Buying the Wine for Its Label - TheStreet

Buying the Wine for Its Label

Art on wine-bottle labels sometimes increases the appeal of the purchase. Whether it's worth it is another story.
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Wine and art both represent culture, sophistication and enjoyment of life, and are a natural pairing.

And both have seen a surge of interest -- and money -- from aficionados, collectors and investors in the past few years. New wealth from the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe, as well as Europe and U.S., has come into the markets, driving sky high auction prices for prize pieces, such as the wine bottles from the

Baronesse Philippine de Rothschild's private cellar

.

"There is a growing interest in enjoying and collecting fine wines and in buying them at auctions," says Rik Pine, a spokesman for Christie's auction house. "To coincide with that, there is a growing demand for cellars and cellar management."

Cellar management is the lifestyle part of collecting -- musing over what to buy, sell or break open when friends come around. It also encompasses practical issues like proper storage and the style-related considerations of how best to show off prized bottles and perhaps the cellar itself.

Amid all of this, a number of wineries, hoping to better sell their wines as essential lifestyle accessories -- and perhaps make them a little more collectible -- are putting art work on their labels.

Most do so selectively, to attract attention to a "reserve" wine that they would like to be especially known for. And they usually, sometimes awkwardly, try to draw a line from the art to the wine.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, in Washington, uses works from Pacific Northwest artists for the labels on its

Meritage

red wine. Kenwood Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif., has commissioned original works and commandeered classics from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh for its

cabernet sauvignon

. The Clos Pegase winery in Napa Valley, Calif., puts pieces from the winemaker's own collection on its pretentiously named

Hommage

wines.

No winery, though, has carried the concept as far as

Imagery Winery

in Sonoma, which puts works that it commissions on each of the nearly two dozen wines it releases each year.

The Benzigers, who owns Imagery, began using artwork in the 1980s for special editions of wine from their family label. That project gradually evolved into a niche winery that makes small batches, from 200 to 1300 cases, of wines made from grapes that are atypical for California, such as a Viognier, Malbec, Barbera or Petite Syrah. Because so many of the wines are a little unusual, winemaker Joe Benziger explains, sometime in the late 1990s he decided that each should have a unique label.

Imagery now has a collection of some 190 pieces of art created for its labels, according to Bob Nugent, the artist who did the first label and who now commissions the works and manages the collection. Nugent has another 60 pieces commissioned but not yet turned in.

Imagery and all the others are borrowing from Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The historic French winery has put an

artist's label

on its flagship red Bordeaux every year since 1945. Such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau, Marc Chagall, John Huston, Joan Miro, Francis Bacon and Prince Charles have created works for the chateau.

Do these special labels raise the market value for the "special" bottles to which they are affixed? Does it make them more sought after by collectors and more likely to appreciate in value?

Yes and no.

It's

said

that Mouton Rothschild garners higher prices at auction than the corresponding vintages from four other

first-growth Bordeaux wines

because of its labels, but such a fact is hard to confirm or disprove given the shifting factors that affect auction prices from year to year.

Marc Lazar, a wine consultant based in St. Louis, says he has clients who will try to get hold of as many of the Mouton Rothschild bottles as they can to have a complete collection. Many of these wines would be sought after no matter what, says Pine, Bordeaux being one the most collectible wines in the world and Mouton Rothschild being one of the most collectible Bordeauxs. But even the elite chateaus produce a clunker from time to time. The 1972, for example, rates a 65 from

Wine Spectator

on a scale of 50 to 100. "No one buys the '72 Mouton for the juice. They buy it for the label," Lazar says.

Of course, neither the American wineries nor the artists they commission are in the same strata as their Bordeaux counterpart. Even the prestigious modern artists that Nugent has commissioned, like Terry Winters, Sol Lewitt or Judy Pfaff, aren't household names.

And everyone from Lazar to Benziger says that while a quirky, fun or exotic label will get someone to buy your wine once, the vino itself has to be good, too, for them to come around twice. But in an intensely crowded and competitive wine market, getting a consumer to pick up your wine, or visit your winery, that first time around is tough going. So marketing in clever and distinct ways is incredibly important.

Imagery's batches are too small to be sold in stores; you can buy them only from the winery. But Benziger says he is still competing with other Sonoma wineries to attract visitors and persuade them to bring a few bottles home, buy more from his website, join his wine club and recommend his winery to Sonoma-bound friends.

Mixing wine with art helps with all of that. By turning his tasting room into a gallery and putting original works on his bottles, he plays up the concept of wine as a lifestyle.

Lazar says that among his clients, those who go for the artsy labels are the "aesthetically oriented" ones. "These are the people whose have a table in their cellar for tastings and well-designed racks. They'll display bottles with unique labels to add to the look of the cellar," he says. And, he adds, "The more wine becomes a lifestyle the more these accessories to the lifestyle are popular."

And it works at different economic levels. The average Sonoma tourist probably can't afford a cellar full of great Barberas or a living room appointed with original modern art, but can splurge on a $42 Imagery petite syrah and have a miniature piece of art to display on a shelf in their kitchen.

And, when it comes to marketing, finding a reason to mention your winery in same sentence as a great Bordeaux is in itself a coup for any American producer. Nugent pays his artists with cases of the Imagery wine that features their work, and he's quick to point out that he stole the idea from the Baron Rothschild. Kenwood goes a step further, actually claiming on its Web site to be the "Chateau Mouton-Rothschild of America."

Even with

Wine Spectator marks

as high as 93 for some vintages, it's an absurdly bold assertion to make on the basis of a few squiggles, no matter how artful they are.

Imagery and Mouton Rothschild keep the originals their labels are made from. And Nugent and Benziger say they want the

collection

to endure. A revolving portion of it hangs at the winery, and pieces are often lent out to museums and universities. But the wine itself is for drinking, they say, at least for now.

"I need to have some that people drink young and other wines that can age," says Benziger. The Imagery wine that

Wine Spectator

reviews score mostly in the low to high 80s, which represents "good" to "very good with special qualities."

That means they're respectable -- and many are yummy -- but they are not yet in the strata sought after by collectors, which Benziger readily acknowledges. Despite the size of the art collection, the winery itself has the feel of something that's young and still very much a work in progress.

Still, even on a wine label, there is a desire on all sides to see the image endure a while. Most wineries choose a red wine for their artist series and at Imagery the artists often ask for their work to go on a red (Nugent and Benziger match images to bottle after the wines are made). The reason is simple: Even if they aren't meant to be aged, reasonably good Cabernets, Malbecs or Barberas will hold for a few years, making them better candidates to buy and display for a year or two or three.

Only time will tell whether an Imagery or Kenwood or Ste. Michelle will eventually rack up big dollars on the auction block at Christies or

Sotheby's

(BID) - Get Report

. But it seems unlikely, at least for some time to come. So crack them open and drink them up, and if you like the art, call the winery for a poster.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at

her Web site.