5 Graphic Designers Critique a Wine Label: Castaño Monastrell

Posted on: April 8th, 2014 by

castano monastrell

I have looked at so many wine labels in my decade-plus career in wine as someone selling it, tasting it, buying it, and writing about it. The good, the bad, and the ugly have all come across my path. One wine and label I’ve been fond of belongs to the Castaño Monastrell. This bargain Spanish red is made from Mourvedre, which is called “Monastrell” in Spain. It’s a crowd-pleaser in every positive sense of the word. Bold without being overblown, and with an added dash of intrigue on the finish, the Castaño Monastrell keeps things (in your glass) interesting.

john and elanaBut so what if I like the label? What do the pros think? I contacted five of my pals who are professional graphic designers with a passion for food (and wine) to chime in. Four have their own blogs I read with regularity and great pleasure. And Darlin, though sans blog, adds enough food and restaurant knowledge that could provide a half dozen sites with Grade A material forever.

Naturally, I started with Elana Iaciofano of John and Elana Talk About Food, because she designed my blog! And I knew she would do something cool, like take the photo I sent her and embellish it with her critique. Read on to discover four more takes on one wine label:

Denise Sakaki: Wasabi Prime

I have totally bought wines based on labels, sometimes to disappointing tasting results, and inversely, have passed up really great wines because the label didn’t jump out and grab my aesthetic, which speaks to the power of effective packaging. I often give wine as host gifts, and I like the label to be its own gift wrapping. Pretty illustration, interesting use of font and texture in the design, or a photo of a cute dog on the label? SOLD — that wine’s going in my cart.

wasabi prime

While I admit to being easily-wooed by a beautifully designed label, I do think it’s wise to put extra thought in label design. I really like the Castaño Monastrell label because it uses a mosaic stacked-type layout to handle a lot of information in a visually appealing way. The main information like the winemaker and vintage is easy to see, and the descriptive information adds a nice decorative texture, while still being useful if you want to read it. I appreciate the little notches cut into the top and bottom of the label; it’s a nice, subtle nod to the Familia Castaño family logo, their little curved shape below the “C.” It’s a very modern design, which contrasts nicely against words like “tradition” and “old vines” that are on the label; it makes you feel like it’s a family of winemakers that value the old ways, but recognize that wine appeals to all ages and all settings, from formal to casual. A wine bottle is so often a part of a tablescape — its aesthetic appearance should compliment the experience.

Kristin Guy: Dine X Design

This bottle of Monastrell is extending his hand with a friendly, unassertive handshake. The paper sleeve wants to introduce itself with formalities and impressive levels of quality, which is true on the inside…but we all know (and feel comfortable with the fact) that he’s really just a cool dude high-fiving, wearing a chambray bespoke apron at the cool new restaurant downtown and not the type to be wearing an overly pressed dinner jacket at the stuffy white table cloth establishment across the street. The typography choice tips a well-placed cap filled with nostalgia for both wild west wanted posters and  90s indie rock album covers in a slightly offbeat (read: offset) manner. This is by no means an effort to intentionally be ironic, he’s just effortlessly enjoyable to be around.

dine x design

In a nutshell: His hair is perfectly imperfect, he tells bad jokes at the exact right time and we want to be best of friends with him over dinner tonight.

Regula Ysewijn: Miss Foodwise

At first glance the label looks fresh and new. Using the style of old letterpress designs it has a vintage feel that has been transported to modern day. But then one needs to look closer to read what is on the label. There is a lot of information on the label which makes it very hard to find the things that matter most. Looking at the label I find it hard to determine if the name if the wine is Castaño or Monastrell. You could argue that Castaño is written is the boldest font but then again Monastrell is highlighted in the red box in the centre of the label.

After being very pleased by looking at the label and figuring out what information is important and what information is rather less relevant it strikes me that the typography isn’t solid. The different combination of words are floating in their boxes with no structure in distance from the dotted lines or kerning and leading of the text. There is too much leading between ‘South East’ and ‘Region’ for example, which makes it very hard to determine just by looking at the words rather than trying to read them, if they are connected to each other. It could have looked much better if there had been more space between ‘Yecla D.O.’ and ‘South East’.


miss foodwise

After looking even closer at the label, one will notice that some things are translated into English and others aren’t. I wonder why Vinas de Tradicion Familiar isn’t translated. And I can’t help but think they just ran out of space.

Spotting the logo of the C on the bottom side of the label it sheds light on the name of the wine. It appears that Castaño isn’t the name of the wine after all, it is the name of the estate and Monastrell the type. This leaves me only wondering why the large C is on the top left side other than to highlight the name of the estate. I would have made that letter smaller so the bottom part of the label under the Monastrell box would have more space to breath. It all looks very forced down there.

Over all this is a lovely looking label, I would pick up the bottle for the label but as often is the case, a fancy label can also be there to mask a wine of a lesser value. If the typography of the label would have been solid, I would have more faith in the quality of the wine.

I have three words for this label: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE! It’s modern and sassy and absolutely gorgeous.

It’s always interesting to see an unconventional wine label, and this one is fabulous because it’s both unusual and a totally successful design.

darlin grayThe name of the game in great design is to create a visual hierarchy to lead the eye of the beholder from the most important information through to the least important. This label succeeds on that level by using a very strict grid system to organize the info and pops of red to pull us in and lead us around.

The complex layout is balanced by the simple color scheme and the beautiful, creamy stock. Add in the subtle die-cut top and bottom that are a curved v-shape and we have a real winner!

I’d buy that bottle in a heart beat. I hope the wine is as amazing as the label!

Treveri Cellars Brut: A Washington Sparkling Wine That Goes With Everything

Posted on: April 3rd, 2014 by

treveri cellars

I was super-stoked to play matchmaker recently. With food and wine, of course. At Taste Washington (an enormous celebration of all things WA wine held over two days in Seattle) I was part of a panel charged with the task of picking Washington wines to pair with a variety of foods. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to claim a sparkling wine: Treveri Cellars Brut. A Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay), it is extremely refreshing with a touch of that yeasty, toasty, bread dough thing adding a subtle level of intrigue.

treveri brutMy dish of choice for this wine was a macaroni and cheese that had some truffle butter mixed in with the bread crumbs atop the casserole. Not some musky, medicinal “truffle” oil that is so overpowering and (in my opinion) a culinary abomination. The zesty, zippy qualities of the sparkling wine lasered right through the rich mac and cheese, served up with that extra complexity on the finish to compliment the truffle flavor.

Please check out Naomi Bishop’s recap of the entire seminar on Seattle Refined. She does a fantastic job of not only summarizing my wine pairing ethos and example, but the contributions of the other fine folks up on the podium as well.

The takeaway: Sparkling wine is the Swiss Army knife of wines. It is the one (liquid, bubbly) tool that can work with just about anything thrown its way.

BONUS: Four interviews with Washington winemakers and two winery sales managers on Grape Collective.

This purple light was affecting me in some unexplainable way. Not, of course, my judgement of the wines and food pairings.

Brut. Treveri Brut. Best claim check for a coat in the history of Taste Washington!

Vineyard photo courtesy Treveri Cellars.


Sauvignon Blanc from Chile: With or Without Oak?

Posted on: March 29th, 2014 by

sauvignon blanc oak

Sometimes I can be a little manic when it comes to wine. Normally with Sauvignon Blanc from Chile I want it racy, light, and lively. Like the 2013 Viu Manent Estate Collection Reserva. Of all the wines I purchase, this is the one I buy the most. Why? It’s cheap and cheerful. So fun to drink. Wine Searcher shows an average price of $7, which is what I pay for it in Seattle. And for such an inexpensive wine it has an impressively long name, no?

lapostolle sauvignon blancThere are occasions, however, when I need a little more heft in my white wine glass. Sauvignon Blanc’s piercing, sharp edges can be beneficially tamed by a touch of oak. I was delighted by a sample bottle of the 2013 Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Las Kuras Vineyard ($25). Don’t worry, this is no buttery, toasty wine. The oak used on this Sauvignon Blanc in on its third go-around, so the wood influence is mild. Gives it a bit more richness and creaminess. And 16% of the wine is aged in stainless steel tanks, so its got a solid amount of zip that makes ultra-zesty examples like the Viu Manent so appealing.

Food-wise, for the unoaked Sauvignon Blanc I like ceviche, salads, and light seafood preparations. The Lapostolle, on the other hand, can handle richer dishes like scallops and salmon. Would also be great with a classic roast chicken or pork loin with applesauce.

Sauvignon Blanc from ChileWhether you’re on Team Steel or Team Oak, one thing is for sure: Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic bargain. I can’t recall having a bad one. Though, like all categories of wine from all over the world, I’m sure they are out there. (You can let me know which ones to avoid in the comments.) But if you are in an unfamiliar wine shop and the staff is engaged on the phone or out to lunch (literally or figuratively), just grab a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile and odds are you’ll be happy and your wallet will be, too.

Bonus: Check out my conversation with Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle on Grape Collective.

Oak barrels via _Wiedz.

A Week in Burgundy: Coveting Plates, Musigny, Flaming Desserts

Posted on: March 22nd, 2014 by


Right now I’m culling through my photos from Burgundy. I’ve been here all week as part of a sponsored media trip to attend Les Grand Jours De Bourgogne. And the days have been quite grand, indeed. Like getting to meander through Musigny, one of the tip-top Grand Cru vineyards of the region. This particular parcel is owned by Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüe. The average price for the 2012 vintage is close to breaking the $1000 mark. So I walked very gingerly through the vineyards.


Musigny: You break it, you bought it.


I enjoy the orderly rows.


I enjoy the stone walls.

But this trip wasn’t all just vineyards, stone walls, and old vines. Nope. There was also the greatest dining room plates for wine lovers ever at the Château du Clos de Vougeot:



As well as the greatest seat in the press room ever, especially in the morning:

I reward myself for each paragraph with a pastry. Ok, each use of punctuation.

Sadly, no time for discos.


More Burgundy tasting or disco dancing? Can’t I have both?

Happily, time for a crepe stuffed with souffle batter, baked, and then doused with orange liqueur set on fire tableside! (This OMG moment in dessert via Louiseau des Vignes in Beaune.)

So this is a crepe stuffed with pumpkin soufflé batter, baked, then doused with orange liqueur and set on fire.

Can I have it for breakfast, too?

Wines both fun, like a super-cool sparkling Gamay, and phenomenal, like the Meursault (Chardonnay) and Volnay (Pinot Noir) from Comte Lafon. Swoon!


Finally, a classic “I WAS HERE” pose atop the walls at the base of the hill of Corton (home to both Grand Cru Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes) with the Château de Corton André in the background.


Chablis and the Stairway to Chardonnay Heaven

Posted on: March 17th, 2014 by


Hey there! I love Chablis so much and am always mega-enthused to taste its astonishingly unique, thrilling Chardonnay. Bonus: strolling in and around the Grand Cru, top of the top vineyards. I’m here in Burgundy on a sponsored media trip to attend Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne, which consists of five days exploring the region from tip to tail.

More vineyards photos below. You can also check out a special selection on Grape Collective.


I could live here.



No filter on that bluest of blue sky.



Now that’s a sign.



Now that’s a map


My tour guide through the vineyards of #Chablis has one sweet ride. #gjb2014

Now that’s a car. (Citroën 2CV.)



Now that’s a right turn.


What’s It Like To Design A Wine Label?

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 by

between five bells

I interviewed Elaine Chukan Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews for a series on Grape Collective called SpeakEasy. Topics discussed ranged from philosophy and refrigerator contents to comic drawing and Champagne dreaming. Elaine actually had the chance to turn her drawings into a label for an Australian winery, Between Five Bells. Here are her thoughts on sharing a bottle displaying her work with dear friends.

What’s it like to see your drawings on a wine label?

One of the most special things I’ve ever done. I was able to bring a bottle of the wine, the Between Five Bells 2012 H-Cote, back to Flagstaff to share with friends there. My friend Fred is the managing partner of the Wine Loft in Flagstaff, and was also my first friend in that town. He got me started with everything I’m doing now in wine. Along with a couple of other people, we were able to drink the H-Cote together. Fred and his wife Hillary kept the bottle and have it on display in their home. I am so thrilled to have my drawing on a label. It feels really special. But what makes it truly meaningful for me is that I get to share it with people I love who love me too. I’ve since also drawn the 2013 of the same wine, and am excited to share that bottle once its released.

Read the rest of the interview on Grape Collective.

Thank you Elaine Chukan Brown for your thoughtful and thought-provoking answers as well as for the use of the photo.

2013 Bergström Rosé Makes The Sun Come Out

Posted on: March 9th, 2014 by



bergstrom roseJust leaving Bergström Wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where I had my first taste of 2013 rosé. Their version is made from Pinot Noir and, as the picture above shows, I’d like to think it made the sun start to break through the clouds.

Oh, and the flower on the label? It’s the mosippa. Or, as I know it better, Pulsatilla vernalis. (Full disclosure: I did not know this flower by either name.) You’ll find it in Sweden, and it is on the label to reflect the Bergström’s family heritage.

Special thanks to Jenni Middleton in the tasting room for the flower 411.

mosippa flower

Flower photo via Wikimedia Commons/KeriMajorna.

Domaine Labbe Abymes Vin de Savoie: Gold Medal White Wine

Posted on: March 4th, 2014 by

albertville franceThe region of Savoie in France, on the Swiss border, was only known to me as far as Albertville, where the 1992 Winter Olympics were held. Luckily, among the many things that wine can do is get you to bust out a map (or Google) and find out where the heck this bottle comes from.

domaine labbe abymes vin de savoie

Abymes is the opposite of abysmal.

Actually, my memory is starting to jar, as I recall a fantastic rose from the region. It made my afternoon perfect. Anyway, the 2012 Domaine Labbe Abymes Vin de Savoie is made from an unfamiliar grape: Jacquère. I found it surprisingly rich, especially for a wine with an average retail price of $12.

Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from the wines with searing acidity and have something a little richer. Yet don’t give me something heavy and dull, like a tarnished old Olympic medal on the neck of an athlete who never translated a fleeting moment of success into a lifetime of triumph and acclaim.

And when I call this wine worthy of a “Gold Medal” I’m not talking about something stamped on a wine label touting the result of a state/county/ward/borough/town fair. Nope, this is my world, my blog, and my medal system. Put this fantastic bargain on the podium!!!

Michael Phelps says, “No Subway, we’re endorsing Jacquère.”

2004 Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba: The Best Red Wine in a Long Time

Posted on: February 24th, 2014 by

2004 Giacamo Conterno Barbera d'AlbaI chose my last bottle of 2004 Giacomo Conterno Cascina Francia Barbera d’Alba for Saturday’s “Open That Bottle Night” festivities. If this is the first time you’ve heard of the event, you can get the story on Grape Collective. It comes as a once-a-year reminder to not wait for that “special” event to open a bottle. This day gives you a reason to get your corkscrew working, and should inspire you to less postponing when it comes to raiding your cellar.

The pictured Giacomo Conterno Barbera is Exhibit A for why you should be looking at your bottles less, and drinking them more. Hailing from Northern Italy’s storied Piedmont region, the other “B” wines from the region, Barolo and Barbaresco, get the lion’s share of the press and much larger prices. And though many wines made from the Barbera grape are the kind of wines you enjoy with gusto at the table within the first few years after they leave the winery, the Giacomo Conterno is an exception.

I bought it for around $30 probably five years back or more. It was stunning on February 22, 2014. Still had loads of fresh fruit and a nice minty note to it from time in the bottle. Not overpowering mint but just enough presence, like when judiciously added to dark chocolate, that you take notice. It also had some meaty, savory notes in it. The whole thing was like a perfectly simmered red wine stew with herbs and tender, subtle meat. But completely liquid, with no solids. And served not piping hot but rather slightly cool. Does that make any sense?

Anyhoo, it was one of the most fantastically delicious and surprising bottles of red wine in ages. It’s going in my Hall of Fame, for sure. Actually, it’s already there. (This is a virtual hall. Still working on the funding for the brick and mortar site in Tasmania.)

Watch Me On Table Talk Northwest

Posted on: February 20th, 2014 by

Hey, do you know Jamie Peha, the dynamic force behind Table Talk Northwest? She corralled me (note: I was willing and eager) at the Washington State Wine Awards for a little on-camera chat. What did we talk about? Oh, so many things! Like:

I am looking forward to reuniting with Jamie this weekend, whether the cameras are running or not. I’ll be attending the Seattle Wine and Food Experience as an invited media guest. The event is her creation, and if you live in the Seattle area and are free Sunday afternoon (that’s the 23rd of February) you should totally go.

 (Confidential to Butterscotch: I miss you, girl. And thanks for the photo, Shawn O’Connor.)


Two of a kind.