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Chapter 61 : A History of Wine Labels

Found at a Neolithic village site in Iran, this jar was one of six vessels containing the remains of 7,000-year-old wine. (Courtesy The University of Pennsylvania Museum)
"The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine." So wrote the Greek author of the "History of the Peloponnesian War" in the fifth century B.C.,(Thucydides: 52-53). The earliest evidence we have for the cultivation of grapes and the supervised fermentation of their juices dates back to 6000 B.C. in the ancient Middle East.

Recent excavations at the Godin Tepe site in the Zagros mountains of Iran (Badler, 1995; McGovern and Michel, 1995; McGovern, 2003), have revealed pottery vessels dating from c. 3100–2900 BC which contained tartaric acid, almost certainly indicating the former presence of wine. Even earlier evidence for the existence of 7,000 years old wine came from one of six two-and-one-half-gallon jars excavated from the kitchen area of a mud-brick building in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in Iran's northern Zagros Mountains. Using infrared spectrometry, liquid chromatography, and a wet chemical test, Patrick E. McGovern and a team from the University of Pennsylvania Museum found calcium salt from tartaric acid, which occurs naturally in large amounts only in grapes, suggesting that the fluid contained therein had been made from grapes. According to a Persian legend, wine was discovered by a depressed young girl who wanted to commit suicide, thus drinking the spoiled residue left by rotting table grapes. Instead of poisoning herself she was intoxicated and found the pleasures that life can offer.

Although the evidence dated back to 1352 BC, from Egypt’s King Tut burial site (unearthed in 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter), indicates that the ancient Egyptians were the first who labeled their wines detailing vintage, growing region or vineyard, and winemaker, it was in the Persian Empire that  labeling of wines became a necessity, because of the many verity of wines, including the Greek and Phoenician  wines from Sidon,  arriving at the Great King's wine cellar at Persepolis. In fact, according to Herodotus the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC), had an elaborate culture of wine drinking . The Persians " are very fond of wine" he writes (I1.33). Cambyses was particularly notorious in this department (Herodotus III.34), and Cyrus the Younger boasted of holding his wines better than his brother Artexerexes (Plutarch, Art,6.1).

A lion and a griffin gold wine-goblet from Iran, late second millennium and early first millennium BC.

Some of the tablets found at Persepolis, built by Darius around 500 BC records the distribution of wine. By royal authority, it was distributed among citizens according to precise criteria with amounts carefully calibrated according to ranks. Members of the king's own family were issued about five quarts per day, although much more would be forthcoming on the occasion of a banquet; one entry in the archives tells of a princess getting a shipment of five hundred gallons. Officials, members of the royal guard and various functionaries took some of their salary in wine. Ordinary workers received a monthly allowance of ten to twenty quarts. And women of the working class were rewarded with wine if they added to the labor force: When a male child was born, the mother received ten quarts; a girl baby warranted only half as much..

A silver wine-drinking bowl from the royal house of Artaxerxes I, 5th century BC. It is inscribed with the name of Artaxerxes, as well as his father Xerxes and his grandfather Darius, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A golden Rhyton (Greek ῥυτόν rutón), Achaemenid period, Excavated at Ecbatana, National Museum of Iran

The King drank a special wine reserved for him (Posedonious and Heraclides apud Athenaeus IV.145c and 1.28, Strabo XV.3.22), undoubtedly the Chalybonian wine from Syria ( Athenaeus II.28d.). Herodotus mentions this in connection with Symposia , drinking feats, as do Aaelian (VH XII.1) and Starbo "they carry their most important deliberations when drinking wine (XV.3.20). According to Heraclides, it was the same during the Symposia organized around the king after dinner with his select drinking companions (Sympotoi, Athenaeus IV.145 c). We also know from Dinon that the king drank from a special cup shaped like an egg (XI. 503. F).

The Royal Cupbearers, like today's French servers in a posh restaurant, followed an impeccable royal protocol "the cupbearers  of those kings perform their office with fine airs; they pour in the wine with neatness and then present the goblet conveying it with three fingers, and offer in such a way as to place it most conveniently in the grasp of the one who is to drink" (Xneophone, Cyr. 1.3.8).

Vineyard scenes on a wine strainer, Late Sasanian, 6th century AD From Mazanderan, northern Iran, British Museum

This elaborate tradition was followed by the Sasanian Empire (224-651 AD). A Middle Persian text from this era  entitled (King) Husraw and Page is perhaps the first recorded recommendation list of wines by a wine connoisseur:
“May you be immortal, these wines are all good and fine, the wine of Transoxania, when they prepare it well, the wine of Herat, the wine of Marw-Rud, the wine of Bust and the must of Hulwan, but no wine can ever compare with the Babylonian wine and the must of Bazrang.”

In Europe, wine-making was primarily the business of mithraea and monasteries, because of the need for wine in the Mithraic and Christian sacraments. Mithraic Rite of Dionysos was a "wine cult", concerned with the cultivation of the grapevine, and a practical, understanding of its life cycle - embodying the living god - the creation and fermentation of wine - the dead god in the underworld - and the intoxicating and disinhibiting effects of the drink itself, believed to be a possession by the god’s spirit. During the Renaissance, the virtues of various wine regions were appreciated by the increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers, and by the 18th century the wine trade soared, especially in France, where Bordeaux became the preeminent producer of fine wines. The development of distinctive strains of wine grapes led to the production of regional wines with easily recognizable characteristics.

The early label designs in Europe were simply small identifying pieces of parchment tied with string around the neck. Later identifiers included carvings in the base of a pewter stand describing the region of the wine. By the 1700s, labels were designed on a stone. Ink was then applied and a roller transferred it to paper. By 1798, lithography had been invented and wine labels could be printed in mass quantities. As winemakers gained more and more pride in the quality of their wines, creating the perfect label to show it off became more and more important. Designs and especially color became prevalent.

Since 1974 certain Vietti wines have been dressed with specially-designed original works (lithographs, xylographies, etchings, silkscreens, linocuts) inspired by the wine of that particular vintage. The print run is the same as the number of bottles produced, and the first hundred labels are signed by the Artist. Each work is only used once, just for the wine of that vintage



Alexander Valley Vineyards Gewurztraminer 2011

Dashe Cellars Todd Brothers Ranch Zinfandel, 2009

Clos Pegase Mitsuko's Vineyard Chardonnay 2009

Alma Rosa El Jabali Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2007

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Columbia Riesling Washington 2011

Big House Beastly Old Vines Cardinal Zinfandel 2010

Tedeschi Vineyards Maui Splash NV (Hawaii)

14 Hands Washington Cabernet 2010

Chateau Pesquie Cotes du Ventoux Quintessence Rouge 2009, French

Alfasi Valle del Maule Chardonnay 2009 (Chile)

Monchhof Riesling Erdener Pralat Auslese 2008 (Germany)

Prinz von Hessen H Riesling 2007 (Germany)
Egri Bikaver Bull's Blood of Eger 2008 (Hungary)

Eiko Fuji Ban Ryu Honjozo Sake (Japan)
Ban Ryu means "ten thousand ways." It is an expression used in the sake world to answer the question, in how many ways is one sake different from another. The answer, in 10 Thousand Ways: the yeast, the koji, timing of brewing, etc., It also means, more informally, "versatility." 

Angove's Vineyard Select Limestone Coast Chardonnay 2005 (Australia)

One of the most sought after, prized, collected, and prolific wine brands of all time is Mouton Rothschild. The long-standing tradition of the quality of the wine was surpassed only by the early marketing techniques applied to the brand by the founder’s predecessor (and great-grandson,) Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

The 1993 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Balthus

The 1973 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Pablo Picasso

The 1968 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Bona Tibertelli

The 2001 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Robert Wilson

The 1975 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Andy Warhol

The 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Marc Chagall
The 1971 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Wassily Kandinsky

The 1999 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Raymond Savignac

The 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: John Huston

The 1985 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Paul Delvaux
 The 2008 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Xu Lei

The 1969 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Label by: Joan Miró

In the 1920’s, marketing wines with beautiful labels was one of many ambitious moves by Philippe de Rothschild to propel and modernize his winery. Philippe enlisted important artists of the time to create original designs to enhance the marketing ability of the wines. This became a permanent practice of the winery in 1946, and the tradition has only been broken a couple of times since for special commemorations.

Wine Bottles become part of labels,

In antiquity wine was generally stored in amphorae, or large, usually earthenware or silverware jars, and served in jugs. However, glass was too fragile to use for storing or transporting wines. Hand-blown bottles were more often used for serving wines while barrels or large clay pots (amphorae) were used for storage. When necessary, some of the tear-drop-shaped glass bottles were wrapped in straw both to protect the glass from breakage and to allow the bottle to stand upright on a table (now associated with the traditional marketing of straw-wrapped Chianti bottles).

Evolution of wine bottles since 1700

It was the invention of the coal burning furnace that brought about the next major change. Sand won’t melt into glass until the heat reaches at least 1500 degrees. Hotter 17th century coal furnaces allowed for creation of thicker and darker glass. This ability, paired with the new cork closures which came into fashion at the same time, brought forth the use of strong glass bottles for wine transport and aging. At this time, before standardized sizes and long before labeling laws, bottles were of many different shapes and sizes and rarely labeled with anything but a maker’s stamp or painted mark.

Wine bottle from The Salutation, belonging to Thomas Wood, The Ashmolean Museum

 The olive green hue to the glass varied from light to dark due to the level of impurities in the ingredients of the glass, but not by design.Gradually the bottle took on a flatter base and so became self-supporting. The bodies were often onion- or balloon-shaped while the necks varied from long to short, depending on the preference of the particular country. In the eighteenth century the shape became cylindrical and this allowed the bottle to be "laid down" on its side. Modern bottles have retained the basic cylindrical shape but may vary according to the type of wine or the practice of different countries. Many German wine bottles, for instance, have very elongated shapes.

Swanson Vineyard in the Napa  a label  with a message.

The wine labels, devised by designer Rob Schellenberg, are based on the longitudes of Italy and it's famous wine regions. Depending on the degrees north, the wine region was associated with a numerical logo and topographic map.

Insular Winehouses of Tenerife (Spain)

2011 Fiano di Avellino, Feudi di San Gregorio, Italy

Cantunera, by leonardo recalcati, Italy

Napa Valley Wine Collection Labels, Designed by Viet Huynh
A critic wrote; " When and why did the California wine label, especially on bottles of the noblest representatives of the state's wine culture, become so monochromatic, lifeless and dull? By and large, they look as if they came out of the same conservative studio, one that customarily prepares advertising material for mortuaries. Granted, designers and artists can't alone be faulted for labels so lacking in personality, adventure, history, romance, tension and drama. They take their cues from winery owners, who in reaching for stateliness too often end up with the underwhelmingly understated. Oh, there is an elegance to the designs, but it's so reserved and lacking in color and rhythm that vintners seem to have forgotten the first responsibility of the wine label: Sell the wine to browsing customers who for the most part are impulsive buyers. The label is to grab their attention and convey a sense of the confidence, tradition and aspiration that went into the wine in the bottle." Viet Huynh design is part of a project to address these concerns.  

Insular Winehouses of Tenerife (Spain)

Eight Arms Cellars

SWOON wine label by Amanda Mocci.

An elegant design for Merlot from Oakville vineyards owned or controlled by Swanson.

Inspired by the nostalgic surrealism of Magritte, Nomeolvides aims at creating a sense of solitude. The text of the counter says, "Sometimes love is so ephemeral and eternal remembrance we want to retain it, do it for a moment forever .."..

Pertutti by bibiana tenebra

From Grandpa to Grandson
The Gut Oggau Portrait Wines labels were designed by Jung von Matt to give each Oggau wine it’s own unique signature. I like its raw simplicity.
Striking Typography Design for magnificient wines

Holiday Wine, Designed by Duffy Partners of Minneapolis

Boxhead bottle, by Mash.
Wine labels based on circus characters, by Public Creative.
Karadag wine label by Nadie Parshina.

Winery Arts by Moruba, a Spanish design company.
Sonoma Vinyards' labels, by SF-based agency Voicebox

Shefa Young Wine (Israel), designed by Nine99Design

Full line-up from Magpie Estate Winery (Australia), design by M/A/S/H

Élu and Virtú from St. Supéry Vineyards Winery (Napa Valley)

Block Shiraz by Branson Coach House (Australia)

Francis Ford Coppola met Dean Tavoularis, film production designer, during the shooting of The Godfather. Tavoularis’ artwork is now gracing the labels of Francis Coppola Reserve wines.

Laughing Stock Designed by Emplus
Saddler's Creek Wines by Swedish designer Daniel Eek.

Potek Grenache Demetria Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley 2013

Funky label artwork by Arthur Jones.
The Small Hours Pinot Noir Vecino Vineyard Potter Valley 2015

The Fugitive | C.A. Dry Creek Valley | Design: Stranger & Stranger
Casa Mariol | Catalunya, Spain | Design: Bendita Gloria Studio

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