“It’s not about the wine”
Listening to those words coming from a well respected wine merchant was a little like hearing a priest say “Christianity’s not about Jesus”. But I understood what he meant. However much effort and love the producer had devoted to his vines and his barrels and their contents, and whatever the care his team of buyers had put into tasting and selecting the bottles they’d offer to their customers, the brutal truth was that almost all of the wines were, in his expression, ‘substitutable’. If stocks of the Château Coûte-Trop-Cher 2010 had run out, most customers could be persuaded to take a case of Château Pauvres-Cons 2009 instead.
It’s not – usually – about the specific wine.
When people do care about the particular name on the label of a wine they’ve bought in the past, rather then simply buying it out of habit, there’s often a reason with only a limited amount to do with the flavour and quality of the liquid. It might have much more to do with an emotional resonance.
Of course the people who love drinking Angélus or Cloudy Bay or Whispering Angel or Apothic or Yellow Tail, probably imagine that they could reliably identify the flavour of their favourite in a blind tasting line-up of similar wines. And I’m sure some could do so. But not most.
This has been increasingly acknowledged by wine marketers and communicators who bang on about the importance of the ‘story’. So, the fact that Jean-Pierre’s Machin’s Cuvée-Merdeuse is a good and typical example of the terroir of his region may in fact be secondary to the heart-warming narative of his decision to give up his well-paid job as a funeral director at the age of 59 in order to pursue his life-long desire to save the Cacadechien grape variety from extinction.
But I’d suggest that the likelihood of that tale springing to mind will depend on some visual cues. If the Cuvée-Merdeuse label looks like the ones on most traditional French wines – with black text against a white background and maybe a stock image of a building, barrel, vineyard, press or coat of arms, Monsieur Machin’s name may not be enough to trigger the memory.
Our brains have evolved to react to and recall images rather than human artefacts such words or numbers. It has been repeatedly proven that people who’d struggle to remember a single telephone number can recall hundreds of images. I’m not saying that the visual link needs to be obvious; the addition of a coffin or gravestone to the labels of the J-P Machin range might not be a shrewd move. But, if the bottle looks sufficiently different to stick in the mind, it is more likely to prompt a memory. Then all the wine has to do is live up to expectations.
Wines as varied as Dom Perignon, Whispering Angel, Cloudy Bay, Apothic all perform brilliantly. And so too does the Prisoner. This best-selling premium brand owes much of its success to the brilliant winemaking and blending skills of Dave Phinney, its creator. But it would be wrong to underestimate the impact of its extraordinary label, graced with a Goya etching Phinney’s parents had given him. Everything about the choice of this image is wrong, by classical standards. It’s dark and depressing: who wants a picture of a poor wretch in chains and manacles on their dinner table? But it’s very clearly art. And it’s hugely memorable. And the same can be said for all of Phinney’s other brands, several of which have gone onto achieve similar success.
But Treasury Wine Estate’s 19 Crimes not only leans on Phinney’s exploitation of criminals; it goes one stage further, by employing augmented reality to allow consumers to watch and listen to a character from the 19th century describe how they were transported to Australia for breaking British laws.
The cleverness of this brand lay in its creators understanding that it’s not about the wine. While other wineries imagine that the best use of a talking head on a wine label would be to bang on about soil, vineyards and barrels, the 19 Crimes team decided to tell memorable stories that had nothing to do with fermented grapes.
As the blogger, reversewinesnob.com, says of the 19 Crimes Red Blend, “It’s hard not to be impressed by the fantastic marketing, with each label harboring a photo of an actual convicted criminal and each cork labeled with one of the 19 crimes that could get you sent to Australia. It’s almost like getting a little history lesson with each bottle. And if you do like sweet and oaky reds you’ll find a lot to like inside the bottle as well!… It’s not going to win any awards but it delivers just what its consumers want.”
The proof of any commercial pudding lies in its sales. Last year, Treasury sold over a million cases of 19 Crimes in the US. Twice as many as in 2016.