action is simply to admit it. Simply admit that you fall for the glitzy marketing like everyone else.
You swing by BevMo on your way home to pick up a bottle of Chablis because your wife asked you to grab some wine, but by the time you walk from your car to the sliding glass doors you can’t remember what she asked you for. Did she want Stag’s Leap, or Frog’s Leap? Hidden Brook or Hiddenbrooke? Chateau Ste. Michele or Chateau Julien? You wander the aisles with a dazed expression on your face, overcome by the thousands — literally thousands — of different labels all crying out for your attention (“Buy Me! Buy Me!” “No, buy me instead!”). Unless you are an educated connoisseur of Northern California or indeed world vintages, you’re likely to start looking at which label speaks loudest to you. “Ah, yes,” you say to yourself. “This is a very attractive design, what with the leaping horse on the creme-colored background, and the edges that fade away like gold foil on a hidden scroll. Looks quite brilliant.” And, of course, if the wine in question comes from a foreign country and is expensive, that factors into your decision as well. Part of your reptile brain equates expensive things with quality (i.e., if it costs a lot, it must be good). Thus you pop the bottle of Cuatro Caballos into your basket, and triumphantly present it to the store clerk, who takes your $49.99 and sends you home thinking you have made a smart purchase.
What you have done, however, is merely give a boost to the wine marketeers, who being intelligent, wealthy, plugged in folks — or at least wealthy enough to hire people who are intelligent and plugged-in — have known for quite some time that labels are more important than what’s inside the bottle. That’s right, I said it — the label is more important than the wine. Unless Robert God-of-Wine-Critics Parker has blessed your little terroir, then your eye-catching picture of the cow jumping over the moon is generally what garners initial interest in your product. How else, really, can you explain the plethora of patently over-the-top, artsy, or lascivious labels that line the shelves?
With the billions at stake in the alcohol sweepstakes, of course, comes litigation out of a bad fairy tale. The Brothers Grimm have nothing on the ravings of a bad tempered vineyard owner screaming for justice in the ever-fertile groves of Napa Valley. Or any other vineyard anywhere, for that matter.
Concrete examples of this internecine battle are not hard to come by. Some of you may remember last year’s news blip when Black Raven Brewing Company lost its trademark battle against Franciscan Vineyards, which claimed that the brewmeister was damaging its “Ravenswood” and “Ragin’ Raven” marks. Never mind that the world at large was largely uninterested in who prevailed (or that the beer drinkers had never heard of the wine), the brewery went down for the count, nevermore to brew another pint under the Raven banner.
Then too, our younger readers may recall several years ago when the Girls Gone Wild franchise sued Girls Gone Wine for creating and selling an alcoholic beverage that traded off the show’s goodwill. One would have thought that, given the enormity of its founder’s litigation woes, the company famed for topless shots of inebriated coeds would have shied away from the battle, but some silver-tongued litigator-type convinced them that they had to go all the way for the good of the brand.
More recently, the Kiwis sought revenge for the decades-old prohibition on use of the word “champagne” to describe any sparkling wine of non-Gallic origin, and got back a bit of their own when local winemakers shut down a French start-up that had the nerve to try and ship KIWI CUVEE into Australia. You didn’t need Dorothy skipping down the yellow brick road in Oz to see how that miffed the Kiwis, and the defendant’s half-hearted argument that “Kiwi” referred to the fruit and not the adjacent island garnered little sympathy with the court.
The Aussies themselves are no strangers to alcoholic brawls, and just this week the makers of Yellow Tail — Australia’s top-selling exported wine — had a conniption fit when a competitor tried to use a baby wallaby to sell a cheaper wine. Although my hazy recollection of Yellow Tail is that it was a bargain bin special, apparently some marketing genius decided that if kangaroos are cute, then baby kangaroos on the label of $1.99 jug wine were even cuter. Fearing that this upstart would jump to the top of the alcoholic’s choice awards, Yellow Tail jumped on Little Roo with both paws, and even now they’re duking it out like characters from Street Fighter in district court.