Adorning the high shelves of the world’s natural wine bars are two sorts of empty bottles. There are rarities from the likes of Clos Rougeard and Pierre Overnoy. Then there are wine labels with boobs on them. A “classic” of this latter genre is retired Touraine vigneron Pascal Simonutti’s “Brigitte Lahaie,” a pineau d’aunis bearing a topless portrait of the 1970s French porn actress.
Historically, such labels have been defended, particularly within France, as celebrations of the female form. But in recent years many have come to see risqué natural wine labels as simply tired and misogynist.
“If I go to a restaurant to enjoy a bottle of wine, I’m there to have fun,” says Jas Swan, a young natural winemaker in the Mosel valley. “I don’t want to be reminded of the misogyny I encounter in the wine world.”
New Zealand winemaker Oliver Styles, writing for Wine-Searcher in 2018, lamented the sheer prevalence of breasts on natural wine labels.
“Isn’t there anything else that winemakers – some of whom, I'm repeatedly reminded, make very good wine – can find for a bit of a snigger, a bit of coy amusement?”
The answer, it seems, is yes.
“I've just seen a new natural wine label with full frontal vagina. The winemaker, unsurprisingly, is a dude,” tweeted British wine journalist Christina Rasmussen in July. “Just why?”
Rasmussen referred to a bottle released in 2019 by Lorraine natural vigneron Stéphane Cyran. Entitled “À l’Origine,” it’s a cartoon riff on Gustave Courbet’s famous painting “L’Origine du Monde,” which depicts the nude groin and torso of a woman in bed.
“There is a big difference between appreciating a woman’s form and sexualizing a woman’s form,” says Rasmussen. “Sexualised labels perpetuate the sexualization of women – which in turn may normalize gender discrimination and harassment in the wine world.”
For his part, Cyran says he’s received no bad feedback about the label, which was proposed by a 21-year-old graphic design student called Caroline Antoine, who studies at a school in Nancy where Cyran’s girlfriend worked.
"If I was a big producer selling in supermarkets, it might have been misunderstood,” Cyran allows. “But in France the Courbet painting is very well-known.”
Farid Yahimi, a natural winemaker based in Alsace whose labels often involve voluptuous women, points out that artistic use of sexual imagery has a long history.
“Classical images of the orgies of Bacchus aren’t exactly soft, either,” he says. “Labels are art, too.” For him, risqué wine labels also comprise “a little middle-finger” to the commercial good taste of conventional wine labels. “We work in the margins, because we’re not working conventionally and we weren’t born with vines,” he says. “So I don’t want to put a château on the label.”
For natural Beaujolais vigneronne Isabelle Perraud, an outspoken critic of sexist wine labels, merely risqué labels like Cyran’s or Yahimi’s aren’t necessarily the problem.
“What bothers me is when a label seems to send a message that women want to be assaulted,” says Perraud, citing certain wines by Jean-François Ganevat, Jean Kreydenweiss, and Marc Soyard. “Natural wine should not just fight for the world of men. It should fight for a true equality between women and men.”
Marc Soyard in particular found himself mired in controversy earlier this year, due to a 2019 wine label that made light of date-rape drugs. Faced with importers threatening to cut ties, and furious responses on social media, Soyard issued an apology on Instagram in the form of a redesigned label, featuring himself apologizing for his “blague de merde,” or “shitty joke.”
“This humor is very widespread in the wine world. We’ll try to be careful,” said Soyard in a contrite interview with the website Vitisphere. He noted that the controversy pertained to a one-off bottling of just 900 bottles.
Indeed, a common thread between many risqué natural wine labels – regardless of whether they prove acceptable to a wider public – is their limited run. Stéphane Cyran’s 2018 “L’Origine” amounted to 2500 bottles. Farid Yahimi’s 2019 “Skin Contact” riesling, which depicts a bum and a pair of legs in stockings cradling a giant upturned wine glass? Just 1300 bottles.
But the images travel much further than the wines themselves.
"You can make a joke among friends and it doesn’t leave the room,” says Isabelle Perraud. “But when you make a label, it leaves the room.”
In this problematic dynamic, some see an opportunity to send positive messages. Perraud will release a pétillant-naturel next year with a feminist label. (“Balance Ta Bulle,” roughly “Denounce your balls.”) Similarly, Paris natural wine agent and author Fleur Godart has just released the first in a series of négoçiant wines with provocative feminist labels drawn by her frequent collaborator Justine Saint-Lô, inspired by misogyny in the wine world. Limited to 850 bottles and entitled “Putes Feministes” (“Feminist Whores”), Godart’s label depicts four bold nude women emerging from a vulva with middle-fingers painted on their breasts.
“It's not enough to make natural wine,” says Godart. “Natural wine must be an aid in the struggle for good. It’s all the better if the message of the label goes further than the wine.”