Force and Form On Trends in Wine Label Design

With more than a decade’s worth of branding experience, San Francisco-based Force and Form has designed some of the wine industry’s best labels and packaging. As part of our Design Issue, we caught up with design director and principal Jeremy Otis to get his thoughts on how wine packaging design has evolved over the past decade, and where he thinks it’s headed.

Imbibe: How did Force and Form get into the business of winery branding/identity?
Otis: I wish I had a funny anecdote about a wine country trip, a barrel tasting and waking up with an offer to rebrand the winery, but I don’t. So here’s the honest answer: Being located in the San Francisco Bay Area, our studio is fortunate to be in the middle of the California wine industry. We began branding wine in 2004 when a long-time client was hired as a brand manager for what was then the wine and spirit conglomerate Allied Domecq. They were acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005, and we are honored to say that we continue to work with Pernod Ricard to this day. One of my favorite recent projects for them was actually a book, highlighting each of their premium brands.

When you first started designing for wine companies, what was the dominant aesthetic? 
There was a much narrower idea of what good wine looked like—a view that was shared by brand owners and consumers. Even 28 years after the Judgement of Paris landed California wine on the map, there was still a lingering expectation that New World wine needed to prove itself. Wineries were seeking parity with European wines—especially those from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and as such Californian labels were much more traditional than they are today. I still recall the feedback from the focus group that was held for our rebrand of Atlas Peak in 2005. You’d have thought that we landed someone on the moon, it was considered modern and risk taking. Even at the time, it seemed somewhat traditional to me—but hey, perception is highly relative.

Do you think ideas of what’s traditional and what’s modern have changed in the industry since then?
Definitely. Clients are much more open to taking risks. Some of the drive is comfort level—we’ve all watched risk be rewarded for brands such as The Prisoner. They aren’t a client, but their label demonstrated that a mysterious, image-dominant solution could be a commercial success. That label helped pave the way for our work for The Cruse Wine Company to enter the market with irreverence. Because Cruse specializes in rare varietals such as Valdiguié and Saint Laurant, we recommended an image-only front to encourage curiosity. So instead of a consumer asking themselves “What is Valdiguié,” they ask, “Is that a cow?” The cow is familiar and familiarity warms them up to exploring something new. On a humorous note, we once overheard a customer ask her friend, “What’s Valdiguié?” Her friend replied, “I don’t know, but the label looks great. Let’s try it.”

In your experience, what do wineries want now in terms of packaging design?
Until you asked this question, we hadn’t realized that our clients come to us without preconceived ideas of what their brand should look like. It’s really flattering to realize that they are open to our aesthetic recommendations. Generally speaking, wineries will share top-level market positioning such as price-point, demographic profiles and, at most, a basic brand story … none of which has changed much over the years. From there, we help them visualize a personality that will differentiate them on the shelf.

How do you help them visualize what they want? 
There are two words that we bring up a lot in these conversations: guestability and shareability. Guestable wines are ones that you’re proud to leave on the dinner table for a gathering of friends or to bring as a gift to a party. This is especially critical at lower price points. If a bottle embarrasses you enough to shroud it in a wine cozy, the packaging has failed. That only works for blind tastings. Shareable wines are photogenic and sticky. Think Instagram. Given that wine advertising budgets are lower compared to beer and spirits, wine relies heavily on the advertising that happens on the shelf. So anything that we can do to make the packaging more photogenic will help the brand to spread virally. For anyone about to embark on a rebrand, definitely consider how your logo will adapt to various media. For our recent refresh of Round Hill, we actually created a full brand block with a wood engraving that we commissioned from Chris Wormell, an alternate brand block, simplified brand block and a monogram: each best suited to varying screen sizes and uses.

Any other trends you see happening right now?
There’s some amazing Neo-Victorian typography and hand lettering being created right now and, surprisingly, it’s not just designers who are drawn to it. It resonates with consumers, too. One of the most curious tidbits coming out of the focus group that was held for our rebrand of Lander-Jenkins was how many participants complimented the logotype. Our client—an industry veteran and former VP/Creative Director at Mondavi—mentioned that he’d never seen consumers get so excited about typography before. We’re also seeing designers adapt 18th- and 19th-century ornament and engravings in modern and unexpected ways. Our work for The Cruse Wine Company definitely fits within this paradigm as does a new Napa Valley Red Blend that’s about to launch—Two Range. We recommended vintage topographical maps to honor the spirit of old Napa but spliced them together to reference the two mountain ranges that flank the Valley, creating a dynamic typographic form that pops off the shelf.

How do you think wineries will continue to use design to differentiate themselves? 
While not a prediction, we’re really curious to see further experimentation with alternative packaging—the opportunity is ripe for someone to make it stick with consumers. We’ve seen some wineries release sexy cans recently, though I have to admit cans terrify me. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t negatively affect the taste, whether it contains beer or even orange juice. On the other hand, boxes—or more accurately the bladder in the box—protect wine from oxidation, making them ideal for on-premise sales as well as a replacement for larger bottles such as the magnum. Though not a client, Paperboy Wines is a fascinating solution, with the box taking the form of a bottle. Our own alternative packaging project—Cuboid—embraces the box right down to the name and 8-bit mascots. It’s a perfect picnic and party wine. I recall reading Nielsen’s 2015 Wine Audit Report, which noted that 4,200 new wines were introduced to market in 2014. That’s an astonishing 12.5% of the category. It’s certainly good for our business, but it can be overwhelming for consumers and even harder for an upstart winery to stand out. That’s an even stronger reason for brands to show chutzpah and take a risk on the shelf.