Back Talk on Back Labels

By Margaret Snook, May 10, 2009

Walk into any decent grocery store, or better yet a specialty shop, and you’ll find hundreds of bottles of wine to choose from. How to decide? You could (1) know what you’re looking for, grab it and run, (2) ask someone who works there and hope that they know their stuff—and fortunately, they increasingly do, or (3) check out the bottle and decide for yourself.

There’s a heck of a lot of marketing going on in and on a wine bottle. Dozens of decisions have been made about the size and shape, the color and weight, the depth of the punt, the type of closure (cork, screw cap, etc.), and then, of course, the most obvious of all, the label, or better put, labels.

The role of the front label is clear enough. It has to be eye-catching and provide certain required information: identifying characteristics and a design that hopefully (though not always successfully) attracts sufficient attention to entice someone to pick it up and read the back label. And that, right there, is where too many wineries fall short and miss the good-marketing boat. Inadequate information, unattractive presentation, excessively small font size, and poor translations mean the bottle goes back on the shelf, and the consumer moves on to the next bottle—and the next—searching for something that sounds interesting enough to walk it down the aisle to the register.

Back label: clincher or a clanker?

A back label is the place where a winery gets to tell consumers what’s actually in the bottle! It’s their final chance to clinch the sale by convincing us that this is the wine that we want on our table tonight… But, Oh! the missed opportunities! What do we get? Time and time again, we turn the bottle over and find yet another densely printed back label—way too often in unreadable 4-point font. Get out your magnifying glass, and you’ll learn about family history, soil textures, climate types, and canopy management, but little or nothing about what the wine tastes like.

True Example:

This blend of ___, ___, ___ (fill in 3 varieties) is a limited production wine from our ____ (very long name) vineyard in the ____ Valley. It was aged for ___ months in _____ (fill in French or American) oak barrels.

That’s it? Some 40 words dedicated to selling the wine. Take away the varietal and valley information repeated from the front label and what do we get? 14 words that tell us that the winery happens to own a vineyard and some oak barrels. So what? —CLANK— Would that convince anyone to shell out hard-earned lucas (that’s “bucks” in Chilean) for an unknown wine? Doubt it.

Back labels are small to begin with, and there’s not much room left over after including the bar code, warning labels, and other obligatory legal yada-yada, but why not dedicate that precious remaining space to the consumer? Leave the geek talk for the tech sheets that go out to buyers and distributors who might actually have some idea of what it all means. Tell the consumers something they really want to know, and give them what they need: plain language information they can use to make a decision on buying your wine!

So, on behalf of consumers everywhere, I’ve taken the liberty of drafting the following letter:

Dear Wineries:

We, the wine drinkers of the world, have a bone to pick with you. We want to try new wines, we’d love to experiment, and are even willing to try yours, but you’re not making it very easy on us. We are overwhelmed by volume and selection and frankly, more than a bit confused. We like your bottle, your label caught our eye, and we look to the back label to convince us to take it home… but we don’t know what “alluvial” means. Or “spur-pruned.” Or “mid-palate” either, for that matter, and we certainly don’t know what they have to do with anything we want to drink with dinner. And you know what? We don’t care how many hectares you have planted, unless of course we discover that this wine is really good and you’re trying to tell us that there’s plenty more where this came from. And sure, while it’s nice to have a bit of back story about your family and your winery’s architecture, or the llama that eats the grass, what we really want to know is what’s in the bottle.

We aren’t asking for much—just a little useful information that will give us a hint about what to expect from this wine. What does it taste like? Is it fruity? Oaky? An easy-drinking fun wine for movie night or a sophisticated, complex wine that will impress our guests? Is it bright and acidic and perfect for ceviche? Rich and heady and ideal with lamb? A refreshing aperitif best served chilled on a summer afternoon? Give us some ideas! Do a bit of marketing! Help us decide!

We’ve got the money and want to try something new. Please give us a hand. Convince us!

Cheers, Salud,

The Wine Drinking Public

Consumers: Support your local chapter of United Wine Drinkers of the World (UWDW) by leaving a comment here!

4 Comments

Filed under Wine

4 responses to “Back Talk on Back Labels

  1. Jim

    UWDW–great idea. And it’s nice to see Tasting Chile alive and well again, and writing about wine. Perhaps some day you can tell us exactly what “reserva” means on Chilean wine lables, other than an extra mil (1000 CLP) per bottle.

  2. Hi Jim- Yes, it’s about time that Tasting Chile got back on its feet! And I certainly appreciate ideas for posts, but in the meantime, “Reserva” is basically a marketing term that is a way for the winery to distinguish between its basic, entry-level wine and its next level up. Usually that means it’s had some oak treatment, but not necessarily.

  3. Great thoughts on back labels. I think the situation is more dire yet. You have neglected to mention the veritable necessity of wasting more space yet on “the pure waters of the Andes” and “ours is one of the oldest wine making families in Chile” — almost 20 more words of useless filler.

    The question: why do they all NOT want to differentiate themselves? It is as if they are saying: “My bottle is as good as the bottle next to me, and that bottle’s back label in turn says precisely the same thing. It is marketing aimed at those without a neuron left tonight save for the TV and a bottle of plonk. Fine and good for sub 7 dollars, but when they put gold leafing on the same bottle and don;t change the message that is where the problems start… … terrible shame really as an awful lot of it is a darn site better than those in marketing think / know.

    • Exactly! There is still so much work to be done on effective marketing! There’s been such tremendous effort that has gone into making these great wines… now it’s time to get out there and SELL them! Time to take off the uniform and stand out in the crowd!

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