Award-winning packages: what’s in them for you?

Jane Firstenfeld

It’s obvious why vintners vie to win awards for their prized wines. Put a gold medal sticker from a prestigious wine judging on your label and even the most insecure consumer may be emboldened to try it. In recent years, many major wine competitions have added packaging or label competitions. How do they work, and what benefits do packaging awards bring to a winery?

There are literally countless competitions open to wine packaging around the world; to recap them all would take many more pages than are available here. We focused in on several of California’s most popular and prestigious wine competitions and some of their most honored packages of the last year. What moves the judges, and why? Do the winners reap more than just bragging rights? If you’re considering a package redesign, you may find it helpful to learn what makes a winner.

The Judges Speak

Wines entered in the L.A. County Fair ( wine competition held at the fairgrounds in Pomona every summer are automatically considered in the packaging design competition. Awards are presented for innovative design, market segment, art/illustration, series packaging, traditional, contemporary and graphics. Packages for wines that are not entered into the wine competition are eligible with a $10 fee.

Marketing pro Doug Offenbacher was a packaging judge for the first time in 2004. “It’s my understanding that the fair rotates the label judges to avoid redundancy in the results,” he comments. Offenbacher owns Offenbacher, Inc., a creative agency he started in 1977 to focus on the wine industry. He’s worked with many major North Coast wineries, including Sebastiani, Sutter Home, Beaulieu and Geyser Peak, and currently is director of marketing for Sonoma Cheese Company, a client of 18 years.

“We were given no guidelines,” he recalls of the process used by his three-judge panel. “We were told each panel of packaging judges is free to establish its own criteria for evaluating package design. We categorized entrants into three groups: general design (primarily type treatments), those with strong graphic elements and those with strong illustrations.

“Each judge went through the fair’s wine cellar, pulling any packages that favorably caught his eye … we eliminated all but a final group in each category. A discussion of these was followed by a final vote…. We then each picked our own personal favorite.”

Offenbacher says he personally looks for simplicity in design, “so I look for packages that deliver impact without overstating the graphics.” With any product, he explains, “a good package has to play to its target … I look for conceptual approaches that have clearly considered and appear to understand the targeted consumers.”

To Offenbacher, execution of a concept can vary widely in style and effectiveness. “As a general rule, I tend to give execution more weight than concept.” He observed that wine packaging trends seem to move in waves of traditional design versus “whatever is contemporary at the moment,” and that bolder, more daring designs seem currently to be more favored.

“Colors and eye-catching graphics are stealing the show from the return-to-heritage style of just a few years ago,” he says, but he questions whether super-premium wines will be adventurous enough to take that route.

Offenbacher also commented on one frequently neglected packaging element: the back label. “We voted out more than one potential winner, due to the back label. A package is everything, not just a face label. The design isn’t finished until the back label is,” he cautions.

Joel Blum, principal and creative director of Pace Design Group, San Francisco, has been a judge for the San Francisco International Wine Competition ( for five years. Using a format designed by the competition organizers, each year a panel of three or four judges develops its own guidelines and comes to consensus votes for bronze, silver and gold medals in individual and series categories. If the judges agree unanimously on a gold award, a double gold is presented.

Of his own approach to the process, Blum says, “I’m attracted to innovative concepts, yet I consider myself a traditionalist … My point of view is that the designer’s role is to get attention for the client’s product, reflect the desired personality of the brand, convey something about the product’s qualities and appeal to some segment of the market.”

He, too, stresses the importance of appealing to the target market segment, and cites the Joseph Phelps Insignia package, with its classic-looking label on a specially designed bottle–“You know it’s a special bottle of wine,” he says, then offers another, equally effective package aimed at a different consumer demographic: “The labels of Roshambo Winery … quite definitely project that they are a new generation of serious winemakers. There’s nothing cheap, wild or flaky about their brand, but it states clearly that they are not an old-fashioned winery.”

Like Offenbacher, Blum says execution counts enormously. “I cringe when I see a bottle with a beautifully designed label and a mismatched foil.” He sees such mismatching as an economically motivated mistake, “and that’s terribly unfortunate for the designer (and the wine),” he says, adding that “awful illustrations” or poor typography often ruin the impact of otherwise lovingly designed labels.

The Orange County Fair Wine Competition ( does not empanel label award judges, and labels for all wines in the competition are eligible for awards. Larry Fox, president of the Orange County Wine Society, which organizes the competition, reports that last year, 95 wine-maker/winery owner judges and 150 volunteer workers cast their votes for labels in 16 wildly diverse categories from abstract to whimsical to wildlife.

Interestingly, the San Diego International Wine Competition, which pioneered the package competition trend, no longer judges packaging. Its director, wine columnist Robert Whitley, says economics were the issue. “It didn’t make any money,” he e-mailed. “It took way too much energy and time, and produced little or no profit. I raised the entry fee from $10 to $20, and the entries dropped by more than half. That told me the wine producers weren’t really serious about a package design competition.” For an event whose goal is to raise funds for local charities, and which relies on dozens of volunteers each year, it’s hard to argue with that logic.

And The Winners Say

Trends may come and go, but in 2004, Black Sheep Winery, Murphys, Calif., won first place at the Orange County competition for a label that hasn’t changed (except for the vintage) in 20 years. “I don’t think our customers would let us change it,” says owner Jan Olson. The 2001 Calaveras County Zinfandel won in the scenic category, for a label depicting the winery’s namesake black sheep.

“While our customers have always loved our label, it’s always nice to have an ‘official pronouncement’ that one’s package is attractive,” Olson says. Designed by the late Annette Hart, a local Calaveras County artist, the label was printed by Landmark Label (

Toad Hollow Cellars, Healdsburg, is a perennial award winner for its always-amusing labels. This year in Orange County, Toad Hollow’s 2002 Sonoma County Dry “Eye of the Toad” Pinot Noir Rose was named most whimsical label. Proprietor/general manager Todd (Dr. Toad) Williams explains that all Toad Hollow bottlings have different packaging, although the trademark amphibian is always present.

Williams works with artist Maureen Erickson of Erickson Design, who “takes my mental mumblings and puts them to pen,” according to Williams. “The packaging awards mean a lot more to our artist. She puts her spin on all of the label designs. I like the label awards because it means that there are people out there that are as goofy as I am.”

Media Solutions printed the label, which included foiling to put a gleam in the toad’s eye.

The Los Angeles competition judges not just the label, but the entire package. One surprised gold-medal winner in 2004 was Julie Coquard, vice-president/marketing at Cedar Creek Winery & Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin. Cedar Creek earned two golds for its 2003 American Vidal Blanc and 2002 American Syrah packages; the package is used for the entire Cedar Creek line.

“We are bringing in the signature of the town of Cedarburg, Wisc., where the winery is located,” Coquard says. “It’s a very historic community, and the cream color of the background was used to reflect the historic stone color of the winery building. We think we’ve found a good match between the label and the quality of our wine. It’s a wonderful honor to be recognized for the look of the wine, because it’s the first impression the customer has.”

Zillman Advertising designed the package. It was printed at Color Media; Lafitte Cork & Capsule ( supplied the capsule and Diablo Valley Packaging ( supplied the bottle.

Napa Valley’s St. Supery Vineyards & Winery also won a gold in L.A. for its 2002 Virtu Meritage in the art/illustration category. The winery’s well-regarded Meritage wines wear new labels with every vintage, with different artists chosen each year. The label was designed to depict what the character St. Supery might look like, according to PR/marketing coordinator Tina Cao. “Winning a packaging award means that not only does the wine tickle the taste buds, but it is also visually appealing,” she says.

The label was designed by Peter Malone, printed by Bolling and Finke; Ramondin ( supplied the capsule, a matte black foil chosen especially for the Meritage; California Glass ( provided the taller, narrower Meritage bottle.

The San Francisco competition is all about labels. “My story might be a little different than others you may hear,” says Vincent Tofanelli, owner/winemaker at Napa’s Tofanelli Family Vineyard. “I don’t have the luxury of a lot of money to devote to marketing. This brand was launched on a grapegrower’s salary.”

Proof positive that you don’t need a lot of money to make a powerful impression, the label for Tofanelli’s 2002 Napa Valley Zinfandel won a gold at the 2004 SF International competition. Tofanelli and his sister Norma Tofanelli, a graphic designer, created the label themselves in consultation with Michelle LeBlanc, from an old family photo of their then-15-year-old grandmother astride a 1915 Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the family vineyard.

“We wanted to convey our family’s authentic and long-term connection to our land, and the honesty of our commitment to sustainable agriculture–all that we learned as children working side-by-side in the vineyards with our Italian grandparents and parents,” the Tofanellis state. The photo vividly carries the message, an authentic remnant of family history.

The pressure-sensitive label was printed by Tapp Technologies ( on eggshell-toned felt paper, to re-create the antique look of the photo’s delicate sepia and hand-tinted hues, added by photographer Bruce Shippee.

There were no mixed reviews for the Mutt Lynch Winery 2002 Sonoma County Zinfandel/Carignane label, which earned a double gold at San Francisco, by unanimous acclaim. Owner/winemaker Brenda Lynch says the design was special for the blend, which is called Portrait of a Mutt. This was the first time the Dry Creek Valley winery had entered a competition.

“Everything about our winery is about enjoying life,” Lynch says. We want our (first) impression to focus on the fun of life, the pleasure of enjoying a glass of wine with friends. We have a love of dogs, a passion for wine and a slightly left-of-center sense of humor. We think this package captures that.” She calls the award “the ultimate award you can win. It means that our idea of a winery that makes great wine, has fun and doesn’t take itself so seriously–is taken seriously.”

Rae Huestis Designs created the design; Paragon Label ( was the printer.

Sonoma’s Viansa Winery also took a double gold for individual labels, for its NV Athena Dolcetto. Viansa has consistently used this label for Athena, and it’s a beauty, evoking an illustration from an old mythology book. Sam Sebastiani, Viansa founder, “has always believed that his wines deserve special packaging,” according to his daughter, Lisa Sebastiani Mertins, Viansa public relations manager. “There are stories behind all of his label designs that tie his Italian heritage to the wine inside each bottle.” The label was printed by Impressive.

San Francisco’s double gold for series labels went last year to the endlessly inventive Bonny Doon, for its Il Circo range. Il Circo translates literally to “The Circus.” Bonny Doon senior creative director John Locke likens the series to the Santa Cruz Mountains winery’s “high flying act, producing results which are occasionally breathtaking, occasionally very messy, but never boring.”

The gaudy illustrations are by “a very charming woman in Manhattan named Bascove,” Locke reports. The labels for Uva di Troia, sheet-fed glue labels, were printed by O’Dell; The Il Domatore di Leoni and La Donna Cannone pressure-sensitive labels were printed by Tapp Technologies.

“If you can coax people into exploring beyond their comfort zone, and the package helps them step up to the edge of the void, or better yet, jump into it, then I think one has performed a very worthwhile deed,” Locke says, summing up the Bonny Doon message.

“(An) award is an affirmation,” says San Francisco judge Joel Blum. “If I were marketing a winery that won a packaging award, I would incorporate it into my message, to explain that it’s part of an overall attention to quality, and seriousness about the product.”

Fun-filled or serious, “The real benefit to having an award-winning package is bragging rights,” adds L.A. judge Doug Offenbacher. “A good PR department can make much of any award, be it for the wine or the package–it’s all good press.”

RELATED ARTICLE: WineCards Are Branching Out

IMpaq, Inc. maker of the WineCard removable wine label featured in Wines & Vines’ May 2004 packaging issue, is developing another application for the product: magazine advertising.

The peel-off wine labels, which debuted commercially on bottles last year, are well suited for magazine inserts, and would allow a reader to carry the label into a retail outlet and easily find a desired wine. IMpaq’s proprietary process means labels can be printed on both sides, doubling space for the brand message.

IMpaq’s printer, CLL, has added specialized equipment and can use any available paper stock, with both embossing and hot-stamping options.

Several wineries have signed on for the WineCard label, and Paradise Ridge Winery, Sonoma, will release wines bearing the WineCard this summer. For more information, visit

RELATED ARTICLE: VinTegra Closures Now In U.S.

The VinTegra[TM] wine closure system from Alcoa Closure Systems International was launched this spring in the United States. The innovative system has been in commercial use in Europe for about a year, under the trade name Vino-Lok.

As Wines & Vines reported last year, the system incorporates a decorative glass stopper, a sterile, airtight acrylic seal and a tamper-evident aluminum cap/capsule. To open, break the seal on the aluminum cap and easily extract the stopper, which can be reinserted for safe, sealed storage of unused wine.

The closure is recyclable, and has already won awards including a World-star Award for Packaging Excellence, the Gold Prize for Innovation at Intervitis/Interfructa 2004 and the Packaging Design Award 2004 for glass and metal packaging at 2004 FachPack in Nuremberg, Germany.

It’s available in long cap and short cap styles. For more information, visit

COPYRIGHT 2005 Hiaring Company

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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