Judging by the labels, there are two basic categories of wine: the serious kind that comes with a white or cream-colored label and a heavy use of cursive script announcing the serious-sounding Chateau of origin, and the “grocery-store wines” that rely on bold colors and crazy fonts to lure Safeway shoppers' eyes away from Yellow Tail Shiraz.
Calling it the “one thing we're fighting against,” Corey Miller, the founder of a San Francisco winemaking and design collective called Barrel + Ink, wants to upend this binary.
“What we've tried to do is say no, that people are engaged by the packaging, and it contributes to their experience of the wine that's in the bottle,” Miller says.
Giving free rein to the winemakers and designers, Barrel + Ink produces small lots of moderately priced wine with labels reflecting the idea of a wine bottle as more than a disposable vessel destined for the blue bin — something to give as a gift, perhaps, or later turn into a vase. (The first of its four releases, a 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon called Nuova Raccolto, was priced at $75, but the three that followed — including its latest, a 2014 white blend called Interessante — sell for between $25 and $38.) Bringing together talent from both sides of the equation elevates the final product in a way that transcends what you see and taste in a typical bottle of wine.
But Barrel + Ink has no guiding aesthetic principle for choosing who it commissions.
“It's a blank canvas for two different artists to come together and create something,” Miller says. “We generally tell the winemakers we're interested in a red wine or a white wine, but we let them come up with what they think visually represented the consumable art inside the bottle.”
That doesn't necessarily mean that both the wine and the label are produced in total isolation from one another, though. For Thief, winemaker Pax Mahle's 2013 Syrah-Grenache blend, Barrel + Ink let Mahle take a peek at various illustrators' work.
“He really resonated with Lab Partners,” Miller says. “They do a lot of animal illustrations and wild scenes, and he really liked that a lot.”
For his part, Ryan Meis of Lab Partners recalls how Mahle talked about his desire to grow grapes in odd places, wanting to “bottle all that wildness into this great wine.”
“When we heard that description, we thought, 'That's such a vivid way to look at what he's creating,'” Meis says. “We thought of a creature, like a gray fox — this wild animal trying to survive.”
That led to the label for Thief, a silvery silhouette of a quasi-mythical creature nearly obscured by huge jungle blooms. It's a complete departure from Barrel + Ink's prior release, You & Me, a white blend with a typographical label reading “Rain or Shine, I'm on Your Side!” And it's wholly unlike Interessante's gold-and-green, Art Nouveau-esque label. (Currently, only Thief and Interessante remain available.)
Meis, who works with his wife Sarah Labieniec, values the importance of aesthetic design in everyday life — even if it's for an explicitly commercial assignment.
“I don't have any delusions of grandeur that what we created is a fine piece of art compared to the craft that Pax puts into what he creates,” Meis says. “I'd like to think of us as a partner, but I feel like we're more doing a service to the wine. I'm trying to be humble about it.”
The curious fact about Barrel + Ink's approach is that its own branding is put second. (Even on Interessante's back label, winemaker Andy Erickson and illustrator Jessica Hische's names are much more prominent than the collective's own.) Miller acknowledges the irony, but shrugs it off as secondary to the overall mission of making wine more approachable.
“You can't argue with the fact that we eat with our eyes and drink with our eyes, too,” Miller says. “Millennial wine consumers by and large choose wine based on the label, so for us to depart from this idea that having compelling art as a part of the experience means the wine is crappy.”
He hopes to ramp up production from Interessante's seven barrels, but never to the 1,000-1,500-case level that risks its integrity as a handcrafted product.
In the meantime, a Barrel + Ink bottle remains a special thing.
“We had a new neighbor coming downstairs,” Meis says, “and the first thing we could think of as a housewarming gift was the first wine from Barrel + Ink. It's a conversation piece and a beautiful piece of art.”