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2012's Ugliest Wine Label: Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil “Cuvee Venus” 2010

Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil “Cuvee Venus” 2010

I've always been intrigued by the fact that a large number of wine consumers in this country buy wine based on the label. Apparently the motto, "Don't judge a book by its cover," is frequently disregarded when it comes to the fruit of the vine. I don't blame consumers for allowing the label to influence their buying decision, but I do feel bad for the wine drinkers who have allowed themselves to become convinced that the aesthetic appeal of the label is an accurate predictor of the quality of wine in the bottle.

Personally, I think wine is much more about what's in the bottle than what's on the label. Sure, a pleasant looking label, or a label with personal or seasonal significance can be a nice touch. I love Owen Roe's Sinister Hand, and make a point to drink it every Halloween because of the macabre tale that is associated with the label. However, no spooky tale or label could compel me to drink a wine on Halloween if the wine weren't as delicious as The Sinister Hand. 

Some would argue with me, and tell you that wine is wine, and that "a bottle of wine will get you nicely buzzed with your friends over the course of an evening no matter what you choose [emphasis in the original]." This was the point that Matthew Latkiewicz recently made in an article for Grub Street. Latkiewicz even went so far as to design a fairly humorous wine label wheel, in which he grouped wine labels into seven distinct categories. However, I think that to categorize a wine by its label is about as shallow and disingenuous as judging a book by its cover, or judging a person's character based on their appearance. Good wine can be found in bottles with traditional labels, artistic labels, designer labels, or bottles so old that the labels have faded away. At the end of the day, packaging is simply the vessel used to move the wine from the winery to our glass. I've continuously advocated for people to put aside prejudice and hesitancy when it comes to non-traditional wine packaging, because packaging is no longer an indicator of quality. The world's best wines can be found in bottles sealed with screw caps, glass Vino-Seals, Zorks, in Tetra-Paks, or even in boxes.

Although I'm understanding of people using a wine's label to simplify their wine buying decisions, I'm also somewhat saddened when I hear this, because using a label to guide your buying decision is about as reliable a measure of selecting a quality wine as throwing a dart at a wall, or spinning a wheel. I'd always encourage people who are unsure of their wine preferences to explore the broad array of wines that are out there, find some aroma and flavor profiles that they enjoy, and express those preferences to a helpful wine merchant. If you're using wine labels as an exploratory tool, great. But ultimately, we buy wine because of how it tastes and smells, not because of how it looks in the bottle. 

It would be great if every winery employed a graphic designer who could craft labels that aligned with our aesthetic preferences. Sadly, this will probably never be the case, and there are large numbers of wines out there that go untried and unappreciated, simply because they were saddled with an ugly or uninspiring label. Such was the case for me last week, when I came across the 2010 Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil "Cuvée Venus". I love the wines of Bourgueil. I find that the region offers one of the best expressions of the Cabernet Franc grape in the world, with herbaceous notes of bell pepper intermixed with black fruits, and a bright and lively acidity. The "Cuvée Venus" was no exception. In fact, it was one of the best Bourgueils I have ever had. However, its label leaves a lot to be desired. I'd go so far as to say its one of the ugliest and most confusing wine labels I've ever seen.

Yet, the fact that the label looked like a bad 1970s movie poster did nothing to undermine the quality of the wine in the bottle. It was delicious, and at $20, an incredible value. I understand that people will naturally gravitate towards wines with more aesthetically appealing labels, or to labels that depict an animal that they identify with, or to a label that has personal or seasonal relevance. However, I wonder, how many mediocre wines with well designed labels are sold in place of outstanding wines that have traditional labels, or labels into which little money was invested? In his wine label wheel, Matthew Latkiewicz denoted one category of wine label as "French," and classified French wine labels as "very word-heavy" and "initimidating," due to the information that the French AOC mandates for inclusion on the label. It is true that absent guidance from someone who is knowledgeable about wine, French wine labels, and by extension Italian wine labels, can be quite confusing due to their respective AOC and DOC labeling requirements. Yet, despite their intimidating labels, French or Italian wines are some of the most compelling wines I've ever enjoyed. It pains me to think that there are people missing out on Barolos, Burgundies, and more, simply because of their packaging. 

For those that would criticize French wines for being too traditional, and too intimidating, I would submit the 2010 Domaine de la Chevalerie Bourgueil "Cuvée Venus" as evidence to the contrary. While it is certainly nothing close to the work of art that is depicted on the label, it is a sharp departure from the characterization of French wine labels in Mr. Latkiewicz's wine label wheel. While French wine regions can be confusing, taking a little time to learn about them can result in a dramatic expansion of one's wine horizons. I have enjoyed wines with novel labels like Bruce Wayne Pinot Noir and Some Young Punk's "Drink and Stick," a Mataro-Shiraz blend whose label doubles as a cut out doll. Yet, in each of these cases, I enjoyed the wine in the glass as much or more as the label on the bottle.

If we all put a little more emphasis on focusing on what was in our glass, and remembering what we liked about the wine we consumed, it might make for a more enjoyable wine drinking experience. I don't know about you, but I enjoy my filet mignon because of how it tastes, not because of the paper that the butcher wraps it in. I appreciate the Christmas presents I receive because of the thought that my friends and family put into them. Nice wrapping paper is a bonus, but it ultimately, it's not what I remember about a gift. Maybe in time, we'll come to regard wine labels the same way. A nice label is a bonus, but ultimately it's the taste of the wine that you remember.

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