Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wine Label Art • An Intoxicating Collection

Wine bottle labels are not only a great collectible, but these also make excellent decorations in altered art and mixed media presentations. They can help tell a story, whether it be about your favorite wines, memorable dinners or trips or the history of an area or town. When combined with other artifacts or memorabilia these can be used in collages, story boards, family histories and artwork.

The history of wine is a fascinating story. Back in the 1990s, Hugh Johnson did a series for PBS about the history of wine. Many books have been written covering the general history of libation to the biography of wine makers to the resumes of individual wineries and vineyards. But the story of the wine label, that bit of paper covered with wine speak and fancy pictures, is a compelling study in both art and the evolution of wine itself.

The earliest "labels" for wines were made for amphorae - vessels that held wine long before the invention of the bottle. The Babylonians had cylindrical stamps that were used to mark the amphorae with words and pictures. Later, the Romans marked their wine vessels with information like the type of wine and under whose reign it was made.


 1st Century AD Roman Amphora (Courtesy Hixenbaugh Ancient Art)

As time passed and the wine bottle came into use, the early "labels" were glass cartouches adhered to the bottle showing ownership and provenance of both the bottle and the wine.
1867 Wine Bottle with attached glass cartouch (Courtesy Hixenbaugh Ancient Art)
Wine bottle tags came into use in the late 18th century. The labeling of bottled wine was not done at the winery, as most wine was shipped in barrels at the time.
Bottle tags are still used for a wide variety of bottled or decanted spirits.
The first paper labels appear in the mid-1700s. These were handwritten and simply stated the type of libation in the bottle. With the invention of lithography in 1798 and the use of the cork stopper in the mid-1700s, printed wine labels appeared in 1800. Bottling of wine was still primarily done away from the winery (except for Champagne) until the late 1800s, when the industrial revolution increased the demand for good wine. The sale of wine bottled at the winery was as much a business decision as it was an attempt at protecting the integrity of wine made by the Grand Cru wineries of France.
Early wine Labels from the late-1800s (Courtesy The Art of the Wine Label by Robert Joseph 1988)
The early labels were printed with no controls or regulations, so it was a free-for-all where spurious claims and fraudulent labels were not uncommon. The French led the way with their labeling laws in the early 1900s and eventually the rest of the wine world followed - albeit slowly. Today all the major wine producing and consuming countries have fairly rigid requirements about what information can and cannot be printed on wine labels.

Evolution of the wine label for Ch. Leoville Barton 1937-1985 (Images courtesy The Art of the Wine Label by Robert Joseph 1988)
Wine labels range from simple and minimalist, just the facts papers adhered to the bottles, to works of art by both upcoming and classic artists. Some are whimsical, while others are quite serious. A vertical collection of labels that traverse many years can reveal a lot about the evolution of the winery, while a horizontal collection of labels from a specific year can help define a vintage. Special labels for commemorating events or gatherings are fun to collect, as are private wine labels where the gamut of design motifs is unlimited.

Ch. Mouton Rothschild labels from 1924 and 1945
Gallery of the Mouton labels from 1945 to 2008
Artist series wine labels have sprouted up everywhere over the past several decades. Two special series of wine labels have to be looked at for any collector. In 1945 Baronne Philippe de Rothschild wanted to celebrate VE-day with a special label on his Ch. Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux wine, just as he had done in 1924 to show the world the new face of Mouton. Jean Carlu designed the 1924 label. Philippe Julian did the 1945 label. Since then, Mouton has commissioned a contemporary artist to design the wine label every year. Essentially every major artist of the 20th century has been exhibited on the Ch. Mouton Rothschild labels.

All three Goines designs from the 1975 Kenwood Artist Series Cab
Gallery of the Kenwood Artist Series labels from 1975 to 1986
In Sonoma California, Kenwood Vintners released its 1975 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon with a label designed by David Goines. This was the first of a continuing series for Kenwood. However, the start of their Artist Series labels was controversial, as Goines' first label featured a naked lady on a California hillside - the now famous "Naked Lady" label. The BATF rejected the label and Goines created another, on which he replaced his naked lady with a skeleton! That didn't make the cut either, but Goines made his point. The accepted label for 1975 is rather tame by any standard. The "Naked Lady" label was finally approved for the 1995 vintage, 20 years later.

Here at Vintages we have vintage wine labels. Some are sold in packages of ten assorted labels for $5.95 per package. These are great for craft work.

Packages of assorted vintage wine labels are available for $5.95 each package
We also have labels from the early 1900s right up to the early 1980s that are definitely collectible. Some are beautiful works of art. Others tell a story. While most are from California wineries, we have a nice selection from other states as well as Europe. An interesting collection would be to find a label from wineries in each state - all 50 states have wineries in operation today. Private label wines and commemorative bottlings present the opportunity to have very interesting labels, most of which are in very short supply.

Early post-prohibition wine labels
Late 19th century wine labels from P. F. Lint Winery in Los Gatos
Wild Flower label series from Sanford Winery in California's Central Coast

Labels from the first release of the Beringer Private Reserve wines
Bonny Doon Vineyards are known for their "crazy" wine labels
Another winery with wacky wine names and labels is Bully Hill in Upstate New York
Tedeschi Vineyards sit on the hillside about 4000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala Volcano on the island of Maui, Hawaii. The tasting room is the old jail from the Ulapalakua Ranch.
This is the label from a special bottling of J. Lohr wine for the Stanford University Alumni Association.
Peter F. May has put up a great website, winelabels.org, with hundreds of unusual wine labels. The artist series labels from Mouton and Kenwood are also viewable online.

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