What’s in a name? Shakespeare asked the question first, speaking through a love-struck young girl in Verona. Juliet wasn’t musing about wine, although considering what was about to go down for Juliet and her beloved, wine might have been a wiser (and safer) choice than roses and Romeo.
Shakespeare is just one of many who believed that an unusual name, for a person or thing, can be an attention getter. Charles Dickens, a noted English author, conjured up such memorable character names as Mrs. Fezziwig and Mr. Pumblechook to enliven his stories. More contemporary authors like Kurt Vonnegut had a knack for telling off-center tales populated with people like Kilgore Trout and Philboyd Studge.
Catchy wine names don’t allude to being literary, but in sales they are often memorable in a way that draws in a potential customer. It’s a skill--maybe even an art--to devise a marketing campaign featuring a totally unique name and graphics that catch the consumer’s eye, especially if the bottle has to share space on a crowded shelf in a wine shop or supermarket. Years ago, a winery could get by with a simply-stated name like Chateau Acme or Domaine Summit, but not today, when every winery is fighting to grab a small piece of the over-stuffed world wine market.
If a winery makes one wine or a few wines designed to sell for ultra-premium prices, say anywhere north of $35, chances are good that the owner will want his or her name on the label. No gimmicks, just a straightforward, hopefully memorable name. And to attract customers, the wine must be placed in the best wine shops and restaurants. But let’s say the plan is to start a new winery or maybe a new wine brand (no bricks and mortar structure needed) and, of course, the owner wants the wine to stand out in the crowded $20 and under price range. Boyd-Boyle Family Wines probably won’t cut it. So a grabber is needed, a name that will stick in the consumer’s mind, so that if they like the wine, that catchy wine name will be front and center in their memory.
Using an unusual name to brand a wine is not a new trend, but lately the Aussies appear to be trying for a corner on the practice. Australia hit the market with such “critter wines” as Kangarouge and Wallabywhite and yes, Yellowtail. California has contributed more than its share of quirky names including Refrigerator White, Le Cigar de Volant and a recent sighting from Napa, Fat Cat Cellars. The current American masters of successful non-traditional wine names is easily The Other Guys, with Hey Mambo, Pennywise (can Pound Foolish be waiting in the wings?) and my favorite, Plungerhead.
It could be, though, that the trend was started years ago by small artisan breweries with catchy, sometimes questionable names for their various brews. By and large, wineries have been more conservative, but that seems to be changing as marketing tactics consider new ways to attract wine drinkers at certain “value” price points.
Recently, four wines -- Tic Tok, Stickybeak, Innocent Bystander and Troublemaker -- landed on my desk and got me thinking about the creativity behind new wine names that are taking a sharp detour away from the traditional.
The back story of James Oatley Tic Tok wines is one that draws on the settling of Australia and the origins of one of Australia’s noted wine families. Bob Oatley’s great great grandfather, James, became a clockmaker in his native England. But, in 1815, James was arrested for stealing some bed linen and drew a life sentence in Australia, the dumping place in those days for English convicts. Some offenders, like James Oatley, prospered in the new settlements along Australia’s east coast. Applying his talents as a clockmaker, Oatley became a highly regarded clock and watch maker and in 1821 he was pardoned and appointed Keeper of the Sydney Town Clock as well as the owner of a land grant that became the southern Sydney suburb of Oatley.
From that colorful background, Bob Oatley rose to fame in wine with Rosemount Estates. Today, he owns Robert Oatley Vineyards, based in Mudgee, New South Wales. The latest addition to the Oatley line is Tic Tok, a homage to his great great grandfather James. The colorful label, designed by Bob Oatley’s grandson James features the stylized hands of a clock and the British Empire’s symbol for Government Owned Property, stamped on convict uniforms of the day. The six Tic Tok varietal wines are sourced from Mudgee, Western Australia and other far-flung regions and line-priced at $14.
Stickybeak is a name that sticks in your memory. The brainchild of Gavin Speight, general manager of Stickybeak Wines and sales director for Old Bridge Cellars, importer of Australian wines such as d’Arenberg, known for a collection of unusual wine names like Dead Arm Shiraz, The Money Spider and The Laughing Magpie. “The idea for Stickybeak was brewing in my head for four years, “says Speight. He wrote the clever copy and sought out a local Napa Valley designer for the eye-catching label designs and promotional material. Here’s a sample: “Ever been curious enough to stick your nose over someone’s fence to see what’s going on? Or peer through a crack in the front gate, just to get a better look? We have! Some people might say we’re busybodies or nosey neighbors although we prefer the Australian term ‘stickybeak’.”
Speight wanted something whimsical and the designer came up with a man in a bowler hat, his hands clenched contentedly behind his back, peering over a fence. To one side of the man is a knothole, a feature that Speight says is key to the design. Stickybeak labels depict a section of white fence and through the knothole is a glimpse of the colorful countryside beyond, giving the impression of looking inside the bottle. The other key, says Speight, is “our mate,” Wayne Donaldson, a veteran Australian winemaker with stints at Brokenwood in Australia and Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley.
The Stickybeak five-varietal line of California wines is a departure for Old Bridge Cellars, known as an importer of Australian wines. “These are terroir-driven wines at affordable prices. We got interested in what California is doing and we didn’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket, so Stickybeak is our opportunity to express various AVAs and what they have to offer,” explains Speight. The five Stickybeak wines range in price from $17 to $20 and source grapes mainly from Northern California.
And then, there’s Innocent Bystander, from Australia’s Yarra Valley in Victoria, a cool climate region known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Owner Phil Sexton and winemaker Steve Flamsteed draw grapes from Central Victoria vineyards for a small collection of regional wines. On the simply rendered labels is a shadowy figure standing amongst the vines, creating an image that is both stark and eye-catching. Recently released Innocent Bystander wines include a Yarra Valley Pinot Gris, $15 and a slightly fizzy pale pink $35 Moscato in a clear bottle sealed with a crown cap. Both wines are worth a try, but the high price for the Moscato, a slightly sweet summer sipper, impresses me as a bold, even audacious, effort to give American wine drinkers something different from Australia.
For something different from California, there’s Troublemaker, a new blend with a provocative name from Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles. President and winemaker Austin Hope has a passion for multi-vintage winemaking but he admits that it can be troublesome. “It isn’t that multi-vintages and multi-varietals incite trouble, but there is this sense of rule breaking, forgoing a vintage year in favor of having the freedom to pull from many vintages.” The 2009 Troublemaker, $18, is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Mourvèdre, which Hope says demonstrates the diversity of the Paso Robles wine growing region.
So, what’s in a name? By the looks of the wide range of unusual names gracing wines from all corners of the wine world, I’d say plenty. The question, though, is the quality of the wine as good as the funny name on the label? For my reviews of Tic Tok, Stickybeak, Innocent Bystander and Troublemaker wines, see this week’s reviews.