The bottle is your billboard: decorating trends

Jane Firstenfeld

A wine bottle without a label? Has it languished too long in the ice bucket? Not necessarily. Today, many premium and even moderately priced vintages are emerging from the bottling line naked of traditional paper labels, but not devoid of identity. An array of bottle decoration techniques literally makes branding a part of the bottle, and many are surprisingly affordable. We contacted suppliers of bottle decoration to learn more about this growing trend.

Screen Printing

Most of us are familiar with the screen printing process from its longtime use on flat objects like posters and T-shirts. In the last decade, it’s been successfully adapted for commercial use on wine bottles, where it is also known as applied ceramic labeling (ACL). Multiple ceramic, organic and metallic colors are applied and baked on at approximately 1,170[degrees]F in a conveyor oven known as a “decorating Lehr.”

“This allows the ink to become part of the bottle, and also re-anneals the bottle to maintain its strength and integrity,” according to Murray Bain at Stanpac, Inc., in Smithville, Ontario ( “We have recently begun to use the term ‘labelless printing,’ as the ink is directly applied to the bottle without a paper or film backing…. The ink is very durable, eliminating scratches and scuffs.” Stanpac can apply up to four, tightly registered colors in a single pass. A laser identifies and lines up the container for additional colors. Precious metals such as gold and silver can add richness (and expense). “Simplicity works,” Bain comments. “For single color or more open designs, a faster printer can be used to provide economies.” Costs can vary from 25 cents per container for a simple, high volume design to $1.25 for complete ink coverage and precious metals.

Bain points out that containers with difficult shapes can be printed effectively with ACL, without running the risk of labels failing to adhere, wrinkling or buckling on the bottling line. “The bottle is the canvas, compared to a design on a label,” he says. “We are starting to see some wineries choose to decorate their entire product line. New wineries do not have to invest in expensive labeling equipment if they have all their products printed.”

Because ACL requires such high temperatures, screen printed bottles arrive at the winery already decorated. As Bain pointed out, this can prove a distinct advantage for small to medium-sized wineries. According to Mike Bergin, owner of Bergin Glass Impressions in Napa (berginglass. com), many smaller wineries are considering screen printing for all their varietals in 375ml through 1.5L bottles. “The elimination of all labeling problems on their own production lines or mobile bottlers that are brought in is a huge consideration,” he says. “Direct screen printing … adds a higher perceived value … You can also achieve unique wraparound designs and splitlabel looks that can’t be duplicated with paper or PSL (pressure sensitive labels).”

Bergin foresees a bright future for ACL decorated bottles, as more wineries recognize its artistic possibilities and do a more thorough analysis of their true labeling costs. “When you consider all the hidden fees involved (in conventional labeling), such as die cut charges, etc., screen printing charges are reasonable and generally compare with paper labels and PSLs,” he says. “There are no disadvantages to screen print.”

Dallas Nelson is general manager of Glass Pak[R], Fairfield, Calif., which provides up to four color and metallic ACL and eight color ceramic decal, mostly for short runs and specialty wines west of the Rocky Mountains. In addition to their permanence, he cites the “tactile feel” of screen printed bottles, and mentions that higher resolution decoration is a coming trend. Nelson also advises decision makers to “factor in in-winery application costs for conventional paper or pressure sensitive labels,” when considering a change to ACL.

Quest Industries, LLC., Stockton Calif., also provides ACL with precious metals, organic and UV colors, and can screen print on plastic as well as glass bottles. Spokesperson Petra Schweizer notes that Quest’s sophisticated, high-speed, multi-color automatic and semiautomatic printing devices require highly trained operators, who receive on-site training from the manufacturers. “Years of on the job training are necessary to achieve proficiency,” she says.

Plan Ahead For Special Effects

Many of the suppliers mentioned here have in-house design teams, but all will work with your designer to maximize your results. Getting the decorator involved early is recommended, to minimize cost and speed up the process. For instance, “Although it is not required, we prefer to receive bottles with registration lugs to assist us in multi-processes or seam registration,” Schweizer says. “We usually meet with the customer and/or designers at the beginning of a project to discuss decorating parameters and process limitation.”

Another reason is that some bottle decorators, like Quest, also provide special effects that change the look of the bottle itself. “A large spectrum of colors is available to be sprayed onto bottles…. Anything from changing the bottle slightly to enhancing the color of the wine, spray frosting to give the bottle a chilled appearance to completely changing the bottle to your desired color,” Schweizer says. She says the current trend is to have a combination of processes on a single bottle, i.e. screen printing and pressure sensitive labels, or screen printing and highlighting.

In addition to ACL and other processes provided by its SaverDec Company, Saverglass, Inc., Napa (, also offers a patented SaverCoat color coating process, affording textures, graduated colorization, mediallion application and bottle frosting. Unlike urethane and synthetic coatings applied on the surface, “SaverCoat is completely recyclable,” according to Erica Harrop, vice president of marketing. The SaverCoat process was developed in-house by Saverglass technicians, and workers undergo two months of training and two years of apprenticeship before freely running the equipment.

“We prefer to be part of the design process locally, to be sure the design matches the expected costs and that the decoration limitations are respected,” Harrop says. As a bottle manufacturer, Saverglass also can supply the containers. “We offer bottles with decoration orientation notches that allow bottles to be centered off the seams and also to be re-registered for more complex designs,” she says.

Saverglass does not accept orders less than 5,000 units, and decoration is done in France. Though normal turnaround for decoration is 30-60 days from final approval, getting that approval from TTB is currently something of a bureaucratic bottleneck, Harrop cautions, so early planning is mandatory.

Decal Mania

Strictly speaking, decals aren’t labeless printing, since, as you may recall from childhood, they are designs printed on a special medium and then transferred to the bottle. On wine bottles, they offer a transparent look that mimics ACL when number of colors or specific placement preclude direct screen printing, and are a lower-priced alternative resembling pricey bottle etching.

As in the ACL process, decals are applied when the bottles are empty, according to Mike Bergin, whose company provides this service. Erica Harrop of Saverglass calls decal, “The best graphics option for excellent registration, but it is mostly hand applied, and very expensive.”

Kyle Rossler, vice president of sales and marketing at G-3 Enterprises, Modesto, Calif., calls heat transfer decal “more cost effective with higher volumes.” Although G-3’s normal minimum run for heat transfer bottles is 180,000 pieces because of the cost in print cylinders, “we are seeing smaller, boutique wineries that are willing to accept these costs in order to obtain this unique look.”

Rossler reports that, although decal application equipment has changed little in recent years, “lacquers that give the label its durability have been added into the inks, thus eliminating the need for a lacquer top coat during printing, as well as reduced curing time after application.” At the recommended volume, he says, “total label and application cost can run from about 19 cents (down) to 15 cents per bottle.”

Etching: Upscale, High Priced

Etching is a classical art form, derived from woodblock and metal engraving, that spread throughout Europe in the 1500s. Glass etching, with acid or by sandblasting, gained popularity early in the last century. Etched wine bottles, by contrast, are relatively new on the scene, and remain reserved for the highest end of the market.

Befitting a legitimate art form, etched bottles are produced individually by artisans with years of training. “You first start with fine artists who have an instinctive eye for colors and applications, and train them for working on glass,” Mike Bergin says. His company has supplied etched and hand painted bottles since 1989.

G-3 has also provided bottle etching for 15 years, under the name Trinity Etching in St. Helena. “Most of our customers are the smaller family owned and operated wineries,” Kyle Rossler says. Still, “We also have customers from the largest wine producing wineries in the world…. The quantities can be one bottle up to the thousands.”

Etched bottles are often chosen for ceremonial or commemorative special releases. “Always keep in mind that our process is hand done on each individual bottle. This is not an automated process,” Rossler says. Prices range from $15 per bottle to hundreds of dollars, depending on the complexities of the design.

The process begins with the artwork, original, or reproduced and adjusted from an existing label, and the design is individually applied in small sandblasting cabinets. “There is no heat involved in the process,” Rossler explains, “So it is perfect for filled bottles. Lasers can be used for parts of the process. To learn all the ‘secrets’ of the trade takes many years of training and experience.”

Etched Images, Napa (, has specialized in this style of bottle decoration for 11 years. According to president Stu McFarland, “Typically, our client will e-mail (his) label artwork to us in an Adobe Illustrator file, and our two graphic artists will manipulate the art to achieve the desired etched look. We are also able to scan a winery’s label and digitally manipulate the file for etching.” Turnaround averages two to five weeks after artwork is approved.

“A typical order would be 24 to 36 3L etched bottles with a one-color fill, such as gold, for a cost of approximately $40 per bottle,” McFarland says. “If this order were increased to 70 bottles, the price would be reduced to approximately $29, and so on … A larger order, such as 5,000 750ml decorated bottles would start at approximately $7 per bottle.”

Once the actual etching is complete, each bottle is hand painted to order by the supplier’s trained artisans. Et voila, in a matter of weeks, your most precious handcrafted vintage wears a genuine designer original.

Suppliers listed under Bottle Decoration in the Wines & Vines 2004 Annual Directory/Buyer’s Guide were surveyed by e-mail for this article. We thank those who responded. For more resources and contact information, please refer to the Directory.

RELATED ARTICLE: Wine Brats Rebel Against Washington Rules

Wine Brats, the wine appreciation club for the younger set, closed its Seattle chapter after failing to come to terms with the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Wine Brats leadership expressed surprise that state officials were not more wine friendly, given that Washington’s 240 wineries account for $2.4 billion in revenue annually.

Regulators countered that the Wine Brats refused to play by the rules. “We’re just trying to get people legal,” state liquor agent Steve Hypse told the Seattle Times. “We didn’t demand that they disband or anything…. They had no licenses for anything,” he said. Hypse claimed he had spoken to Wine Brats management in California and provided a step-by-step list of how to register as a nonprofit organization in Washington, so wine could legally be shipped to tastings and events.

According to Steve Richardson, Wine Brats executive director, no other states have raised questions with the Santa Rosa, Calif.-based group, which has 30 chapters and 42,000 members nationwide, and is registered nationally as a tax-exempt nonprofit.

The 5-year-old Seattle chapter had about 2,000 members. Richardson called the state’s requirements “confusing,” adding “We’re not selling drugs to children here!”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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