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Art on the outside: Label designers work to match the wine artistry inside the bottle

Art on the outside: Label designers work to match the wine artistry inside the bottle

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 22, 2019 series
  • Updated

Much like the people who make the wine inside the bottles, graphic designers craft wine labels on the outside with years of experience and in close association with printers, artists, and wineries.

They see their job as an opportunity to create an image for the wine that is tailored to the beverage’s price and customers’ interests.

“Creating a label is very hands-on and very personal. I always consider myself part of my client’s team. I get into the project with them to connect their vision for the wine with their brand,” said Tina Carpenter, owner of Carpenter Creative, a Napa-based graphic design firm.

Carpenter said she begins the process by meeting with the core team members and evaluating their project objectives and strategic goals.

“For a line of single-vineyard California appellation Pinot Noirs priced between $20 and $50, the original label showcased a painting of a big cherry pie that the winemaker owned. For the brand refresh, I took the cherry pie, isolated it, and created a marquee image for the brand,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter said she also designed branding details for the wine’s packaging to emulate “a seal that you would find on your pie box from the corner bakery.”

“This gave the wine a sense of Americana and a ‘county fair’ feeling,” said Carpenter.

Designers need to know industry “splurges” and the basics

Tracey Nauright, owner of Round Like a Circle, a graphic design firm based in American Canyon, said knowing how the label is printed is important.

“I handpick my printers based on the design, quantity, and budget for the label. You can add a feeling of luxury with certain features, such as a beautiful foil stamp, embossing, and varnish. These have an extra cost, which you need to determine beforehand,” said Nauright.

Nauright said her years of experience and knowledge of wine industry regulations help her make sure the label’s wording fit specifications for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

“The size of the font, its visibility, its readability, and the wording all need to be in line with regulations. There are things you just cannot say on a wine label, like, ‘This is the best’ or ‘This tastes like Coca-Cola,’” said Nauright.

Before starting her own firm in 1999, Nauright worked for Domaine Chandon and Chapellet Winery.

“Since then, word of mouth created opportunities at Nicholson Ranch Winery, Mumm Napa, and Kent Rasmussen Winery,” said Nauright.

Cynthia Sterling, creative director of Affinity Creative Group, a Mare Island-based studio, said package design for the wine industry is highly specialized. Designers develop specialized expertise once they have experience in the category.

“I’ve been designing wine labels since the late 1980s. Wineries usually change their labels every five years,” said Sterling.

Sterling said she, as many graphic designers who create wine labels, has a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design. Typically, graphic designers in this category work with Adobe Creative Suite, particularly Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

“I’ve been told my style is classic modern with a lot of attention to detail. I like to create labels that catch the eye. Also, Napa Valley wineries often want a “classic” wine label, which means a fresh version of a classic European wine label,” said Sterling.

Producing a unique label requires research

Visiting a supermarket or beverage store is a key part of creating a good label, said Sterling.

“You need to see what customers want and what the competition looks like on the shelf. You want to carve out your territory,” said Sterling.

Nauright said research also involves drinking wine and examining labels.

“My forte is a clean, clear label that doesn’t hide the information and is not too busy. When I present a label to my clients, I want to create a design that gives them a ‘warm fuzzy’ effect. That’s when a customer’s shoulders release and they seem calm and happy. I have given them what they’ve dreamt of,” said Nauright.

Carpenter said she keeps up to date on the costs of certain elements of a label, including the cost of paper and inks.

“A gloss varnish over red ink can make (the red seem) like lip gloss. I always come to the press to make sure the colors look right. I can be on press for 10 hours until the job is done,” said Carpenter.

Carpenter said her work sometimes involves “repositioning” a wine to show an upgrade in quality or price.

“For one project, Evidence Wines made by Jason Court, the recent vintage was made from 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Mount Veeder. The winery made only 300 cases,” said Carpenter.

To capture the investigative look and feel of evidence, Carpenter chose a tall grey tapered label with cryptic typography.

“The front label is minimal to reflect the new price point of this wine. The back label has the appearance of a case file with details such as numbering of each bottle and pick date information,” said Carpenter.

The original wine was offered at $20 with a California appellation. The new vintage is $90 a bottle.

“(The new design) reflects the vineyard-specific appellation and higher quality, smaller batch grape source,” said Carpenter.

“No typical job” at the printers

A local printing press allows the graphic designer to be on hand to make sure the labels look and feel right.

Dustin Mertens, sales manager of Eurostampa, a worldwide printing press with a facility in Napa, said the 80,000-square-foot facility can create a few hundred to a few million labels in a few days.

“There’s no typical job. We work with many West Coast wineries, those in Napa and Sonoma counties and those in Oregon, Washington, and even Texas,” said Mertens.

Mertens said the cost of a single label can range from a few cents to several dollars. Factors include the cost of the paper or other label material like veneer, specialized processes like die cutting, embellishments like foil, and ultraviolet (UV) coatings that protect the labels from scuffing.

“A lot of the cost is setting up the equipment. The paper also represents a significant portion of the cost. That’s another reason smaller labels are cheaper. For example, on some smaller labels, you can fit four instead of three across on the paper web,” said Mertens.

Mertens said when a label is finished, printing can be done in a single day.

“In order to get to that point, you go through a lot. The printing press works with the graphic designer and the winery’s procurement team. We discuss colors and add-ons like foil. We do tweaks, change the ink as needed, and make sure the image looks correct before we go to press. If something doesn’t look right, we make a new plate for a new label,” said Mertens.

Nauright said although creating labels can involve multiple trips to the digital drawing board, she likes the fact that such projects have multiple components.

“It’s like you’re working with a big puzzle. Although it can be demanding, living here for 25 years, I still get choked up (about) every single one of my projects,” said Nauright.

Nauright said her passion for wine dates to her early years as a graphic designer. She even worked for free for a New York wine store just to learn more about wines and the wine industry.

“When I lived in New York City, I had The Napa Valley Register sent to me by mail all the way on the East Coast to get a sense of the region. I found my job in the wine industry by sending letters to then-400 members of the Napa Valley Vintners. For me, it’s a dream come true. I’m a kid from Connecticut living in wine country, working in the wine industry. The end!” said Nauright.

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