The psychology of wine labels

wine labels

The creative types have gotten their hands on this country’s wine labels, but do all their design efforts help sales or not? By Ben Canaider

Like a book, do we judge a bottle of wine by its cover? Semiotics—how meaning is created and communicated through signs and symbols—is increasingly of dark-art interest to many wine makers and marketers.

Of course, this interest in label design is principally linked to the bottle shop shelf and the wine consumer standing in front of it. Which one to choose? The role of label design is to help the bottle on the shelf make an emotional or memory association with the wine consumer staring at it, and thence an association with the wine consumer’s credit card.

Knowing just enough about semiotics is probably why I’m less a quiet champion of wine labels that are all too beautiful and über cutting edge than I am of daggy ones—just as long as the wine inside the bottle is alive and unmolested by oak and speaks happily of its grape and place. In other words, it’s joyfully drinkable wine.

Yet what can wine label design do for a licensed venue? Well, from a straightforward, a priori view, nothing. Nothing because the majority of your clientele make their wine-drinking decisions via a wine list or blackboard.

This is why over the past two generations Australian wine drinkers have looked and learned from other indicators of so-called quality: grape varietal, region, vineyard, and brand name have become more important than the label’s pretty artwork. “Ah, the Coonawarra cabernet 1998, from Bowen; yes, we’ll have that. Superb wine.” Or so says the customer on table 11, who has learnt about the so-called quality of wine from names and nouns rather than a snazzy designer wine bottle’s label.

Nevertheless, there are positive and worthwhile things a liquor licence holder can do to leverage the increasingly active and lively wine label design ‘space’.

Wine label design and its progress is important to your business for a number of reasons:

1. Its observance creates a perception that your business is contemporary, maybe even ahead of the curve.

2. Wine labels are increasingly important to consumers.

3. If No. 2 is true, then you’re doomed if you do not adopt attitudes that your customers want.

4. Wine label design is all about semiotics—those visual prompts that make your customers emotionally associate to something in their frontal lobe that is just beyond clear and frank understanding. Mystery and allure are created.

Wine labels are free marketing. For you.

It matters not if the customer has no sense of smell and no sense of taste whatsoever, just as long as they get to bond visually with the label. They might buy it again next time.

If we accept that these five points carry some merit, in terms of your own business’ marketing and sales, then it seems odd that ultra-conservative, set-in-stone attitudes to a wine bottle’s table or bar service is so old-fashioned. A customer sits down, orders wine from the wine list where the name and year of the wine is provided, the wine is displayed for a micro-second, the customer tastes it, the wine is poured, the wine is taken away. Along with the wine list. (As if the wine list can only be viewed once or there’s only one wine list and another customer has asked for it). Even at the bar, by-the-glass wines are often poured with labels obscured. In both instances—at the table or at the bar—the wine’s label is forbidden participation. It’s a waste.

Allow me then to gratuitously offer some strange ideas.

When a customer orders a bottle of wine to table, serve it as you do, but then leave it on the table. Perhaps even make a quick aide-memoire comment when you place the bottle on the table after the first pour: “Your bottle Chateau Mates-Maison 2006. Superb choice, Madam. Enjoy!”. Leave the bottle there so the customer gets a chance to visually bond with the label and the wine.

It matters not if the customer has no sense of smell and no sense of taste whatsoever, just as long as they get to bond visually with the label. They might buy it again next time. They might come back because wine seems easier at your venue.

On the bar, at your holding bar, at your entrance display table—wherever is prominent—line up your six bottles available by the glass. Let the labels of the bottles have a chance to be seen. It’s not crass; it’s visual.

And scary idea #3: cut and paste a small image of the wine label of every wine on your wine list, on the wine list, next to the wine which is otherwise conventionally described and named and priced, in words and numbers. Why not?

Recent UK research underlines this emerging importance of a wine label’s connection to consumers. One third of UK wine drinkers claim label design is an important factor when buying or choosing wine. This UK research also suggests that wine labels that are conservative and traditional are the most trusted and appealing to wine consumers.

Finally, remember one overriding factor: every customer that walks into your venue is walking in while staring at an iToy or Samsprung or some other device. Visuals are everything. Use them. Get semiotic.

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