Wine column no. 67: Some labels tweak the meaning of beauty

March 8, 2015: Many remember when two men killed 12 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, on Jan. 7. The shootings were allegedly prompted by cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The violence contributed to a continuing global conversation about the impact of political and religious satire, the likes of which also has a long history here in the United States.

What do Charlie Hebdo and freedom of expression have to do with wine? Plenty, and in different ways. According to Robert Camuto’s story in the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator, three of the 12 people killed in those attacks were among France’s most outrageous wine-label designers: Stéphane Charbonnier, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac.

“They were my friends,” Bordeaux winemaker Gérard Descrambe said. For more than 40 years, he commissioned Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and others to make eye-catching labels that ranged from drunken caricatures to sexually explicit humor. “Their spirit was to laugh at everything and expose the bull---- in the world. And they were killed by the biggest act of bull----.”

Descrambe sold his St.-Emilion vineyards in 2008. Yet he and his son, Olivier, still produce about 3,300 cases per year of Bordeaux appellation wine under his Château Renaissance label, which also features cartoons. His wines are exported within Europe and to Japan, but not to the United States. “Too complicated,” Descrambe sighed to Camuto. If he did export his wines to the U.S., he would likely have to change the labels. The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has repeatedly rejected sexually suggestive wine labels, Wine Spectator said.

But this same government bureau allows winemakers to push the envelope in other ways. From wines with labels that probably aren’t really referencing the word for a female dog, to wines that market themselves as sexual chocolate, it appears that many words pass muster even if the images hitting those points home may not. Yet if it seems like wine labels are becoming more open to provocation, keep in mind that art and wine can blend gently, too.

The 2013 Decoy sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County, California, is a graceful wine with citrus notes that doesn’t overplay its hand. Its label — of a pintail duck — is peaceful, too. Zimbabwean artist Michael Allard painted it from a carving of an actual decoy. ($21.99. Varsity Liquors.)

Meanwhile, almost every year since 1945, Château Mouton Rothschild has used its labels to display and promote the artwork of famous painters like Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, according to www.mcnees.org. The images aim to visually please rather than to incite, yet they are also clearly more than just paintings on a backdrop.

Are all vineyards focused on beauty? Some might be — if you tweak the meaning of beauty. Take Orin Swift’s 2013 Abstract, a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah and Syrah from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino, California. At 15.7 percent alcohol, this wine is heavy on alcohol fumes yet still manages to be light and almost fluffy. Its flavors evoke black pepper, coffee and blackberry. But given its label, the wine itself seems beside the point.

The label is a mishmash of images — some altered, others not — jumbled together in a collage that includes Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth II, naked women, someone’s family photographs, a smoking cowboy and, for good measure, one tiny shot of Marilyn Monroe. There are so many photos on the label that your eye is called to the only words that might attempt to make sense of them all: Vandalism is beautiful.

Now that’s a provocative statement that I doubt many local residents would agree with — even if it’s just on a $31.99 wine bottle from Varsity Liquors. Yet the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved it. So what makes words more tolerable than images? Why is using the word “sexual” on a wine label any different from presenting a visual image that effectively says the same thing?

Vandalism, after all, isn’t just visual. It’s not just something scribbled on street signs or under the Lloyd Expressway. It doesn’t disappear just because you turn off the lights. Want to throw trash on a concept or idea? Then just muck it up with falsities. Want to disrupt a process? Then subvert it with distraction. If you’re going to tweak the meaning of beauty, then you have to tweak the meaning of vandalism, too.

I don’t think Charlie Hebdo’s staff members deserved to lose their lives because some claimed they published degrading art that demeaned a specific religion. Yet there are limits to what some people will accept. Those who push boundaries accept these risks. It takes guts to say what you think. It also takes guts to accept criticism for doing so. Strong cities like Paris know this.

Comedian Fran Lebowitz once riffed on a well-known adage when she said, “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

She was joking, of course. The original statement, itself a collage of different concepts, uses the word “people” in place of wine. But it sure is interesting how trading one little word for another can distort the meaning of an entire sentence. You don’t need an image to do that. Sometimes, words are enough.

Victoria Grabner has blogged about wine for several years.
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