Dramatic Readings of Wine Labels Turn Every Bottle Into a Party

Crguk-Wine

This article is a part of our Matters of Taste series, essays from our favorite writers on the artifacts and abstractions they hold most dear in their drinking lives.

You could use more laughs in your life. More warm memories with friends, more reasons to crack into old bottles clanking around your pantry. You may also be running Americanly low on rituals in your life. For all of these, I suggest trying the same remedy: Every time you open a bottle of wine, someone at the table or at the picnic table or at the beach towel or wherever you happen to be should, in the most entertaining way they can muster, read the label aloud.

Dramatic readings of wine labels make a meal feel like an occasion. They don’t just break the ice, they smash it to a fine powder. Dramatic readings of wine labels bring out comedic flair, absurd accents, and a plethora of linguistic talents both real and aspirational. Don’t speak Italian? Let the label on your Chianti be your tutor. Never dabbled in German? Blitz a Riesling label and change that. As everyone swirls that chalky Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, go ahead and treat the label, at top volume, with telenovelian intensity, even if it sounds like Spanish-language karaoke. You paid $14 for that bottle, so get every last peso’s worth of fun out of it.

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If you’re reading this in Canada, you’re in luck: Bottles there tend to be printed in English as well as French, and every dining table in Canada has someone who picked up enough French in high school to sound credible. When I lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, on a grad student budget, every bottle opened at a group dinner got its dramatic reading. Anything I read in French would hit a Quebecker’s ear like a tractor transmission giving out. But in a pinch, I will read the French, and you should, too.

In the hands of a dedicated dramatic wine label reader, even the mundane becomes resonant. When a label switches to an all-caps chunky font to admonish you to “DRINK RESPONSIBLY,” your punchline comes pre-loaded, so to speak. You notice, once you’ve read enough of these labels, that you often have to BYO commas and hyphens. The writing overall tends to be overconfident and a bit, well, thirsty. At times it reads like a voiceover to drone footage of the Willamette Valley. Lean into it. If you’re not thrilled with your first read, try method acting: Finish half the bottle and take another swing — you’ll feel like Richard E. Grant in “Withnail & I” in no time.

Usually, though, you’ll find this a simple exercise because most of these labels want to be read dramatically. They are, after all, love letters.

“Growing up in a small town in California means being able to enjoy the Simple Life,” reads a 2019 bottle of Simple Life Pinot Noir that’s been hanging around my apartment for a couple of years. “We walk downtown and shop at the family-owned grocery store, we cook with fresh vegetables and meat from local farms, and we drink wine made by our family and friends who have lived here for generations.” What does this tell us about the drink inside? Nothing but feels, baby. Read it in your best Susan Sarandon impression, though, and tell me everyone at the table wouldn’t be misty-eyed by the time you cheers.

One beauty of a bottle of wine is that alcohol peels away our inhibitions and lets us experience a different dimension of our personalities, and of the personalities of our friends. The easiest inhibition to peel away over a meal is that of guile. In vino veritas, the old saw goes; the French tweak on it, la vérité est dans le vin, or “the truth is in the wine,” is so tailored to a wine label that of course someone had to snatch it up.

Vintners write these things with precious little chill, and it’s easy to chuckle before your glass is wet. You might see the cursive label on your bottle of The Gratitude, a Bordeaux blend out of Napa Valley by Promise Wines, and smirk as you intone: “This wine is the result of a commitment I made to my amazing wife” — here you pause for effect, nodding to the most amazing wife at the table, ideally your own, for while your words may say otherwise, your tone indicates that you are at this moment accepting a Golden Globe — “to pursue my passion and follow my dream. Always drink the good stuff first. Steve McPherson.” As you raise your glass to your friends, feeling just a little silly, a little exposed, allow yourself to enjoy the theatricality of the moment. You just invoked a character, a wife guy named Steve, and now he’s at the table with you. Strangely, you’re having more fun with him here.

Not every label is so earnest. Many tilt toward the strictly practical: food pairings, a few tasting notes, an assurance that the winemaker fell in love with this particular blend. Castillo Quebrado’s Cabernet Sauvignon tells me it offers “notes of juicy tomato, bacon fat, and Chilean oak.” That’s gonna be a yes from me right there. Others dive into the nerdiest facets of their identity: “Sugar at harvest was 26 degrees Brix,” reads the label on a Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. “The grapes were put through an early press with a slow extraction of color and tannins from the skins as well as 100 percent malolactic fermentation in French oak.” When in doubt, default to some tasting notes, some genealogy of the grapes, and the word “enjoy.”

People talk about buying wines for the labels, and probably most of us do, at some point. Typically, though, we’re talking about the front label — its design, its fonts, its colors, its reflectiveness or lack thereof. At a glance you can tell whether a winemaker’s aesthetic taste matches your taste; intuitively we translate that to the wine itself, even as the connection between what’s in the bottle and what’s printed outside of it feels arbitrary. Once the front label entices you, the impulsive buyer, to physically pick up the bottle, the chattier back label keeps you holding the bottle. Once the front has made eye contact, in other words, the back is there to start a conversation.

A winemaker friend of mine surmises that the sheer abundance of wines and wineries led us to this point. The number of wineries in the U.S. alone rose almost fivefold between 2000 and 2020. The rapid market expansion made branding crucial for survival. “Wine marketing has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the past 15 years or so,” he texted me when I asked for his thoughts on label trends. “And storytelling in the wine space is front and center. If you don’t know much about two $30 Cabs, then it really comes down to label design and story. Wine used to market their regions more, but that’s harder to learn and remember. Stories work way better as something you can remember, and a sommelier or retailer can repeat to a customer.”

His analysis spoke to a theory of mine, that these florid labels are mostly a New World invention. When you don’t have famous growing regions that attract buyers, and your buyers are less sophisticated than the French or Germans to begin with, you have to improvise. But then there’s the (quite lovely) bottle of Spanish vermouth in my fridge right now called Tximista bearing an exemplary label that walks you through the pronunciation (“chee-MEES-ta”), the translation (the Basque word for “lightning”), the provenance (100 percent Hondarrabi Zuri Txakoli wine grapes), tasting notes (“a fresh, crisp flavor”), serving suggestions (“rocks with a simple twist, or a splash of soda”) and just enough myth to make it fun. “Their vines grow along the Bay of Biscay, which is often ravaged by stormy weather, giving the grapes an electric mouth-feel, salinity, and acidity.” Generous helpings of information need not chase out the poetry.

If hasty wine buyers pick bottles based on basic info with a hint of vibes, the savvy marketers know to meet us there. At some point we all have bluffed our way through a wine tasting, tossing around “mouthfeel” and “body” and “tannins” before we knew our leathers from our barnyards. Of course, we could use some crib notes. Tasting clues are a great first step. Where the grapes grew, same. Then, since we’re talking, the winemaker might wax lyrical.

Clear your throat and consider the front label of Hundred Acre’s Morgan’s Way Cabernet Sauvignon: “This is the story of a man, who was never at a loss. He had traveled far in the world after the sack Troy, the virgin fortress; he saw many cities of men, and learned their minds. He endured many troubles and hardships in the struggle to save his own life and to bring back his men safe to their homes. He did his best, but he could not save his companions, for they …” and there it stops. (The missing “of” before “Troy” seems deliberate; a star obscures the sentence.) This isn’t merely a dramatic selection — it’s the opening bars of “The Odyssey,” Homer’s 2,700-year-old epic that was sung long before anyone committed it to paper. These lines are part of the invocation to the muse, a call to a divine being who helps the poet recall and sing the work. If you begin dinner with a full-chested rendition of this label — try to channel “Lord of the Rings”-era Ian McKellan — you have set your night on a path to success. After a couple of bottles, you can even reveal what comes after these lines. Why was this man who was never at a loss unable to save his companions? “For they perished,” you can reveal, in your most mellifluous tone, “through their own sheer folly.”