Buying Wine by the Look of the Label

Theo Rutherford, wine director at Fiola in downtown Washington, presents tips on becoming a wine connoisseur, or at least being smart enough to impress your friends at your local watering hole...

As a sommelier, I hear many stories about how people select a bottle of wine. My favorite is the self-deprecating confession of one who buys his or her wine based on what is on the label.

Since I hear this from many people, I decided to highlight five wines that are equally as good as their labels are imaginative and appealing.

There are so many different kinds of labels out there that I needed to set boundaries for what I was looking for, besides just good wine.

Now, obviously my idea of a cool label may be drastically different from yours. So we’ll start with my criteria:

  • No chateaus. I think these labels are too classic -- nothing wrong with that, just not exciting.
  • No words-only labels. No matter the name, a words-only label lacks imagination.
  • No animals! I know this may be unpopular, but for me, animals are incredibly overdone. So roosters, penguins and the like take a wine right out of the running for me, at least for now.

Now for the five wines:

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling: Columbia Valley, Wash.

Charles Smith is one of the most interesting and crazy wine makers in the U.S.. He looks like he should be in a rock band, rather than on a vineyard making amazing wine. So, how appropriate to feature him in an article focused on appearance.

This particular wine has been one of my random favorites for a while. The label catches the eye with its outline of a woman in a martial arts pose. The wine is a slightly sweeter style of Riesling. The nose jumps out of the glass with white flowers, apricots, and pears. When sipping it, all of these flavors are also greeted with a rocky quality and finishes soft and lush. It is perfect with spicy food on a hot summer day.

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley, Calif.

Both the label and the wine are perfect for summer. Dancing across the label is a trio of women covered in ribbons (and little else), conjuring up the care-free abandon of summer and creative ways to beat the heat.

The wine is a fantastically citric sauvignon blanc, not overly grassy or herbal. It’s smooth in a way that will take the edge right off of an unbearable D.C. summer evening.

Red Car “Trolley Series” Syrah: Sonoma Coast, Calif.

I admit this wine is not the easiest to find around the city. The last place I saw it was in Schneider’s on Capitol Hill, but it is well worth your search.

The label is simple: an old streetcar in half view.

The wine, on the other hand, is anything but simple. With complex flavors of earth and dark fruits, mixed with aromas of old worn leather and baking spices, this wine will certainly take you for a ride, just as the label suggests.

Steele “Blue Franc”; Washington State

What in the world is Bleu Franc in the first place? Blue Franc is a name that Jed Steele invented for lemberger, one of the main (and few) red grapes in Austria.

The local name for it is Blau Frankisch, which he cleverly shortened to what appears on the label.

I chose this wine because it is light, easy drinking, and off the beaten track. The label is great: It changes with the vintage by featuring a watermark with a childhood picture of different winemaking friends of Steele’s.

Both the wine and the label trend to the eclectic. I like the way the label brings a human face to wine.

Vietti Barbera d’Alba; Piedmont, Italy

I have written my last several articles without talking about Vietti, which is quite a feat for me because it’s one of my favorite producers.

Vietti makes amazing wine, and the labels, much like the wine itself, are an ingenious combination of the elegant and the whimsical, almost like something out of the imagination of Tim Burton.

I chose barbera because, as one of my mentors once told me, “Barbera is a sommelier’s secret weapon.” The light body mixed with a slight rustic quality and well balanced fruit means that this wine can truly go with anything.

So, for your next cookout or picnic, this is a perfect choice.

Want more wine information or to see what I am drinking? Follow me on Twitter @theovino.

Contact Us