Wines That Don’t Sell

by Paula Sugarman

If you really want to know what sells, talk to the people in the market place, they have a lot to teach us. A quick trip through the wine aisle in the Pacific Northwest reiterated this and humbled me once again.

While provisioning for our annual sailing adventure, I stopped in Haggen’s Market in Bellingham. After a quick grocery spree, I was headed for a run through the wine section. I always love to shop for wines in Washington; the choices are completely different than in California. With several inspiring bottles in tow, I was steaming at full speed to the checkout counter when I met Shelley, who asked if I had any questions about the wines. Her Haggen store smock made me wonder why someone from the bakery department would care. I hastily answered “No thanks, got it handled. I’m a package designer and make all my decisions based on how the label looks. “Shelley peered into my cart and became a bit agitated, “Then why did you choose that one?” and “What’s that doing in your cart?”

“You’re a wine label designer? Let me show you some wines that don’t sell.” Shelley grabbed my hand and off we went on a reverse tour through the wine department. I felt a little bit like Alice with the Mad Hatter. She pointed out a beautiful frosted glass cylinder with white silk screened imagery. Silver Birch, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. “This never sells, people just don’t think of wine in this shaped bottle.” “Here’s another one,” she said as she spun me around to face Voga Italia Pinot Grigio in almost the same shaped bottle. I had to admit, I was starting to think of shampoo or exotic bottled water. Is it coincidence that these two wines were imports? They clearly missed some important cues for American wine consumers. Is it that different in New Zealand and Italy? Shelley eyed my cart and picked up Horse Play, a nicely illustrated California blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah, which was on sale for under $6. “You don’t want that, it’s a nice wine, but people just aren’t going for it.”

“Okay Shelley, what sells?” I queried. Her eyes sparkled as if she thought I’d never ask.

“Well, actually…labels with scantily clad or naked women are popular.” She answered without inflection.

“To men.” I stated.

“No, to both genders, they just find wine and beauty an appealing combination.” We made another circle and arrived at Marilyn Monroe Wines…of course. “Both men and women like these. And the folks up here like Abbott’s Table and Sharecropper’s wines from Owen Roe Winery. They like the old fashioned simplicity. But if they’re going to give wine as a gift, they choose CMS from Hedges Family Estate.” And off we went again, this time to a stack of cases. CMS has a lovely French looking label with lots of curlicues in silver foil. “This looks a little special, so people feel good about giving it as a gift, and it only costs $12.” Indeed, CMS does have a fancy flair in a Frenchy estate sort of way. Dressy and safe, like my little black dress and string of pearls.

Shelley had a lot more to share, but I was an hour late for the boat and had to beg off. What struck me was her pragmatic view of wine labels. For her, a wine label is beautiful if it sells. Get your cues right and make sure your bottle says wine, not shampoo. Keep it sexy, keep it simple, or dress it up, but stick with the classics. Shelley’s observations may prove to be sage advice for wineries navigating through today’s rough economic seas.


Paula Sugarman is owner and creative director of Sugarman Design Group, a California graphic design studio specializing in brand identity, wine label design and food package design.

14 thoughts on “Wines That Don’t Sell

  1. Helen

    Picked up a bottle of Voga Italia Pinot Grigio on a recent trip through the midwest and love it. Love the shape of the bottle as well. Now I’m on a mission to see if it’s sold in my area (Eugene, OR).

  2. Ed Penniman

    Great article Paula. I am a wine label designer and it seems that there are two camps of winemakers. The ultra fearful conservative and the wildly inappropriate. Your article spoke to my mantra, “Don’t be different, be good, because being good is different enough!” Thanks for posting it. Don’t put wine in a medicine bottle and try to sell it.

  3. Paula Post author

    I’m not sure what you’re saying here. Do you think the Travaglini wines could use a little help with a more unique bottle shape?

  4. Charles

    Travaligni’s wines from Gattinara are the antithesis of unique bottle and trying to stand out in the market. When selling Nebbiolo and you’re not Barolo or Barberesco, you need any angle possible.

  5. Pingback: Wine Quality vs Perception « Dr. Stafne's Glog

  6. Will

    I agree with Shelly on the Volga. I have carried it as a Corp. Authorized item. If we sell more than 6 bottles a month it would be a surprise. I believe that slotting $ comes in to play, however I would not be surprised that after watching a movement cycle that the item will remain.
    Paula, perhaps u should contact them and do a consult.

  7. Paula Post author

    Dave, above, says the Voga Pinot Grigio is a good seller in the Arizona market. We’ll need to do some further research to see why it works in one place and not another. Any thoughts?

  8. Dave

    Bottle and label design has such a wide spectrum of acceptance. What appeals to one consumer, offends another.
    In the Arizona market, the Voga Pinot Grigio has been a good seller. While the wine is not to my liking, the package does standout on the grocery shelf. I have never understood the design and marketing behind Mad Housewife. I am appalled at the label design and contents of ChocoVine; French Cabernet blended with Dutch Chocolate – it sells by the pallet. Different strokes for different folks.

  9. gdfo

    LOL Good article. I have seen many labels and off beat bottles that I thought were trying to attract the wrong kind of attention. Perhaps a ‘want to be’ designer was a friend of someone in one of those wine companies and needed a break

  10. Christophe Hedges

    Thank you Paula! My mother is from Champagne and is very picky about design. The label must always show pride for it’s terroir.

    I threw a shout out on our FB page to you.


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