BY Skye Hallberg & Ron Woloshun
Cogito Creative Works
a new label for Fred Scherrer is no easy task. He is a very particular
man. At Scherrer Winery (Sebastopol, CA), he fine tunes the bottling
machines himself; has four people on the sorting table at harvest
when two would probably do perfectly; he conducts multiple blending
trials on press fractions during day-long pressing; and he produces
some of the best wines in California using his I pay attention
to every detail style.
Early in 2006, I was at Scherrer Winery picking up a case of wine
that a mutual friend had left for me when I pulled Scherrer aside.
Fred, I began, breathing in a big gulp of air, your
wines are sumptuous, but they dont taste quite as good as
they could. He paused and looked down at me (its a long
way down Fred is 6'2"), waiting for my critique. Your
label makes your wine taste just a tad
Hmm, people like this label, replied Scherrer. Besides,
what does my label have to do with how the wine actually tastes?
This is the story about why and how we changed the Scherrer wine
label. Its also a story about how to create or change your
label, so your wine tastes better to people. Yes, you read that
right: You can make your wine taste better without touching whats
inside at all.
Heres the process:
1. Find out what your current label really says to your customers.
2. Decide what you want your label to say about your wine.
3. Hire professional designers and give them direction.
4. Pick the label design that best delivers against the direction
5. Print your new label.
In a nutshell, its quite simple. Think of your label as an
advertisement for what is inside the bottle. After all, people can
only judge a wine by its cover
no quick sampling of its contents
is allowed before purchase.
Before you design anything
1. UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM: Know
what your current label is saying about your wine. Few people
understand exactly what their label communicates to consumers
the good, the bad, and the oops unintended.
Wine packaging gives cues to buyers about what to expect inside;
signals that come from the bottle shape and color, capsule or closure,
and perhaps most important, from the label. Youd like to think
that you are in control of these cues, but the reality
is people infer messages from your packaging that you never expected.
What does your label say? Does it say: this is a homemade wine?
That its made by a corporation? An amateur? Will people think
its for boomers or millennials? Does the label suggest heavy
and peppery when the wine is refreshing and fruity? Does it
say the wine is sweet? Dry? A special occasion wine? Or something
youd take to a barbecue?
In a category where the packaging forms are pretty standard (three
primary bottle shapes, mostly 750 ml sizes) and have been in use
for the past 200+ years, things that seem like small variables (typeface,
paper stock, kerning, shadowing, icons, spacing, alignment) can
have a big impact.
Heres a test you can try yourself: Put your labeled bottle
on a shelf among some dozen or so other comparable wines. Gather
a handful of people typical of those who buy your wine (youre
looking for first impressions no use stacking the deck with
loyal customers and in-laws).
Instead of asking them to pick out the best label, ask them
to pick out the best wine. The most expensive one. The picnic
wine. The wine theyd bring to their bosss house. The
wine they think wine critics like best. The wine their beer-drinking
cousin would buy.
Consumers may not be able to recognize exactly why theyre
getting these impressions, but a good designer can and can
explain it to you in simple, jargon-free English.
We put the Scherrer label through this test, and results confirmed
our suspicions. While beautifully printed with gold foil and great
attention to detail, people interpreted the message as, This
is a generic wine
most like a private label wine from CostPlus
We quickly sensed a problem in the labels hierarchy of information
a big red flag. The grape variety had more graphic emphasis
than the winery name, which among American wines and food products,
places it closer to a store brand than a fine upscale brand. This
message mix-up lowered not only the perceived value of the wine,
but also its perceived quality.
Consumer logic goes something like this: If it looks like a private
label, it must be a little cheaper, and if its cheaper, it
cant be as good as a more expensive wine.
2. STRATEGY: Know what you want
to say about the wine inside the bottle. Ask yourself, What
does someone need to know about my wine to make the decision to
buy it? Is it meant for a wine connoisseur? The collector?
The adventurous wine lover whos always in search of a great
find? Or for the Im just looking for a host-gift that
wont embarrass me in front of my wine-snob friends buyer?
In what context will people see your wine or select it?
a. Main Message: When you think youve selected
the main message you want your label to convey, ask: Is this
really what people want to know when theyre choosing a wine?
All too often winemakers begin a label design project by uttering
that age-old, painfully obvious direction to their design team:
I want a wine label that Ill really like. What
you like and what consumers will respond to is rarely the
Wine as hero, not label as hero. Scherrer wanted the label
to support the wine quality, not to star in the show. That was music
to our ears because, all too often, wine labels are driven
by design for its own sake, and not by the wine. When that happens,
what you end up with is a fashion accessory. Its the difference
between selling your wine and selling a four-inch square piece of
artwork that happens to come attached to a free bottle of wine.
People are buying a bottle of wine, so its the job of the
label to enhance the sale of the wine itself. Before taking another
step, we prepared package design objectives that read: The
label should increase the perceived value of Scherrer wines by reflecting
the character and quality of the wine inside the bottle. This
served as a guidepost for the entire redesign.
b. Tone: Pick your wines personality before the design
starts. This is often the hard part for most wine professionals.
Do you want your wines to be seen as proud, loud, and glitzy? Soft,
sensuous, and sexy? How do you know? There are ways of deciding
on the right tone, and different designers use different
techniques. Heres one that works for us.
We set a pile of 80+ cards in front of Scherrer, each one printed
with a different product attribute, brand character, or value term.
Then we asked him to help pick the tone and character he wanted
He finished this exercise with three piles in front of him: a stack
of cards containing words that he felt were true of his wines, a
stack that he felt did not match up with his wines at all, and a
whole bunch that made didnt make it into either pile. We took
the yes pile and asked Cut it down to three words,
please. We took the no pile and asked the same
c. Brand Equity and Technical Requirements: Know what equities
are worth keeping. Dont throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Just about the biggest mistake you can make is to start from scratch
when you should not.
If people really know you as the wine with the armadillo on
it, keep the icon. If you know theyre looking for your
purple label, dont change it to green. Do not listen to designers
who cant work within those constraints.
Modify it, evolve it, renew it. But do not kid yourself. In a category
with thousands of competitors, be realistic about whether or not
buyers really use it to recognize your label,
be it at a store or across a restaurant aisle.
There are ways to deconstruct a current label to identify whats
really valuable equity and whats just taking up label space,
all of which your design team should know.
In the case of the Scherrer label, there were many discussions regarding
the name badge. No doubt some loyal Scherrer customers had grown
used to looking for the burgundy or black box, so it was arguably
an equity; but its strongly bounded, heavy presence was tonally
dissonant with Scherrers (decidedly not boxed-in) winemaking
style. It presented tactical problems also. In the end, we all agreed
that the name badges value was not as great as the value of
accurately expressing the character of the wines.
d. Write down your evaluation criteria. There is no
substitute for writing these down. After your first draft, take
out the red pen and cross out all unnecessary words. Youll
know which ones to cross out by how familiar they are. A design
criterion of traditional will be much more useful to
you than the vague quality.
If your design objectives sound like the purpose of the label
is to convey that the wine inside is delicious, wonderful, high
quality, warm, passionate, approachable, flavorful, pleasant, a
good value, and an award winner, please start over. Thats
not design criteria
its a laundry list.
3. HIRE A PROFESSIONAL DESIGN PERSON/GROUP/FIRM
and brief them well. Your son-in-law may
have the latest Photoshop software, and your niece may be quite
the artist, but take our advice and dont do it. Its
bad for family dynamics, and its even worse for the label.
There are many trained graphic designers out there who want your
business. There are lots of art directors and graphic designers
who have experience designing wine labels. Some of them are even
affordable. Choose someone you respect, who will listen, listen,
and listen to you. Ask them to discuss a competitors wine
label or two.
Ask them to discuss your label in detail. Make sure they can tell
you not just whether a design works or not, but why
and in a way you can understand. Then, after you hire them, pay
their bills on time this keeps them happy, healthy, and working
hard for your success.
If things cost a nickel or two more than you expected, go for it.
As your biggest piece of advertising and the first contact point
most people will have with your wine, your label is far more important
than your tasting room furniture.
Our creative director, who designed the new Scherrer label, alerted
Fred to one of the biggest visual problems with the existing label:
the script typeface used for the words Scherrer Winery.
Scripts have a long and august history, but knowing how and when
(not) to use them is something even many designers have trouble
A script face is almost always a terrible choice for a logotype.
Besides being harder to read than Roman type, most simply dont
have enough visual personality to make a strong, interesting logo,
especially for words with a highly repetitive character count like
Scherrer. And those that do have a strong personality
are too something ornate, casual, cutesy, formal,
or else unambiguously tied to a specific historical period, geographic
area, or aesthetic movement.
In other words, theyre perfect for evoking an extremely narrow,
specific response. But even if thats the goal, choose carefully,
because most of the time youll end up with fancy
when what you probably wanted was elegant. In
this case, the script was a major tonal misstep, interfering with
brand recognition and diminishing the perceived wine quality.
The solution was to demote the script typeface and use
it only for the varietal (we chose an organic, hand-drawn face to
communicate Scherrers artisanal wine quality), while rendering
the Scherrer name in carefully selected, painstakingly spaced capitals.
Because the human eye recognizes words by their shapes, and not
by the individual letters within them, capitals slow the eye down,
creating both emphasis and a sense of calm. The use of plainer small
caps for the appellation, sub-appellation, and vineyard text
extends the effect, resulting in a design that is dignified without
being stiff or pompous,
Another issue was whats known as borrowed interest
using an irrelevant image or visual theme because its
aesthetically pleasing or cool. (Even if youve
never heard of it, youve seen it: think any critter
or car wine, for a start.) Freds borrowed interest
was much less acute than most. A common fleur-de-lys typographic
ornament appearing on the label and capsule took up space and was
After exploring dozens of alternate ornaments and icons, one solution
rose to the top a custom-calligraphed cursive S that is unique
and idiosyncratic, but also steeped in tradition, much like Scherrers
4. JUDGING DESIGNS: Pick the design
that best addresses the design objectives, not the one you believe
is prettiest. The design you like best, or the most unusual
design, or even the design that wins an award is not necessarily
the best design for your label.
Design is very different from art its a mode of communication
and, as such, should serve the product first and foremost. Therefore,
keep your design objectives and evaluation criteria at hand when
you review label designs. Ask your designer to read them aloud before
every presentation. Evaluate every detail through the lens of how
well it meets these criteria.
Then, ask yourself a few more questions: Does it look original?
Or would the label be equally legitimate if you just swapped in
another winery name?
5. PRINT YOUR NEW LABEL WELL. You
wouldnt use low-quality grapes for your wine, so do not use
a low-quality printer to print your labels. When choosing a printer,
send a rough draft of the label artwork and ask them to point out
anything that might be an issue on press.
Ask for samples of similar projects the printer has produced and
a range of their other work. Never forget that the paper stock makes
a difference. True, you can print anything on white, coated stock,
including that ancient parchment texture youve fallen in love
with; but the right paper choice can completely transform a design.
For the Scherrer label, our creative director worked with Spectrum
Label Corp. (Hayward, CA), to find an uncoated, textured stock
a much better solution than hammering plain old white, coated paper
into a simulacrum of what we wanted to communicate.
Another rule of thumb: in wine labels, less actually is more. Years
ago, metallic inks and foil hot-stamping were much more expensive
than they are today, with the result that they served as an easy
shorthand to add depth to a design and denote high quality. But
now, theyre so commonplace that it is sometimes hard to tell
the difference between a wine bottle and a container for a mass-produced
Foil stamping and metallic inks have become ubiquitous on corporate
brands of wine, the $8 fighting varietals in the chain store shelf-space
wars. Just as four-color printing on white, coated paper often says
slick, corporate, mass-produced wine, metallics or foils
risk coming across as frippery again, fancy rather than elegant.
But, setting this process aside, changing the label doesnt
actually change the way the wine tastes
We asked 200 people in three cities to taste the same (unlabeled)
white wine, poured from two different colored glass bottles
one a grassy green, the other a smoky gray. We never mentioned the
bottles, asking people instead to describe the wine they
were tasting (remember, it was the same wine in both bottles).
Two hundred comments later, one wine was overwhelmingly described
as grassy, fruity, bright, fresh and the other as complex,
smoky, sophisticated, and mature. It hardly matters that one
was overwhelmingly judged superior to the other; the real lesson
is just how much packaging can and does alter our experience of
When a label sends the wrong messages, consumers are predisposed
to notice flaws in the wine they dont even know
theyre looking for no matter how enthusiastically the
sommelier or wine seller might recommend a wine.
The new Scherrer label doesnt just look better, it sets higher
expectations and prepares the taster for Fred Scherrers complex,
understated vintages. It allows sommeliers to recommend the wines,
and wine merchants to stock them, more confidently without
having to reassure their patrons that despite appearances, the wine
really is as good as they say.
Most important perhaps, the new label strengthens Scherrer Winerys
position in an industry that becomes more challenging for small
wineries every year. It commands a higher price-point by reflecting
the exacting standards and tireless attention to detail that go
into every bottle of Scherrer wine.
This kind of label design is not easy; it takes time, a lot of analysis,
and thought. But by focusing on a consistent and deliberate visual
message based on a carefully developed communication strategy, and
by working with a designer or agency that knows how to translate
that strategy into an original and meaningful design, youll
be amazed at what the right label can do for your wine.
In Fred Scherrers words, These guys were amazing. At
every step, they made it clear that this project was not about design
for its own sake it was about the wines. Even my wife thinks
our wines taste better now!
About the Authors
Skye Hallberg has an extensive background in brand management
(Proctor & Gamble), advertising (Young & Rubicam, BBDO),
design and marketing consulting. She heads up Cogitos marketing
department and grows old-vine Pinot Noir.
Cogitos Creative Director, Ron Woloshun, is an unreconstructed
lover of typography, wine, and electronic gadgets. His deft touch
with design, advertising, packaging, and identity development is
Cogito Creative Works can be reached at www.CogitoCreative.com and