Devil's Advocate: Wine Labels - Sexy or Sober? Sophisticated or Childish?

As Robert Joseph considers how to label a new Georgian blend, he looks back at designs over the last half century, and wonders slightly at the overt sexiness of quite highly priced wines from very different producers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Reading time: 4m

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

It all started with the labels.

As a young only-child growing up in a country hotel (think The Shining, but with staff, guests, much less snow – and a father thankfully far saner than the character played by Jack Nicholson), I became fascinated by the variety of labels on the bottles in the dispense rack and the cellar before I got the chance to taste many of their contents. Or the taste for doing so.

Wine labels were like the stamps I collected at the time: arcane and freighted with mystery.

Few were remotely as beautiful as many are today, however: in the late 1960s, aesthetics were far less of a concern.

By the time I was 19, having been allowed to design some menus and a regular newsletter, I even had the chance to create my own wine brand – for a sparkling wine I’d found in France and imported directly for sale to our customers. We were catering for at least a couple of receptions most weekends during wedding season, so my ‘Pierre Maréchal’ – with a label bearing an etching of Molière (don’t ask why) in silver on a blue background – was quite a success.

Labels like wedding invitations

Then, in the mid 1970s, I moved to Burgundy where I discovered that most growers viewed labels in much the same way that they, and the printers’ other customers, treated wedding invitations. They simply chose from a small range of typefaces, white paper or cream, and whether they preferred a generic image of an old basket press, bunch of grapes or coat of arms.

In the 1980s, running a big international competition in London and paying annual pilgrimages to other competitions and trade fairs across the world, I was able to feed my interest in wine packaging and occasionally to write about what I’d seen; Cloudy Bay and new wave Piedmont were particularly memorable outliers. Then, in 1987, came a commission to write a book called Art of the Wine Label (long out of print) in which I tried to look at themes – animals, buildings, art, typography etc) as well as national styles.

Skin in the game

Three and a half decades later, I still have a personal connection with labels. In 2005, when a winemaker called Hugh Ryman and I decided to launch an innovative set of wines in southern France we dubbed le Grand Noir, we invited a brilliant designer called Kevin Shaw, of the Stranger & Stranger studio in London, to join us as a member of the team. Shocking as this may seem to some, we knew that if we were going to achieve our immodest ambition of building an international brand, the way the wine looked on the shelf or a table was going to be as important as how it tasted. Today, nearly four million bottles of those wines sell every year in over 60 countries and the labels are in their fifth iteration. As any brand owner in any sector will acknowledge, making small evolutionary changes over time can have a very significant impact.

Right now, with my Georgian production partner, we are choosing the labels for a premium – and again, hopefully innovative - white and red to be launched this year. Should we go for a design that screams “I’m from Georgia” or one with the kind of stylish appearance one might associate with a limited-production $30 or $40 bottle from France, Italy or California? I’m sure that many people I respect would unhesitatingly opt for the former, but how many of them have successfully sold wines internationally at this price?

Sex on a label

On the left, the original Ganevat label. On the right, the current version. For the naturally open-minded.
On the left, the original Ganevat label. On the right, the current version. For the naturally open-minded.

That particular bottling is now out of stock, and has been replaced by another ('I want some more !!!') that is marginally less provocative but might have been expected to raise eyebrows among officials in countries like the US where labels have to be authorised.

Other natural wines have had a 'bawdy' tone - though none as plainly graphic as Ganevat's, but more have gone down the line of being naïf - with illustrations that look as though they might have been drawn by children. Which, given the adoption of childish terms like 'glou glou by the natural wine fraternity, certainly makes sense. But, if I were ever to update Art of the Wine Label, a separate section for these would certainly be necessary.

From the Orin Swift California range: labels that might once have raised eyebrows in the US, where sexual imagery was once firmly forbidden on labels
From the Orin Swift California range: labels that might once have raised eyebrows in the US, where sexual imagery was once firmly forbidden on labels

In any case, I’m somewhat less shocked by the Ganevat labels than some of my friends, but looking at them now, and indeed some of the ones Dave Phinney has chosen for his similarly pricy and decidedly non-natural, Gallo-owned, Orin Swift brand in California, certainly makes me wonder. What I would have made of them if they had been on any of the bottles that caught my attention as a young boy, nearly six decades ago? Maybe I’d have developed an interest in wine even earlier.


Wine producers are reducing water use, increasing organic matter in their soil, and doing everything they can to support the environment. Now, says Roger Morris, they are also re-thinking packaging.

Reading time: 5m



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