Odd labels help sell Napa wine

December 31, 2012 9:30:57 PM PST
Countless revelers will be ringing in the New Year with some champagne or a glass or two of fine wine. For many, picking what wine to drink doesn't always hinge on what's inside the bottle, but what's on the outside. ABC7 took a look at two local wine makers who are all about the labels.

In winter in the Napa Valley, you'll see barren vines surrounded by a blaze of lingering autumn glory. It's a time of year when they are the only segment of the wine industry allowed to be resting. However, two winemakers sure aren't.

After the harvest comes in, the debate begins about what to do with it. At SLO Down Wines Inc., for winemakers Brandon Allen and Bo Silliman, there's a future blend somewhere inside hundreds of small sample bottles.

"Well we have a general idea of what we what it to taste like and what we want the components to be," said Silliman.

They're currently working on a cab inspired, fruit forward wine they intend to call "Love Hammer".

When asked who they were hoping to appeal to with Love Hammer, Allen responds with a laugh, "Hopefully, old women."

The boys from SLO Down Wines have one hit on their resume already. It's a popular, tasty red aimed at their own demographic, a blend they named "Sexual Chocolate". Between marketing and taste, it has caught the attention of some of Napa's more influential wine producers like John Wilkinson from the Bin To Bottle Winery.

"They're cutting edge. I mean, I think they're doing things differently. They're going to shake up the wine world," said Wilkinson.

Despite all of its romantic notions, this is not an easy business. Just because somebody comes up with a good wine, there's no guarantee people will look at it, try it, buy it, or buy it again. Chances are, they're going to need help. Hence the meeting two floors above Downtown St. Helena between the SLO Down Wines winemakers and Dave Phinney. You might not know Dave by his name, but you would know his Orin Swift wines and labels. They're world-renowned.

When asked what a label really needs to say, Phinney said simply, "Pick me up."

Any wine on any shelf in any store is an exercise in Darwinism. Look at some of the names of these wines. You think actors have a hard time getting noticed?

"'The Label.' That's the name of the wine," said Wilkinson.

In fact, the unique label of Sexual Chocolate is one of reasons Phinney elected to work Allen and Silliman.

Silliman read the label off the Sexual Chocolate bottle, "This bottle originated from a bootlegging operation my buddies and I had in college." Allen continues to read, "We use grapes from all over California and we recommend that this be drank immediately and share it with girls." Silliman finishes reading, "When you want more just call us...Bo and Brandon. P.S. Made in USA."

Labeling has become so important that even before the guys finalize the taste of Love Hammer, they're trying out marketing concepts. What you see outside a bottle may, or may not, reflect the contents. And yet, none of this marketing wisdom will be worth a dime if, after a label sells a wine, the taste doesn't bring customers back.

"You don't want to sell one bottle, you want to sell cases of wine," said Wilkinson.

Which, for Allen and Silliman, means they must return back to the bins, back to the daunting trial and error, back to the lab, building a wine that will live up to the Love Hammer name.