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It was frankly a sort of David Letterman-ish thing to do, but it came from a sincere desire to creatively engage customers and shift the damn wine that was languishing in the warehouse.

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Maybe people had more time on their hands in the day to attend to this sort of foolishness, or I just wore them down, but eventually we were miraculously able to sell all of the wine. My mother, Ruthie, who sold the wine for a while in Los Angeles, greatly helped this effort.

But rather, it seems imperative to try to develop the wit, the sensitivity, to discern the possibilities of certain micro-niches that exist within the larger macro-environment, wherein one might successfully thrive.

It has never really felt appropriate to talk about what went wrong, if you will. I welcome the day when fewer words are needed, and the wine can perhaps speak for itself to a much greater extent. I started out in the wine business with the relatively ambitious intention of making The Great American Pinot Noir, which is to say, a wine more or less thoroughly Burgundian in style, as I understood that to be. I felt it important to signal my intense and sincere francophilia in this earliest effort, so I more or less copied the style of the Louis Latour and Hubert de Montille labels.

This was for me my very Introductory Course, Wine Labelingif you will. The label is so simple and elegant.

Hy's Steakhouse Whistler

In fact, in the beginning I just wanted to make simple, elegant wines asnd wine labels, and of course, naively believed I could just let the wine itself do the relevant salesmanship.

Boy, did I have a lot to learn! Here are some of the very earliest labels that we did. Same basic concept as the Pinot Noir, but without the benefit of varietal designation. Thank goodness in those days selling wine was a lot easier to do than it is now. These bottlings, as you might imagine, did not exactly set the wine world on fire.

Bonny Doon Vineyard

At this time I was beginning to spend some time with a fairly obscure Albanian wine merchant, called Kermit Lynch, who had a little store in Albany, CA.

Kermit was and is a great fan of the wines of southern France, and I had a simple idea that maybe the varieties of southern France would be well suited to the Central Coast of California, a hypothesis that has in fact luckily been borne out.

But what to call it? My first thought was that I needed to somehow clue customers in to the fact that was a wine made in the style of a Chateauneuf.

My own pretentions notwithstanding, I had always thought that domestic wine labels pretending to be quasi-French were more than a little pretentious, if not just doonright silly. But remember, it can be a two-edged sword; he who lives by the yucks, can also die by yucks, as I was subsequently to learn at great cost.

We even managed to get some Morse code dots and dashes embossed on the label.

Bigger Than Your Head » Gewurztraminer

The moment I read this I immediately thought that this would make a better label for a faux-Chateauneuf, because it was funnier and a more all-encompassing joke, i. Again, the idea was to reference the context in this case, Chateauneuftake a classic look but do something slightly subversive with it, with the idea of letting the knowledgeable wine-drinking insider in on a private joke.

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It was a relatively subversive idea at the time to use humor on a wine label; eccentric Walter Taylor in New York was the only one to have tried it and he was generally regarded as a kook. The customer identifies with the person who he or she imagines appreciates this sort of wine. Joel Peterson is an absolutely brilliant marketer. He somehow was able to capture the quintessence of a Ravenswood Zinfandel wine drinker — someone who will simply not abide wimpy wines.

Joel told me that so many people had the Ravenswood logo actually tattooed on themselves — the design is, truth be told, a form of a very powerfully iconic and hypnotic swastika — that he took the initiative to produce Ravenswood logo applied tattoos.

The one thing I do know is that customers sometimes project their fantasies about who you are based on the clues you provide them. Definitely a more disinhibited wine consumer than say your buttoned-down Bordeaux drinker.

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Definitely like to party, if you will; this label spoke to them. Obviously, Ralph is a genius illustrator, but working with him has had its challenges.

Ralph does not take direction well. For the record, Chuck House modeled the illustration after the Alcatraz prison, which was architecturally a lot more interesting. Big House was far and away our most significant wine brand, and while it was a great commercial success, there is no question in my mind that it may have slightly tainted the perception of the overall gravitas of the brand.

It is therefore a bit ironic that one of our most recent packages, La Bulle-Moose de Cigare, features, well, a moose, which seems to be, in fact, a critter. But, the reality is that when we lined it up side by side with a bunch of other potential label designs, the darn pink moose really stood out on the shelf. This would seem to not necessarily be a terrible thing, but we shall see. My better angels prevailed and we never produced such a label, but part of me suspects that it would have been a great hit, as it were.

Which brings another point to mind: I wish I could promise you that. I used to imagine that I understood what were the relevant elements for a successful wine — impeccable value, brilliant package, compelling story, being part of a dynamic market category.

The number of factors that bear on the success of a particular brand is now nothing short of staggering. We went through a fairly long period of producing what you would call see-through labels, where part of the story was told on the front label and part of the story was told on the inside part of the back label.

So, literalist that I was, the first design brief I gave Chuck was to illustrate an attractive Asian woman on the front label, who, when we observe her, has been reading a very heavy German philosophical tome, Kant, perhaps, and growing drowsy, has just fallen asleep.

One then beheld as if through the looking glass, her dream on the inside part of the back label. AP For the dream tableau, I had asked Chuck to draw a quaint Alsatian or German village, and in the illustration include a bunch of naughty Freudian dream symbols — mysterious flying cigars and a train coming out of a tunnel, that sort of thing.

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Chuck and I were set to meet at a Mexican restaurant in Rohnert Park that day to finalize the details of the label. But as fate would have it, the Mexican restaurant was temporarily closed owing to some health inspection issues, and we ended up eating at a Japanese sushi restaurant instead.

What we found was that if you pasted the sushi fish on the back of the bottle and you looked through the bottle and turned your head a certain way, it would look as if the fish were swimming around, and this seemed awfully cool. Anyhow, while I greatly loved the illustration of the quaint and naughty dream vil lage, I thought that the sushi would ultimately make for a more memorable label and perhaps speak to how the wine could be used at table.

Alas, we never were particularly successful in selling the wine in to sushi restaurants. When I mentioned that I intuitively moved in the direction of using humor to contextualize my homage to Chateauneuf, I imagined that I would have to use the same strategy of deploying disarming humor to even begin to sell my first case of wine made from gasp Italian grape varieties. Imported by Aidil Wines, New York. Medium gold hue; elevating aromas of quince and ginger, spiced pear, lemon oil and orange rind; slightly honeyed in aspect but quite dry and spare; a fragile infusion of tropical fruit and flowers with a hint of fig; lovely silky texture, moderately lush but honed by limestone.

Impoted by Aidil Wines, New York. Production was, alas, only 65 cases. Pale straw color; classic notes of lychee, pear, jasmine and rubber eraser, with hints of cloves and ginger; lithe texture, with crystalline clarity, acidity and limestone drive, great vibrancy and appeal; the limestone-flint minerality builds through the dynamic finish; grapefruit finish with a touch of bracing bitterness.

A terrific example of the grape. Pale straw color; grapefruit, lilac, greengage; celery seed and fennel with back-notes of lime peel, quince and ginger; crisp and lively, with riveting acidity and a plangent limestone element; a lithe, almost sinewy texture with depths of fruit, spice and minerality bolstering a scintillating, transparent finish. Imported by Quintessential, Napa Calif. The label image is one vintage behind. Pale straw-gold hue; assertive notes of dill and celery seed, caraway and lime peel, with pink grapefruit and ethereal back-notes of melon and apple skin; just a lovely wine in every way: Imported by Twins America.

Very pale straw color; spice pear and roasted lemon, hay and autumn meadows, chalk and flint; a little earthy, as if its toes were still in the vineyard; clean and incisive acidity and chiseled limestone minerality.

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