Liquid Images: Viewing the Wine Label

Article excerpt

What is it that consumers see when they read the wine label? This article begins from the premise that the label does not merely consist of words that describe the contents of the bottle, but also contains clues to complex social, cultural and economic interactions which bestow wine its meaning. Thus, the visual aspects of wine extend far beyond colour, labelling and packaging. Viewing the wine label through the cultural lens suggests that the label has much to offer the hospitality provider in the ways in which the wine's affective qualities are conveyed.


The language of wine, like food, has gained legitimacy on a wider horizon. Wine has been personified--it no longer addresses only the senses and perceptions of taste and smell--wine has body and has become embodied. In the recent film Sideways (2004), the endearingly fallible oenophile Miles Raymond exalts the virtues of the pinot grape variety and confides to a potential lover that he is a 'temperamental pinot noir'. The scene is both touching and humorous in that Miles is clearly describing himself--'Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression'--yet this particular vignette is appropriate here for other reasons. Apart from demonstrating the ways in which wine is spoken about, the scene also serves as an illuminating sideways glance into the visuality of wine or, more specifically, the significance of labelling. (1) Chardonnay varieties might typically be described as 'woody', a sauvignon blanc as 'fruity', or merlot as 'soft'; the more elaborate sensory descriptions often being relative to the wine drinker's level of appreciation or expertise. In this instance, Miles is giving the pinot an interior, a secret heartland which is a seductive invitation to sample. Miles himself is a self-labelled pinot, a thin-skinned early ripener and, as his characterisation in the film shows, the description is an accurate one. If there is some truth in Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's aphorism that one is what one eats, then this logic can certainly extend to wine. The question here, however, is less about what one is when one drinks than about what one sees: is there a link between our perceptions of the wine we choose to drink and the perceptions we have about ourselves? If so, how might we understand the dynamics underpinning such a mode of looking? Miles's metaphoric self-assessment, while providing a direct relation between identity and consumption, also highlights the complex web of meanings through which wine itself has come to be known.

The growing diversification of wine styles and consumer tastes has placed a greater emphasis on the expression and exploration of difference on the part of both wine consumers and researchers alike. When we consider that consumer choice for wine is more complex than choices made for other products (Demossier, 2004; Lockshin & Hall, 2003), the question of wine labels and effective labelling must extend beyond an understanding of price, packaging, distribution, advertising and merchandising strategies. Attempts to identify consumption patterns or a 'type' of drinker might perhaps be in vain, as Marion Demossier suggests, considering the speed at which differentiation has descended on the wine market (Demossier, 2004, p. 98). Indeed, while the study of consumer behaviour can be seen to exert a critical influence within the area of wine marketing, scant attention has been paid to the role of the wine label. This article suggests that we approach the question of consumer choice from the other way around. In other words, if we want to understand wine choice behaviour, it is also necessary to understand how the visuality of the wine label can exert its own powerful influence on the consumer.

The Meaning of Wine

Wine consumption has long been and continues to be an object of intense social, cultural and economic interactions. …