Sometimes the only thing you have to go on when buying a bottle of wine is the label.
No matter what it looks like, that label sends a message. Beyond the facts — vintage, grape variety, origin — it can amplify respect for tradition, signal a flair for the dramatic, or imply a passion for the latest trends. So while it might feel like a tangential part of winemaking, label design can have a huge impact on which bottles leave the shelf.
To give us an inside perspective, we chatted with Sarah Troxell of Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery. The Lehigh Valley winery recently underwent a massive rebranding project, producing a slate of eye-catching labels. Here are some tips to help you understand the process.
1. Your label needs to be legal
Before you begin to tackle typeface and color palette, there’s the technical side of designing a wine label. The federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau must approve every commercially-sold wine label and the requirements are quite specific.
“You have to have the name of the winery and the wine,” explains Troxell. “You can either say table wine — table wines are below 14 percent — or you can give the exact alcohol content, plus or minus 1.5 percent. Then you have an appellation. In our case, we use two: Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania.”
In addition to the information you MUST include, there is language that is forbidden. The regulators have a right to reject wine names that they deem offensive and there is a list of banned words. For example, labels can’t include the word “powerful,” because it implies that the wine is higher in alcohol.
2. Consult an expert
Changing your labels is a big deal, so it’s helpful to get an outside perspective. Labels — the fonts, iconography, and color scheme — become synonymous with the brand, so a redesign can feel like a reinvention. For that reason, wineries often choose to update the aesthetic on newer wines while keeping older staples the same. For example, Galen Glen has multiple label families.
For years, all the winery’s bottles boasted landscape watercolors by artist John Kocon. Done 27 years ago, the images feature variations on the same view from their winery’s tasting room window in spring, summer, fall, winter, and at sunset. Kocon also created a pencil drawing of their 1800s stone cellar, iconography that was actually carried onto the new labels.
“We felt it was time to try and incorporate a little more of us and our story into a label,” recalls Troxell. “I had actually interviewed 3Seed Marketing, Design & Interactive for a project with our local wine trail. They’re here in Pennsylvania, about 20 minutes from the winery in Schecksville. I felt really good about them.”
The final result was a crisp, modern design that they’ve dubbed the “hexagon label.”
“It’s very hard to translate your ideas into a design,” explains Troxell. “The labels are telling a story: The large hexagon has the shape of our farm (we own a glen or a small valley). The hexagons are a nod to my background — I was a chemist in a former life. The gear is because my husband is an engineer. And then we change out the third part of the label depending on the wine. We’ve got a fossil [for wines grown in their Fossil Vineyard], we’ve got grapes, we’ve got a crown, we’ve got an oak leaf [for Chambourcin aged in oak], and we’ve got a rose for rosé.”
In 2017, the hexagon label took third place at the annual Wines & Vines Packaging Conference in Napa Valley, CA.
3. Use smart design to categorize your wines
Pennsylvania wineries often use distinct label families in different ways. Some use a specific design aesthetic for sweet wines, and another for dry. Many will design daring labels for seasonal releases while embracing a more traditional look for their highest quality vintages.
At Galen Glen, the winemakers use a black-and-white color scheme and the aforementioned stone-cellar pencil drawing to signal to consumers that certain bottles are special.
“Every year after harvest, we’ll grade our wines,” says Troxell. “The highest quality wines go into the Stone Cellar labels.”
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, they sell a fun, warm-weather friendly rosé bearing labels that come in three different colorful iterations. With its bright, graphic pop, the label evokes summer evenings and picnic parties.
“Something about it catches your eye because they’re not all the same,” she adds. “And that bottle is a different shape — it cannot accommodate the hexagon four-piece label. The plan was inspired by the fact that these bottles would be going into retail distribution, and have to compete on the shelf.”
4. Stand out
As alluded to above, Troxell believes that labels need to work a little harder when the wines are being sold in stores.
“I’ve often wondered how much consumers notice the label when they visit a winery, because we emphasize what they’re tasting or smelling, as opposed to the label,” she says. “But when you go to a wine shop and it’s a sea of labels, that’s where it starts to be really important.”
Once your label is legal, the sky is the limit.
“It really is a blank slate,” explains Troxell. “You can create whatever you want. There is a lot of competition. When you get on that shelf, you have to stand out — and have a brand that people will recognize and come back for. It needs to be easy for them to remember visually. Some of our hexagon labels are in distribution and they are very identifiable.”
5. Pay attention to the trends while forging your own path
A couple of years ago, it seemed you couldn’t enter a wine store without being greeted by a sea of animal-centric labels — these bottles even earned the nickname “critter wines.” Latching onto a national trend might get your label a bit more attention in the short term, but it is important to maintain your own identity.
As Troxell puts it, “You want something that feels genuine, as opposed to something that feels contrived.”
That said, you don’t want a label that feels outdated — classic is different from outdated — and keeping an eye on label trends is a good way to make small adjustments and keep your brand fresh.
“I always look at the national trends,” says Troxell. “Lately black is the new white. There’s also a little more emphasis on foil. There are many ways to put on foil and accomplish a little bit of bling. You can hot stamp foil. You can put shiny accents of foil on the label. That’s been done for a long time but I feel like I’m seeing a little more of it.”
To learn more about what a wine label can tell you, check out this video on how to read a label.