The Psychology of Wine Labels — How Winemakers Get You to Spend More Money

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Man and woman choosing wine at storeWine is a staple in soups, sauces and stews. To add just the right flavor to a recipe, bouquet, grapes and pairing are major influences that contribute to a wine purchase. But whether we realize it or not, a label is a major influence, too.

We look to a wine bottle’s label to educate us about the obvious information like vintage, the grape and, of course, the winemaker. But the labels also have plenty of hidden messages hanging out in plain sight. From vocabulary words that are nothing but fluff to the color of the ink and paper selected to subconsciously tempt your palate, winemakers put almost as much nurturing, time and thought into a label as they do the grapes beneath it, just to entice consumers to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a bottle, or two or three.

What’s the risk of giving a wine label too much power in the purchase process? Alluring words and luxurious images can distract us from considering the value of a varietal nd lead to unconsciously overspending on wine or giving in to impulse purchases. These tricks and techniques are typically deployed in the marketing of all luxury goods.

“Do red soles really rationalize a shoe’s price?” asks Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor at California State University-Los Angeles.

To keep your wits about you when trying to digest if a wine fits into your budget and your taste, it’s important to understand the emotional and psychological impact the label.

3 Things to Keep in Mind

Vocab words
Don’t be swayed by words like “crisp,” “bold” or “full” that describe a wine’s body or aroma. “These descriptions are often put on wines even if they don’t possess the characteristics. For instance, almost all pinot grigio will tout being refreshing or crisp, but many are bland with sugar added in to be more pleasing and a low acid level,” says Elizabeth Schneider, a certified sommelier and certified wine specialist.

Sommeliers also suggest ignoring words like “reserve” and “private selection.” Although they sound good, they’re essentially nothing more than marketing. The same goes for bin or bottle numbers. “In most cases of domestic wines, this is a bogus claim,” says Schneider. “Private selection or cellar selection means nothing and is a term that’s unregulated by authorities and can be slapped on any bottle out there.”

If you see “reserve” on a bottle out of California, it’s meaningless; whereas in Washington State, it is a regulated term. “Only 3,000 cases, or 10 percent of production, whatever is more, can be labeled reserve in Washington,” says Schneider. “Still pretty liberal in the case of large brands, but at least it’s not as meaningless as it is in California.”

However, the international counterparts of “reserve” — “riserva” in Italian and “reserve” in Spanish — have defined meanings. Schneider says they are indicative of how long a wine was aged in oak and in a bottle before released. “This is heavily regulated, with governing boards checking to ensure everything is kosher.”

Schneider says bin numbers only matter when contemplating a very high-end bottle with a price tag of several thousand dollars. “Bin numbers are relevant when winemakers bottle small lot wines so collectors can trace them back to the winery and make sure the wines aren’t counterfeited. If you see it on a bottle for $10, disregard it totally; it’s just marketing put there to mess with you,” she says.

Images of the estate
A photo or drawing of where the wine is made (especially if it’s an exotic image detailing a villa in France or Italy) evokes a welcoming feeling, says Durvasula. But that homey feel or feelings of wanderlust could have you forgetting to look beyond the image and consider the important qualities of the varietal, information listed on the back of the label that describe ingredients, vintage or price.

Color
The luxury and sophistication wine enthusiasts equate with quality can be simulated with embossing and texture that add an air of elegance to wine labels, but Schneider says they’re not necessarily indicative of the wine’s actual quality.

The people designing the bottles are savvy marketers — and everything from the font to the name to the graphics on a label is carefully chosen to be evocative and convince you to buy the bottle, explains Durvasula. “Wine can represent lots of things: status, escape, familiarity. And an image or a font can make a difference. The right name and/or image on the front may lead a person to focus on the ‘image’ rather than other critical pieces of info like price.”

Wine is often classified as a luxury, so when it is packaged as such, it is more likely to have a greater influence on decision-making. Embossed formal and script fonts featuring colors linked with luxury — like burgundy, gold and silver — printed on heavy stock paper are congruent with perceptions of luxury. They imply value and quality, regardless of what’s inside the bottle, says Durvasula.

When buying wine, do your homework. Talk to an oenophile friend, shop at a store with an honest and knowledgeable sales staff or consult a winery so you walk in to a liquor store knowing what you want to buy and aren’t thrown by a fancy, splashy label.

“Don’t fall for the trap of letting the bells and whistles make you forget about the grapes,” says Durvasula.

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4 Tips to Help You Save

Schneider offers these additional shopping tips to help consumers find the perfect wine for their price range:

Decipher descriptions
Learn what characteristics of taste descriptions might mean. That way, you won’t waste your hard-earned cash on a bottle or two of wine you wind up pouring down the drain. For example:
Smooth tannins. Schneider says the wine won’t be mouth-drying but will have a soft feeling in your mouth.
Refreshing, bright, tangy, zippy, zesty, crisp. This wine has high acid and will make your mouth water or seem tart.
Tannic, grippy, dry. The wine has strong mouth-puckering tannins, plant compounds, which give wine its pucker power.

Crunch numbers
Schneider says the only true indication of texture or flavor listed on a wine bottle is something most people never look at: alcohol by volume. “I always look at this because it can tell you how full-bodied a wine is and whether or not it will pair well with food,” she says.

As a rule of thumb, anything higher than 14 percent ABV is considered “high alcohol.” “At this point, the wine may burn your nose and feel hot in your mouth,” says Schneider. “It will seem full, round in your mouth and sometimes sweet.”

Lower-alcohol wines tend to complement food better because they are less bold and can share the stage with food rather than overpower it.

View the vintage
Just as the corn at the farmer’s market can be sweet, juicy and fabulous one year and mealy and small-kerneled the next, grapes aren’t always the same. Flavor and aroma vary by vintage, the year the grapes in the wine are grown.

“In some areas, like Marlborough, New Zealand, the climate is so consistent that you don’t really need to worry about variability in vintage,” says Schneider. “In others, it’s helpful to look and see if the weather was kind or not so kind to an area.” This is especially important in areas with erratic weather like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Assess age
Older isn’t always better. Schneider says some wines do get better with age, but others don’t. Before buying a bottle, determine the age of the wine to ensure optimum taste.

“I never buy a rosé that is more than a year old unless it’s from Tavel or Bandol in the south of France. After a year, it tastes tired and old,” says Schneider.

Photo credit: Getty ThinkStock

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