Washington Wines are Too Butch for this California Girl

I promised an article about Charles Smith’s latest wine labels which he calls “The Modernist Project”. Sorry for the delay… it’s been quite a struggle. I just don’t like them, don’t find them to be examples of good design, and can’t bring myself to wax positive about these black and white ink spots.

I had a bit of a giggle when I first came across Chas’ earlier House Wine and Table Wine brands (Rockin’ Wines). I enjoyed their stark in-your-face approach. However, I fail to connect with his latest batch of labels. They are unattractive and just plain unengaging. First off, unless I’m sailing in pirate territory, I’m not a big fan of skulls and crossbones. While I like grunge type and cryptic sketches, the collection fails to visually engage me. Maybe the high ratings from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast make visual interest unnecessary.


Bad Design, Good Marketing

Clearly I’m in the minority. The 2006 vintages pictured above, range in price from $12 to $120 per bottle and sold out. Like the labels or not, they fulfill all the objectives of successful brand messaging. Although they are very different from the House & Table Wine brands, wine afficionados immediately recognize them as Chas’ next generation. They get an A for strong branding, an A+ for shelf presence, and an award of merit for prominence in fine dining establishments. I would recognize them across a well sized restaurant. To quote Charles himself, he has used every trick up his sleeve to get your attention…and used them well.

“I return with the line-up of Heart, Skull and Old Bones. Pure and intense with a concentration and nerve that is beguiling, these are perhaps the best wines I have ever made. Big words indeed. I stand behind every one. The 2007 Royal City is no exception. I used every trick up my sleeve. This wine is an absolute treasure. With great pride, from my hands to your cellar, I offer you these wines.”

– Charles Smith

So there you have it. Charles Smith does things his own kick-ass way in both wine making and wine marketing. But his concept follows a fundamental rule of design: It doesn’t have to look pretty to be effective. True to his word: “It’s just booze – drink it!”


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.

- www.sugarmandesigngroup.com

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