May 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

The Label Option Maze

Printing choices make a big difference in a competitive market

by Tim Patterson

  • Small wineries face a maze of options for label design and printing. Weighing those decisions carefully can make a big difference in a competitive market.
  • Handling labels at the winery with in-house printing and application equipment makes sense for short runs and can be a good investment when selling wine directly for special occasions or in customized lots.
  • Early indications are that the downward price pressures in the current wine marketplace are making producers of mass-market wines pay more attention, not less, to the image their labels convey.

Singers from Bo Diddley to Stevie Wonder to Tim Hardin have drummed in the same piece of sage advice: Don't judge a book by its cover. There was even an episode of "Desperate Housewives" with that title. Meantime, wine consumers continue to judge--and purchase--wines by their labels. Where's Stevie when we need him?

Beyond conveying the necessary legal and commercial information, wine labels are an expression of image, market positioning, generational and lifestyle targeting, respect/disdain for tradition and history, and a lot of other things--the public face of a wine brand on a thousand wine shop shelves and restaurant tables, for example.

Besides making all the highly loaded design decisions that go into a successful label, wineries have to sort through a number of options for how to produce the little stick-ons and get them affixed to their bottles. You can do your own printing and labeling, or have your labels professionally printed in any one of several formats; or skip the label entirely and print straight onto the bottle; or out-source a comprehensive branding effort to a company that will come up with a name, a logo and a positioning strategy--and, by the way, print some labels, too. No wonder the single-largest category of exhibitors at this past January's Unified Wine and Grape Symposium trade show in Sacramento was the combination of labels, labelers and label designers

Primera Technology
Consumers often request custom-printed labels for special events such as weddings.
PHOTO: Primera Technology

In ancient times--up to a year ago--worrying about label design and production was mainly the preserve of brands that were either high-priced or part of huge market sectors, where putting substantial resources into packaging and statement-making seemed cost-effective. But these days, when many normal economic assumptions have been upended by reality, the math may have changed. It may be tempting for the former big spenders to pull back, and for moderately priced producers to see fancy labels as a frivolous expense. Or, as several people interviewed for this article indicated, it may just be the time for producers in the increasingly competitive $15 wine space to devote the same attention to labeling that the $50 wine cohort has done in the past--in order to get noticed.

Rolling your own

It's not just home winemakers who roll their own labels. There are likely thousands of wineries across North America that do some or all of their label printing and application on-premise. Very small operations and start-ups getting their bearings are joined by established brands that may have their large runs printed commercially but still handle special bottling, personalized bottles, test runs and so on with in-house equipment.

The main advantages of rolling your own labels are lower costs (once the initial equipment has been purchased) and greater flexibility. Label batches can be set up and printed any time, on demand, in whatever quantity is needed; there are no minimum order fees or two-week turnaround times. Digital print quality has greatly improved in recent years, both for large commercial equipment and do-it-yourself printers. Combining the newer digital printers with desktop computer design software can yield some pretty snazzy stickers. Tracking down some of the more exotic kinds of label stock can take some work, but a wide range of options is available to the persistent.

If in-house printing had a poster child, it would be the labels for winery weddings--the smiling mugs of the happy couple plastered on a few cases of wine to drink on the spot or take home as mementos. The cost and turn-around for doing such labels commercially would be ridiculous; with a digital camera and printer, the ink can be dry on the labels and the labels on the bottles before the cake gets cut. For wineries that host weddings or other events--or offer special wines for their wine clubs, draw customers in via personalized bottles like "From the cellar of Jim Smith," or frequently do very small bottling runs such as 30 cases of a late harvest wine to sell in the tasting room--printing and labeling equipment is likely an excellent investment. If one key to viability for small wineries is selling a lot of that wine at full retail, custom labeling can be a boon.

Kelly Garber of Primera Technology, which sells a broad range of printers, applicators, CD/DVD duplicators and other small-batch equipment to customers across the country from its base in Minnesota, says its equipment is designed for short runs--anything from one label to 1,000. No waiting, no charges for printing plates or dyes, just crank it out. For wine labels, Primera offers two inkjet printers at $1,495 and $2,495. A foil printer to add effects after an initial label is printed costs $1,595. Primera also offers two applicators--one for front labels only, the other for both front and back. The company supplies a range of label stocks and can provide custom die-cut shapes; the printed labels also can be applied by mobile or stationary bottling lines, not just with Pantera equipment.

QuickLabel Systems is another provider of short-run equipment--suitable, according to its website, for everything from wine to candles to medical devices. QuickLabel's Zeo! Printer lists for $2,995; the higher-quality, higher-output Vivo! model lists for $17,995; the price includes on-site installation service and training for two. Among the apparently satisfied Vivo! customers shown in the brochure is Windsor Vineyards, the large Sonoma-based, direct-to-consumer, custom-label winery operation.

Several more suppliers are in the market, all concentrating on comparatively short-run printing. Besides the quantity limitations--you wouldn't want to do 5,000 cases this way--printing and applying your own labels has other drawbacks. First, having your own printer does nothing to help with label design, and it's possible that cousin Vinnie isn't as great a designer as you thought. Unless someone in the winery's circle has good design sense, self-designed labels can easily come out amateurish, pedestrian, or both. That may be good enough to get by in the tasting room if the wine itself is compelling, but on a supermarket shelf, labels matter.

And second, there are staffing questions for wineries with only two or three employees: Do you really want your winemaker spending time fixing paper jams?

Outsourcing options

There are probably a couple dozen commercial printers that make wine labels a core specialization, servicing wineries across the country, offering a wide range of label stocks, shapes and sizes and printing technologies. The three basic modes of label printing, from least expensive to most expensive, are digital printing (conceptually not that much different from what you do at home); flexographic, which allows for several layers of color and other overlays through a series of rollers; and traditional (flat offset press work). Offset remains the standard, though flexographic and digital technologies have improved dramatically.

Most commercial printers also offer specialty effects options--foil, embossing, and so on--at an additional cost, combined with any of the three basic printing methods. And nearly all of the commercial print houses can provide at least some amount of design help, from cleaning up and improving a winery's own design to starting from scratch.

Lori Stewart at Collotype, with operations in several countries, says that smaller wineries are her firm's niche, with clients ranging from high-end to very budget minded. Collotype offers offset, flexographic and digital printing, and it's adding a new finishing line to apply foils to digital runs. Like other printers I spoke to, Stewart found it hard to suggest ballpark pricing, since the per-label cost varies tremendously--first with volume, but also with the size and shape, the materials used, and the number of special touches. "It could be a $300 minimum," she says. "It could be way more."

Labeltronix in Orange, Calif., manufactures labels for a range of products, but wine labels are its largest concentration. Most of its clients are California brands, but some are in other states, as well. Bill Huey says Labeltronix doesn't even try to get business from the largest wineries, which often handle the chores in-house, making small- and medium-sized wineries a better bet. Labeltronix currently has somewhere between 150 and 200 clients, with annual charges ranging from $500 to $150,000 for labels.

Labeltronix offers digital and flexographic printing, as well as hot stamping and embossing, and it specializes in printing on uncoated label stock, which provides a different label texture. Depending on volume, most labels run anywhere from five to 50 cents apiece. Labeltronix doesn't offer full creative design services. "If a winery has a logo, and some copy and some questions, we can usually put that all together," Huey says.

Tony Jackson at Vintage99 Label in Livermore, Calif., says the company offers digital, flexo and offset printing, and he also emphasizes its capacity to add foils and other effects to digital labels. Its focus for 10 years has been mid-sized and boutique wineries. Price varies widely with volume. "We can do 15,000 sets of labels for a dime each," he says, "or they can cost a lot more than that." Once label proofs are approved, normal turnaround time is about 10 days, the rough average for the printers interviewed.

Paragon Label
Jason Grossman of Paragon Label says the wine labeling business continues to be in hot demand, in spite of the economic downturn. The company offers digital and flexographic printing.

Paragon Label in Petaluma, Calif., started out in the sticker business, and Jason Grossman says its printers picked up the wine label process quickly when it came their way 10 years ago. Paragon offers digital and flexo printing, with special effects built into the single, in-line flexographic process but requiring a separate, offline pass for digital. For smaller runs, the two-pass, offline digital approach is cheaper; for larger runs, the single flexo operation makes more sense. Turnaround can take two to three weeks; complex special effects a month. Repeats of the same label, with only a vintage or alcohol percentage changes, are quicker.

At the high end of the random sample of label providers I contacted is CF Napa, a "brand design" firm offering "strategic solutions" for wine, beer and spirits producers in a tough marketplace--in other words, a lot more than labels. David Schueman explains that CF Napa's services, packaged together or ordered a la carte, range from naming to logos, from positioning to marketing, from web development to packaging and point-of-sale materials.

CF Napa has a substantial in-house design staff and then works with a variety of vendors to execute an overall strategy. In the case of printing, CF Napa would find a printer appropriate to the label concept and design, and walk the printer and client through the process from cost estimation to production. "We can help with the ability to stand out," Schueman says.

Labels in the recession

With the recession in high gear, everyone expects people will continue to drink a lot of wine, but the downward pressure on wine prices will be strong, making cost-cutting the order of the day. So will small producers have to resort to duct tape and Sharpies?

Not likely. The people interviewed for this story generally indicated their business was still brisk and that, if anything, interest in eye-catching labels is getting stronger at lower price levels.

Paragon's Jason Grossman says every high-end label designer he knows is plenty busy. Labeltronix' Bill Huey says that price pressure means "people who were selling $25 wine and are now selling $15 wine are thinking very carefully about the labeling."

"For the last three months," says McLellan of Universal Specialties, "we've been hearing from a lot of small wineries, start-ups, coming to us for something to make them stand out on the shelves." Along the same lines, Monvera's Anderson says, "There is a huge interest at cheaper price-points. The issues that used to concern $70 wines now concern the producers of $20 wines."

So chances are good that at next year's Unified trade show, the label brigade will definitely still be out in force.

Screen-printing gives any bottle high-end impact

Universal Specialties screen-prints this small-lot production from St. Helena Winery.
There has been a noticeable movement in recent years to dispense with wine labels altogether--by putting the art and the information right on the bottle. Monvera in Oakland, Calif., is one of the providers specializing in silkscreen-printed bottles, which, according to Monvera's Caitriona Anderson, can give a brand the impact of a higher-end look at affordable prices. Screen-printed bottles are still concentrated in special bottlings, like reserve wines or late-harvest rarities, but Monvera currently is working on a pilot for a $10 red blend. "On a big run," Anderson says, "the cost might be only 40 cents a bottle." Other times, the cost may be more than a dollar per bottle.

Monvera offers design services to help clients put their ideas together, but it also often takes a winery's existing paper labels and transforms them into print-on-glass versions--often winning a customer in the process. Turnaround is generally two weeks from the time the bottles arrive at Monvera's facility. And in case you were wondering--as I was--the TTB handles label approval for screen-printed bottles just as it does for paper labels--based on the art and text, not the finished product.

Monvera assists with Valhalla Cellars' transition from paper labels (left) to silkscreen.
Up in British Columbia, Mac McLellan at Universal Specialties has been doing screen prints and ceramic labeling for several years--both for U.S. and Canadian wineries. The company's specialty is the full-service treatment, everything from sourcing the bottles to arranging the transport from the bottle factory to Universal to the winery.

Costs can range anywhere from a quarter to $2.50 per bottle. Universal does a lot of work with precious metals, and it can do special, one-of-a-kind, large-format bottles that may cost several hundred dollars. Besides having upscale clients like Silver Oak, Duck Pond and Clos Pegase, McLellan is developing printed bottles for $10 wines for Fetzer and Chateau Ste. Michelle.

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