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Judge a wine by its label, if you dare

New brands trade snooty for an extra pour of fun, but will people buy?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Would you drink a little Fat Bastard? Pour a glass of Marilyn Merlot? How about pulling out some Screw Kappa Nappa for that next college reunion?

Wine labels, once dominated by ornate script and just as fancy verbiage, have gone from frumpy to funky.

“It’s making wine less elitist and it’s making wine fun,” says Paul Dolan, partner in the Mendocino Wine Company whose labels include Tusk ’N Red and Big Yellow — a cab, of course.

A quarter-century ago, wine names stuck to the classics as vintners tried to establish brands and teach customers there was more to wine than red or white. Now, with most U.S. consumers familiar with at least the big four grape varietals — chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc — and with a lot more wine competing for market share, the dynamics of naming have shifted.

Like the “critter labels” — wines named after animals — oddball labels aim to start a conversation with consumers.

“It’s easier to remember a dancing bear than a multi-syllabic Italian last name,” says Donny Sebastiani, a proprietor in Don Sebastiani & Sons. It came out some years ago with the quirkily named Smoking Loon and has since branched out to Gino DaPinot, Used Automobile Parts, a blend of five Bordeaux varietals grown in the Napa Valley, and the cork-free Screw Kappa Napa.

Speaking in the viticultural vernacular stems from the drive to attract younger consumers, who are becoming more interested in wine according to various surveys, says Linda Bisson, a professor in the University of California, Davis, wine department.

“The word I’ve heard most about the kind of marketing appeals they respond to is ‘kinky,”’ Bisson said. “The name jumps out at them off the shelf and they go, ‘Oh, what is this?”’

Names like Fat Bastard, an elder statesman of wacky wines, going back to 1996 and imported from France by Click Wine Group of Seattle. Or Marilyn Merlot, which has been around for 20 vintages and is one of a number of wines offered by Napa Valley-based Marilyn Wines under agreement with the estate of the late actress.

Some consumers are wary of fanciful names.

‘No other way’?Paul Homchick, a San Francisco marketing director who blogs about fine wine and other things at, gets suspicious when he sees an outrageous name, wondering if “they named it that way because there was no other way to market it.” Still, he was pleasantly surprised to find he liked a wine called The Chocolate Block from the Boekenhoutskloof winery in South Africa.

In fact, playing the name game can be tricky, says John Locke, spokesman for Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, a well-respected winery known for a long tradition of nutty nomenclature including The Heart has its Rieslings.

“Our fondest wish is that people would know us primarily or almost exclusively for the rapturous quality of our wine and that’s what we spend most of our time thinking about,” he says. “But we’ve got to be us and it would not be like us to put a conventional, pedestrian, banal and/or pretentious label on our wines.”

Sometimes a name is just too out there.

Bisson recalls having labels made for some merlot produced from UC Davis’ vineyard in Oakville. Everything looked great. The script was elegant; the lettering gold. Just one problem: Due to a printer’s mix up the wine was labeled not as mellifluous merlot, but by a much less appetizing name — Melrot.

Risky? Or frisky?

They reprinted the labels.