Suggestions on when and how to judge a wine by its label.
When I tell people I design for the wine industry, many proudly state (or sheepishly confess) that they purchase wines based on their labels; to which I respond, "So do I". However, I've come to realize that my profession has influenced the way I judge a label and it's typically a bit different than most consumers. Here are several things I consider when selecting an unknown wine from the shelf.
Price point and varietal aside, the first thing I look for is APPELLATION. For example, if there are two Pinots on the shelf that appear to be exactly identical in every way (price, vintage, aging, etc), I will most likely pick the one with an appellation of Russian River Valley over California. That's not to say a smaller appellation of origin equates to better wine, but to me, it feels like a wine produced from a smaller region is more "pure" and will allow me to experience terroir in a way that a blend of multiple regions cannot.
I might also look for the word ESTATE on the label. Again, it's not guaranteed that an estate bottled* wine will taste better, but I feel it takes some of the unknowns out of the process. In our modern wine industry filled with bulk wines and secretly produced private labels, it's getting harder to know where a wine actually comes from. That's why I also sometimes glance at the BOTTLING STATEMENT to see if the wine was "Cellared and Bottled" or "Produced and Bottled" at a particular location.
I then look for QUALITY OF PACKAGING; the weight of the glass, the type of cork (if visible through the glass), the type of capsule (tin?), the quality of paper (thick and textured?), and the type of printing (embossing, foil, laser die cut?). All these elements are cues as to how much the winery respects the product; it shows they have attention to detail. I feel that if they care about the quality of the capsule then it's likely they also care about the wine.**
Finally, I look for DESIGN - specifically creativeness over beauty. I enjoy clever labels that engage the viewer or offer something unexpected. Such labels tell me that the winery is not afraid to express their individuality and are not trying to appeal to the masses. It might also mean they don't try to cater their wines to the masses either, opting for a more unique expression of a varietal.
Happy hunting my fellow Oenophiles!
* Estate bottled wines are fermented, aged, and bottled on the same property and made from grapes harvested from vineyards that are owned (or controlled) by the winery.
** As a caveat, I'd like to point out that I judge the quality of packaging in relation to price point. I expect a cheaper wine to have lower quality packaging and adjust my expectations accordingly. I also consider how the wine is intended to be consumed; a wine produced for quick and casual consumption (and easy transport) may have lighter weight glass and a screw top instead of a traditional cork and capsule. Very acceptable!
I also keep in mind that larger wineries have bigger budgets allowing for fancier packaging, regardless of quality. When I see a $10 wine with over-the-top packaging that would typically be found on a $50 bottle of wine, I tend to assume there is a bit of turd polishing going on.