What Goes Into Designing a Wine Label?

My relationship with wine started when I was a sophomore in college and my friends and I would trek to the liquor store in downtown Baltimore that didn’t card. Usually, we’d buy a liter of Yellow Tail or Carlo Rossi to take to house parties. I wasn’t so interested in the flavor profiles, the tannins, or whatever; I was interested in getting sloshed for cheap.

Luckily, those tendencies have been quieted (for now). I’ve picked up various hobbies during this time of isolation: pressing flowers and plants from my walks around Prospect Park, Sudoku, listening to lots of jazz, and wine tasting. Wine has a relatively low barrier to entry — you can find lots of decent bottles under $20, and the price means much lower stakes than imbibing multiple cocktails in a night.

As the design director of Eater, judging things on how they look is part of my job. Between supporting my local wine shop and the restaurants-turned-provisions stores in my neighborhood, there are tons of options to choose from. I’m drawn to wines with illustrated labels (if your natural wine doesn’t have a children’s drawing on it, is it even a natural wine?) and beautiful, flourishing typography. I love big, Brutalist type on a minimalist label, but also abstract expressionism; I often don’t have an agenda in mind until I see it. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is the old adage, but that’s the entire point. Tons of great wines have simple or even dull labels, but a lot more goes into making wine labels than you think.

I spoke to three creatives, all with very different processes, about how they handled an assignment that is produced hundreds (or even thousands!) of times, making sure that it not only stood out on a shop’s shelves, but also compelled a buyer to bring it home.


Designer and founder of Studio MMBB

Mel Barat Bours is a visual storyteller who explores narratives through art direction, design, and illustration. Mel has worked in publication, fashion, music, and tech. In 2018 she turned an active freelance practice into Studio MMBB,
a workshop where she collaborates with clients to explore and create with an emphasis on craft.

How did things kick off for you in your art career?
What is your current art practice like?

I started my career freelancing around various publications in New York City toward the end of the financial crisis. I met a lot of wonderful people then and was able to collaborate with creatives I admired. During that time, I learned how to work fast and communicate efficiently to keep the jobs coming in. Things really picked up once I started feeling more confident in what I was doing and started to have more fun with the work. My current practice is more spontaneous — things get going when I’m inspired, or when a client project pops up.

What are the steps of your creative process as an illustrator/designer?

To start, I ask myself, what’s the story that I want to tell, or what is the story that my client would like to bring to life? I like to immerse myself in all aspects of that world; gathering ephemera, building out textures, beginning to explore palettes and typography, maybe even building a playlist. If it’s a client project, I’ll then develop a few different paths that tell a holistic story in slightly different ways. This helps us get to the heart of what the client really wants to communicate.

Did you use the same methodology for this project?

Yes and no. This project was unique in that the illustration was the star of the label. The beginning for me was working to define the idea of a Fat Cat “Gatto Grosso” — was it literal? Was it figurative? Working with the client to nail the overall mood helped to determine how we wanted the cat to come alive.

Preliminary sketches for Gatto Grosso showcasing people
Courtesy of Melissa Barat Bours

Secondary sketches for Gatto Grosso moving toward the namesake
Courtesy of Melissa Barat Bours

What design tools do you use?

I am very grateful for all of the updates in Adobe Creative suite. It is way easier now to work seamlessly between Illustrator (my main program) and literally everything else. I draw or write before anything becomes digital — and for that I love Japanese brush pens. You can control line weight not just with pressure on the page, but also tightness of squeeze. It’s a really tactile way to engage your senses while you create, something I relish when most of my workflow happens digitally. Pentel Color Brush is a perennial fave.

What was the collaboration process like with the winery/distributor?

The distributor, Communal Brands, reached out to me to see if I had some time to create a drawing for their new wine in the style of a series of illos I did during New York Fashion Week a few years ago called “Errand Girls.” When we kicked off the project, the name, “Gatto Grosso” was already decided, as it was a play on the grape varietal “Tai Rosso,” which makes a fresh and light wine. An additional thing we knew from the get-go was that this wine was going to come in a liter bottle, which is a bit larger than a regular bottle. Knowing that, I provided a few sketches. From there the client chose which direction felt right, and then I elaborated and refined.

Courtesy of Melissa Barat Bours

Layout and color options

What kind of questions do you ask before starting a new project? What information is most valuable to you?

Practically: What’s the timeline? What’s the budget? What are the final deliverables? Before I can agree to any client project, I want to make sure I am 100 percent available to deliver the best possible work. After that is tidied away, we get into the real work — asking questions about goals, feelings, and audiences.

How do you make sure your voice is seen and heard through a project?

Usually when I take on commission work, it is to collaborate with a client who is excited for my voice and creative perspective. I am excited about working with others to make the ephemeral more tangible.

How do you stay inspired?

My inspiration primarily comes from observing the world around me. Changes in scenery are really important. On a small scale, walking to my local park to investigate plants or to people-watch. On a larger scale, spending a week in Japan trying to take as much in as possible. I also really enjoy learning about the history of objects and places; it brings a lot to my work.

How do you know a design is complete, barring client feedback?

Great question. When I pass off the final files to a printer or production house — that is when I truly feel like it is done. There are moments when my gut tells me, yes — this is it! But, sometimes I have to rethink a little bit if we run into issues like, the paper stock is on backorder or the foil is out of budget. More often than not I work within parameters set at the start of the project to make sure we can get the best result with any set of given constraints, but things can come up. I don’t celebrate a project being wrapped until the whole thing has shipped.

Do you explore and drink wines on your own time?

Most of the time I am a spirits person, but I really enjoy natural wines. My husband and I moved to the Bay Area three years ago from Brooklyn and since then we have gone on a few trips to Sonoma and Napa. The vibe up there can be a little intense, but it’s cool to see how wine is produced! When I lived in Brooklyn, I loved going to the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg to learn about wine and hang. I have been really enjoying a selection from Las Jaras wines during isolation time. Superbloom is fantastic! A friend turned me on to Primal Wines in LA — they’re great to follow on Instagram to learn about new selections.

Final bottle label and cork
Melissa Barat Bours

Is there anything you want to do in the future in this same vein?

Yes! I’d love to do more hospitality or food- and beverage-based work. There is a lot of creative freedom there. It’s an opportunity to create a totally immersive experience on a super-relatable, human scale. Developing an identity system for a hotel or restaurant that also sells their own goods would be a dream. It’s like creating a world you can duck into for a little while, taste and smell, and then take a bit home for you to explore later.


Illustrator

Alphachanneling’s artwork is a holistic exaltation of sexuality; it is carnal, explicit, and provocative, but in the most gentle, graceful, and reverential way. The artist’s mythical world of the Utopian Erotic has charmed an international audience through exhibition, publication, and a massive and enthusiastic following on Instagram. Desire is central to the intention and inspiration driving Alphachanneling’s work.

How did things kick off for you in your art career? What is your current art practice like?

Social media has been a natural fit for my work because it enables a direct conversation with my work and my audience. Things really started to accelerate for me when my art found its way to an audience that resonated with it. Prior to that I’d been working on many different bodies of work and incarnations of my creative output, but the work struggled to find connection, probably because my earlier work was too abstract or esoteric to be received by a broader audience. Since then I have been able to exclusively devote my time to my art making as well as design products that are extensions of my art.

What are the steps of your creative process as an illustrator/designer?

It’s always about what I’m feeling in the moment. What’s making my heart sing, what feels exalted, what feels heavy, what feels sweet.

I continually return to these basic tenants for my practice. Certainly I fall off track or lose focus but these ground rules have really supported me. I ask myself what feels good, and try to make that bigger. I ask myself what feels bad and try to let it go. Then I let any one of those impulses come through without judgment, without censoring myself. I use my work as a way of releasing the energy I’m holding. I approach it like meditation and avoid working on ideas; it’s an intuitive expression versus a cognitive one.

Did you use the same methodology for this project?

Absolutely. The project was a chance to extend the joy and pleasure I feel from my art making to a product that was itself crafted out of that same spirit, and ultimately meant to be enjoyed when it is consumed.

What design tools do you use?

My work always begins with pencil and paper. In this case I worked with watercolors to give the artwork a softness, to make it more approachable. I sometimes use Illustrator or Photoshop to explore color treatments, but luckily, most of my process is analog and as simple and basic as could be. I’ve spent years simplifying my tools and process.

A watercolor underpainting
Courtesy of Alphachanneling

What was the collaboration process like with the winery/distributor?

I choose collaborations that are driven by a shared enthusiasm for creating things that have intrinsic beauty and are motivated by the spirit of play. Eric Wareheim invited me to be part of this project and I was excited, as there was a mutual creative resonance from the outset.

Part of my inspiration for this label was a Tarot card, The Two of Cups, which symbolizes the joy of two becoming one. They both have connection to their own abundance and they are drinking from that source together.

Two of Cups drawing
Courtesy of Alphachanneling

What kind of questions do you ask before starting a new project? What information is most valuable to you?

When I start a new project, the most valuable information I can begin exploring from is my own personal connection or experience with the brand or product; how it makes me feel, what it inspires in me. Everything I create is driven from a personal subjective experience rather than an objective conceptual space.

How do you make sure your voice is seen and heard through a project?

I always choose collaborations where there is mutual creative respect and appreciation so the voice of the project ends up being a collective expression of all the inspiration that went into it. Rather than it being about giving or taking direction, I see it as being about inspiring each other.

Two possible color schemes for the final label
Courtesy of Alphachanneling

How do you stay inspired?

To borrow from some of my previous writing: “The inspiration driving my art is the premise that desire is an expression of the divine, and therefore something to exalt and celebrate in all its forms. In the same way that a plant turn towards the sun, I believe my desire turns me on to that which nourishes me and makes me grow.”

How do you know a design is complete, barring client feedback?

My process is very exploratory and iterative, so often I end up with many different versions.

Since I love them all, I enjoy sharing all the versions and seeing which ones feel the most resonant with my collaborators. Then I fine tune them for final production.

Do you explore and drink wines on your own time?

I do enjoy wine, and working on projects like this adds a dimension to that experience because I start to contemplate the visuals that might express what I am tasting.

The final illustration and bottle
Courtesy of Alphachanneling

Is there anything you want to do in the future in this same vein?

I’ve been enjoying designing the packaging for my own products that I create. Because of the nature of my work and its inherent irreverence, I can really take the language of marketing and subvert it in a playful way. For example, my coloring book which was an erotic coloring book, the promotional materials I designed were full of absurd hyperbole with phrases like “kinky colors,” “freaky pages,” and “nasty colors.” I like using the formulas of traditional consumerism and designing things that challenge existing conventions and expectations.


Illustrator

Matt Huynh is a Sydney-born, New York-based visual artist and storyteller. His bold brush and ink paintings are informed by calligraphic Eastern sumi-e ink traditions and popular Western comic books. His illustrated essays, comics, and animations interrogate the vast repercussions of war, with a particular focus on amplifying diasporic voices, telling refugee narratives and the experiences of asylum seekers and migrant communities. Huynh’s paintings, comics, and murals have been exhibited by the MoMA, the Smithsonian, and New York Historical Society.

How did things kick off for you in your art career? What is your current art practice like?

I loved telling stories with pictures, whether that was comics, animation, or picture books. When I started working professionally, I did a lot of commercial work like storyboarding and concept art.

Today, I still love visual narrative and use my work to relay and connect with subject matter that we might find difficult to look at or easily comprehend, like humanitarian issues, politics, journalism, and underrepresented communities. That’s a world away from the commercial work I drew when I started out, so designing a wine label today was a meeting between that design thinking with the picture-making tastes and techniques that I enjoy.

What are the steps of your creative process as an illustrator/designer?

The process is a little different each time so that it can be catered for what each particular project needs. I think about that cliche of a writer who after finishing a book still doesn’t know how to write, but knows how to write that particular book. It starts all over again for the next project, identifying what it needs, hypothesizing on a strategy to reach it, and leaping forward. For an editorial project or a product, I might be given a complete story and in visually telling that story, I might have to underline it for emphasis and be obvious and dummy proof. I might have to find a nuanced way to tell the story, one that won’t reveal itself to the viewer immediately.

That might be finding a new perspective, an underrepresented idea, avoiding visual cliche, or it might be with humor — a wink. I like to try a range of these moods and tones on — serious, refined, wild, silly — in case it might lead to somewhere unexpected, and after a lot of experimentation, research, free association, and regurgitation on a page, I’ll work with the art director or the client to narrow our paths down to a clear direction forward. And then, I’d have reached the moment that I do all of this for — I get to pick up a brush and dip it in ink.

Did you use the same methodology for this project?

Kent Johnson, the sales and design consultant at Communal Brands, approached me knowing what the product would be — what kind of wine, where it was from, who the winemaker would be. But the story we wanted to tell was very open.

We started with an idea for a name (“Indecision”) and a clear direction (a minimalist indie-art comic). I took an initial swing with some loose sketches and lettering ideas that started with the initial idea of a comic on a label, and started deviating and riffing on the “Indecision” name. They were all very obvious and not too exciting, but it was our first baby step.

Preliminary sketches for Indecision
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

I sat down with Kent over some tea to review the sketches and find out a little more about the wine, the winemaker, how it might be presented to a new audience, and its flavor profile. This was an organic, hand-harvested pinot noir Willamette Valley in Oregon by Grochau Cellars. I wouldn’t taste it until much later, so it was important to imagine what it would be like.

We decided that the aesthetic and mood of the label was more important at this stage than its exact name, so “Indecision” was open to change and Kent already had some ideas — “The Interpreter” and “Roman Candle.” I went away with a clearer idea of where we were headed and another baby step forward to make some more sketches.

Preliminary sketches and color studies
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

These were still early but had some color ideas and were a lot clearer. They were a mix of some very obvious representational images, some silly puns and jokes, more serious and refined options, some abstract and mood-setting pieces. I didn’t know how some of these images would work at all, but I liked them enough to show Kent, so I just creatively and originally pencilled in “wine name.”

A color and layout exploration
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

I sent these with a bit of an explainer on my thinking through each. Kent went away to review these with Melissa Saunders, the CEO at Communal Brands, and decided what had the most potential for a wine label. A few options immediately leapt out, including our final design. I think it was a nice balance between something serious, a silly visual pun, and immediate vitality and brightness. (Kent also liked an alternative that he thought had a lot of potential but for a different kind of wine and under a different name, so we tried out some color palettes and names on the sketch, but that’s another story.)

Melissa, Kent, and I started drilling down on details, trying out slight color variations and names and what text we wanted include. I refined the sketches and repainted everything with sumi-e ink and hand lettered the title. I also painted silhouettes of our main illustration for the back label and to be printed directly on the cork. We were going to have a naked bottle top where you could see through the glass, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to include a surprising detail on the cork.

Approved sketch and color study for the final product
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

We started working with exact dimensions and some templates and guidelines for all the information we had to include. There’s not a lot of space on a bottle and label, so it was quite a balancing act and we had to be quite precise for TTB compliance [The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is a bureau under the Department of the Treasury], down to font size, spacing, and punctuation. I was relaying assets and details like Pantone colors to the printer to make sure production would be going smoothly.

We had a luxurious exploratory period since I started in September. We hit the ground running with our chosen direction in December, I finished mid-January, and Kent brought around a couple bottles for me to try in late June.

What design tools do you use?

I did all my sketches on Procreate on the iPad Pro, before painting in sumi-e ink on bristol paper. I colored everything in Adobe Photoshop and laid out the design for print in InDesign.

What kind of questions do you ask before starting a new project? What information is most valuable to you?

What story are we telling? Who is our audience?

What would you hope your audience to walk away with — i.e., what impressions, feelings, or knowledge would you like someone to have after seeing the work?

What are some specific stories and small details about this product or project that someone might be surprised to know?

How do you make sure your voice is seen and heard through a project?

I think personal voice is an incredibly strong and delightful addition. We’re not used to seeing it on a commercial product or project, so it feels really intimate and freeing, as though it broke some strict process and focus group and decision-making committee.

When I was a kid, I fell in love with making pictures because I could follow the weight of the artist’s hand in comic books. I could see the direction of their line, where they lifted, where the brush fell, and that’s how I taught myself to draw. It’s incredibly intimate — to sink into a book, into a page, into a panel, into a word balloon. When I pick up a brush and ink, it’s for the same reason — to show my hand in every line. When I’m drawing, I might be working toward a complete image and in service of a larger goal, but all I am really thinking of is each line by each line. If I’m not attentive, you can see it in the work. I’m thinking ahead, am impatient, am trying to represent something instead of laying down the line itself. It’s bricklaying, but you can see care and attention if you look for it.

The final label artwork in sumi ink
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

A photo of the final bottle
Courtesy of Matt Huynh

How do you stay inspired?

Do you know when you try to remember a dream and the more you hold onto it, the further away it gets? That’s how I feel about inspiration. If I consciously chase it or think about it, it becomes a responsibility in service of some capitalist rat race, as though my productive resource is ideas and inspiration — how thoroughly uninspiring! I do think discipline and practice is important. In down times, I journal, keep a personal practice up, but the truth is that the more successful and busy I’ve become, the less room there is for a personal practice, as important as it is. Ideally there would be some balance to it, because it’s like constantly racing marathons without going to the gym. There’s less innovation and experimentation I can do on jobs, so it stunts your personal growth to not prioritize some part of your day to making work that is purely sensory and free from a critical gaze, without a preconceived goal, without an audience.

How do you know a design is complete, barring client feedback?

I rarely have a preconceived image in my head that I’m trying to get onto a page, but rather a feeling or another sense I want to work toward. In a storytelling project, this is quite clear because there might be a primary theme that I return to and emphasize in all my decisions — how I color an image, how the characters behave, how to pace a story. The recognition of a complete image is less squaring a mental image with the one I’ve drawn, but rather recognizing that intention or emotion on a page. I don’t know exactly what the finished image looks like, but I know how it should feel or what it should say.

Do you explore and drink wines on your own time?

Growing up, I wasn’t around wine too much. I don’t think red wines are a big part of Vietnamese dining, probably because it’s in the tropics, where a glass of beer comes with ice. At least, they’re not the preferred liquor. But as I’ve gotten older, I grew a great love of wines.

Is there anything you want to do in the future in this same vein?

Yes; I’ve done some odd products in the past, but it’s a great thrill to represent a product that quite tangibly contributes to someone’s life and enjoyment and is of practical use. I love how wine is so tied to time and place, so you can imagine that seeing a bottle of this chilled pinot noir in the summer during quarantine is an incredibly strong sense memory for me.


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