(Originally edited and published in Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal, Summer 2012)
Buying wine can be an intimidating experience. Some wineries promote a lofty air, which sells to those who know a lot about wine. But not Swanson Vineyards (Napa, CA), whose wines range in price from $21 per bottle to $140. No matter the price point, they are about having fun and celebrating life. Here is how they do it:
All Swanson bottle designs are predominantly white, and are directly printed on the bottle or on a clear label. They cast away the concept of etched chateaus on heritage paper for a simple, clean, and whimsical style that translates to all of their wines. The results are a brand personality which is fresh, fun, and unintimidating. It seems to be purposefully unsophisticated, yet most of the wines are high-end.
The current logo for the Swanson core wines is an iconic line drawing of a lady who looks like a flapper from the 1920s. She’s a gadfly, on the go, having a good time. The original Swanson Vineyards logo was designed by John Blackburn in 1986. He played with many ideas including two swans swimming (swan and son), two s’s with a water ripple, and a hand drawn picture of a swan’s egg (a Swan’s son; John thought it would be eye catching on a wine shelf). While attending an opera, Mr. Blackburn noticed a poster of Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphee. He was inspired to incorporate the concept of Mr. Cocteau’s profile with a swan and the Swanson logo was born. Twenty years later, Alexis Swanson Traina collaborated with Mr. Blackburn on a brand refresh. They reworked the logo by softening the profile/swan and updated the logotype for a more contemporary look. The original label was printed on paper. With the 2005 vintage, they changed to screen-printing for a sleeker look. It cost a little more to print directly on the bottle, but the results were a cleaner and simpler design that better fit their brand.
At the other end of the Swanson spectrum is Angelica, a very special wine that is sold only in the tasting room. Only 30 cases per year are made, price tag: $140 per bottle. The word Angelica is handwritten in a casual, even playful style that fits with the Swanson brand personality. The clear, thick glass and exquisitely simple bottle shape, topped off with a sexy wax seal, communicate the richness of the product. In design, less is more, but every element needs to be perfect. Angelica, a fortified dessert wine created from Mission grapes grown in the Sierra Foothills, is a great example.
In 2010, Swanson Vineyards launched the Modern House Wines at $25 per bottle. I love the concept of a red wine for every occasion. Designed so simply that you need only read the name on the bottle and you know what to do. If you’re in a quandary for a gift, there are bound to be solutions here that will make you look smart, classy, clever, and always appropriate. This is a great marketing concept that rounded out the Swanson portfolio and is mostly purchased by women. By contrast, the Swanson branded wines (Merlot, Cabernet, Sangiovese, etc) are purchased by men.
Many may know the Swanson name for the frozen, prepared food company, W. Clarke Swanson’s grandfather created in the early 1950’s, then later sold to the Campbell’s Soup Company in 1955. It was in 1985, that W. Clarke Swanson, returned to his family’s agricultural roots, by purchasing a small vineyard in the Oakville appellation, and became pioneers in the wine industry by producing Merlot as a “stand alone” variety. Prior to that, Merlot was mostly used in blends to soften more tannic varieties. Their portfolio has grown to include a broad variety of wines.
In a quirky way, the mission of both companies is connected. With TV dinners, Swanson Foods introduced an easier way of life for families. TV dinners were a special treat at my house. Swanson took the convenience of frozen food and connected it to the television, the newest, hottest enhanced lifestyle activity. That’s marketing at its best. Similarly, the Swanson Vineyards mission is “to celebrate the simple pleasures in life, made better with wine.”
The Swanson Vineyards website carries on the theme of easy-going panache that characterizes the Swanson branding. It’s filled with helpful tips. A blog by Alexis Swanson Traina called Napa Valley for the Curious and Eccentric shares the lifestyle of the San Francisco Bay Area and Napa Valley including hidden gems on the drive to Napa. There are even a variety of travel itineraries suited to any traveling style from Bon Vivant to Bohemian: http://www.alexisnapa.com/
And since this is a blog about design and wine, I must mention the wonderful illustrations by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, who also does commissions for such clients as Bon Marché in Paris, Barneys in New York, and other well-known curators of lifestyle.
The Swansons have successfully created a brand that is welcoming. It makes us all feel smarter, cooler, and connected to the good life in some way. Creative Director Alexis Traina sums it up most aptly: “We take our wines very seriously and passionately believe in glorifying everyday rituals, every way we can.”
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.