Wine Labels – The Road to Printing Success

by Paula Sugarman

A wine industry journalist recently asked me for some wine label horror stories. I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but we don’t really have many printing nightmares. Maybe it’s because we have a thorough and systematic checklist for the process of wine label design and production. This assures that our vision and the client’s expectations of the beautiful or sassy wine label will come to life on the bottle as planned.

1. Drive with a Design Brief
We’ve written other articles on this subject, but it’s important enough to bring up again. The process of creating and generating a wine label is a journey and the design brief is the road map to success. It establishes a clear direction at project initiation and keeps us working in a straight line, avoiding costly and complicated detours. The design brief includes: project parameters, scope of work, early design directions the client has in mind, information about the company, the wine, sales & distribution details, long term goals and printing budgets.

Writing a design brief is fairly straightforward, for more information see Design Brief Questions at:

2. Plan the Printing and Invite a Navigator
Now that design direction and budget are established, we amass our project team, sharing our preliminary work and vision with a single printer, our trusted advisor. Printers make great partners – they help determine whether a design is appropriate for digital printing or rotary offset. They have good ideas for getting the desired effect and identify problem areas before the art gets too far down the path. They love to be included on the ground floor of the project. They are also generous with their label samples, which to a designer is like Christmas morning is to most other people.

An array of wine labels with unusual die cuts and value added treatments. One of the above has received numerous awards for printing and embossing excellence.

3. Include Bottling Specifications Early
To eliminate issues with labeling application at bottling time, we connect with the bottling line manager early in the process for guidelines and specifications. Label size relates to design. Roll diameter and rewind position are critical information for the printer.

4. Develop Clear Print Specifications
Clearly written specifications are a communication roadmap which accompany the art file to the printer. This written document identifies information such as label quantities and instructions for overs and unders, paper stock, delivery dates and locations. We match the printer’s specs and bottling line requirements with the design brief. Now we have a clear path for realizing our label.

During this process, many alternate printing options come up – sometimes a dizzying number – varnish and foils and embossing. It’s important to keep your eye on the path, staying close to your vision and budget. That’s why initial planning with only a single printer is helpful.

5. Avoid Drive-by Bidding
Now that your specs are solid and consistent, they’re ready to send out to bid. At this point, we choose three printers, each quoting on exactly the same specs for an apples to apples comparison. If changes to the specs are recommended, we wait until the project has been awarded, then have that chosen printer re-quote the project with changes included. This will save the time of talking with three printers about the same changes…again and again.

For the bidding process, choose printers who have a proven track record with your type of project or come highly recommended. The choice should not always be based on price, rather on printing presses, ability to achieve a desired effect and experience within the scope of the project at hand.

6. Send the File for Preflight
Once the art is well on its way and a printer is chosen, we send preliminary production art over for a preflight check. This is a chance for their art department to review the files and ensure there will be no difficulties in the printing or value added effects (foil, emboss, die cut etc.) This step can often be done while waiting for the TTB approval process, thus keeping the schedule on track.

7. Splurge on the Good Proofs
One great advantage of printing digitally is seeing a press proof which is literally run on the same stock and equipment the actual labels will print on.

With rotary offset, it’s often difficult and expensive to accurately proof how the printed label will turn out. High resolution proofs can run $150 to $200, But it’s a wise investment to see how close your vision will be to reality and avoid costly changes while the job is on press.

Work with the printer in the early stages of the job to learn proofing options and factor them into the print cost. This includes dot-matched proofs, ink draw downs and test runs for embossing or foils. In addition, attend press checks whenever possible.

8. A Couple of Additional Tips:
• Require that printers do scuff tests to keep the package from looking shopworn before it gets to the shelf. Every good wine label printer will include a protective varnish to avoid scuffing.
• Specify “wet strength” stock for white & sparkling wines so the label will still look good after standing in water for a long time.

The process of printing a label is a little like taking a road trip. If you map out your destination and plan out how to get there in a straight line, you can avoid unnecessary and costly detours. With a clear vision, a good solid team, and clear communication throughout the project, your wine label can be a dream realized.


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.

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