Locked away in his garage just over a year ago, Mendocino winemaker Mark Beaman spent hours soaking up the vibe of the Grateful Dead album “Steal Your Face.” Then he set about creating a red wine that “interprets” the album’s music and uses the cover art on its label.
“The Dead’s music style is an earthy, savage blend,” Beaman says. “It made me think of a smoky, bacony syrah, a big one with backbone.”
It took a party with Deadheads and five months to get the recently released punchy 2009 blend of syrah, zinfandel, grenache and petite sirah ($17) to match the music and label.
“Aromas are like the voice, while the guitar lick is the fruit that plays through the wine from start to finish,” says Beaman. “I want someone who tastes the wine while listening to the music to say, ‘I get it.’”
The 2009 Steal Your Face red is Beaman’s latest liquid echo of an iconic album for Wines That Rock, a collaboration with Mendocino Wine Co., where Beaman is a winemaker.
Like a book cover, a wine label is all about attention-getting -- making a bottle jump out from crowded retail shelves and inspiring you to buy it.
We’ve all seen the catchy names, cutesy animals, red trucks, and ironic or nostalgic images that are supposed to make wine seem more approachable and fun. You can pretty much guess how Sledgehammer Zinfandel will taste. Royal Bitch, Sweet Bitch, Sassy Bitch, and pink-labeled just plain Bitch are also just what you’d expect: easy-drinking, girls-night-out wine for under $10.
Brands like Dirty Laundry, Woop Woop, Happy Camper, Hey Mambo, and FlipFlop certainly telegraph unpretentiousness, but seem more about pairing with moods than foods. They, too, are basic plonk.
Beaman’s Steal Your Face takes this to another level, where the taste and character of the wine inside the bottle are designed to match what the label suggests. Wines That Rock and many new higher-quality labels are seeking an instant emotional connection to your lifestyle.
Sonoma’s Lasseter Family Winery’s 2010 salmon-pink Enjoue Rose, a seductive Provencal knock-off, features a woman diver doing a closed pike into a vineyard lake and screams summer.
Among the most imaginative new approaches to telegraphing the character of the wine in the bottle are the labels from biodynamic Austrian winery Gut Oggau, in Burgenland, which makes exceptional regional bottlings.
Owners Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselbock and Eduard Tscheppe have created personas for nine members of a fictive three-generation family and assigned one to each of their nine wines, with a hand-drawn portrait on the label. Young, puffy-lipped “Theodora” is a cheerful, cheeky, and juicy white blend that sells for 10 euros ($12.80) at the winery. Bearded parent “Joschuari” (35 euros) reflects a concentrated complex blaufrankisch, with excellent aging potential.
Even Bordeaux, bastion of the staid and conservative label, is updating. Bruno Borie of Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou enlisted UK-based jewelry designer Jade Jagger. Her luxuriant gold vegetation on deep black background for the estate’s luscious, velvety second wine 2009 Croix de Beaucaillou ($135, magnum) looks like a fancy perfume bottle, though Jagger explains, “My design represents the elegance, finesse, and depth of Croix.”
The famous-artist label is generally a tip-off to an aims-to-be-serious wine. Think Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, which has been commissioning a different artist each year since 1945. For the glossy, exotic 2009 vintage ($900), appearing on shelves later this year, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild tapped Mumbai-born Anish Kapoor. Buyer beware: the stature of the artist is no guide to the character or quality of the vintage. A Picasso sketch adorns the famously poor 1973.
Original musical compositions are the latest addition to this artist-label concept. Sonoma’s Imagery Estate Winery recently commissioned a piece from California composer Richard Derwingson -- the score for his “Imagine a Waltz” graces current release 2009 White Burgundy ($29). You can hear it by watching the video on the website.
Why this chardonnay-pinot blanc-pinot meunier blend is called white Burgundy is beyond me (hello, Burgundy is in France). In this case the inspiration for the music wasn’t the wine itself, but rather a Parthenon-style building in the vineyard, which led the composer to use the Greek Dorian mode in his composition. I detected no architectural flavors in the tart, attractive white, perfect for serving at an orchestra fundraiser.
The music-label thing is growing on me, though. I kicked back with Beaman’s smooth, spicy, haunting Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon cabernet sauvignon (a bargain at $17) and the album’s classic sixth track “Money.”
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)