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They make puns in French. They make puns in Latin. They insert visual jokes in their artwork only the cognoscenti will find. They like gross out humor. They want you to believe that aliens have been hovering over vineyards in France for decades using cigar-shaped craft and tractor beams. And the French farmers want them to stop. Their most popular offerings feature designs that look like ransom notes. Ransom notes made by funny, erudite, methamphetamine freaks.

Is this any way to brand a multi-million dollar winery? At Bonny Doon, the iconoclastic vineyard run by Randall Grahm, the answer is a definitive maybe. When it comes to marketing, Randall fashions himself “a complete primitive. I have a simplistic ability to market and calculate. We’ve never done a market survey. We don’t even know who our audience is. The point is we have to be ourselves.”

Branding is a concept that winemakers are beginning to understand, and here’s the reason why: Walk into any grocery store and you are confronted with an aisle of wine offering hundreds of choices, ranging from a lowly 2-buck Chuck to a $199 Far Niente. Given those overwhelming options, how does a consumer decide to reach for one bottle over another? Most of us won’t be plunking down the two large for top-shelf cabernet anytime soon, but looking at a hundred linear feet of wine while deciding what bottle of plonk to purchase is a confusing task. And that’s where branding comes in. Savvy graphic designers and illustrators working with a new generation of wine makers are at the forefront of a revolution that’s creating a buzz in the industry.

It includes boxed wine (Bag-in-Box), innovative labeling and alternative packaging. Twist-off caps, designer labels and even canned wines are part of the revolution. Boisset, the French multinational conglomerate, is marketing a line of wines called Lulu B, aimed squarely at the single woman Sex and the City demographic. Its Betty Crocker of wine is a hip young woman who knows what she likes, drinks what she likes, when she likes. Other innovators include Roshambo, a Sonoma County winery that throws rock-paper-scissors contests, drag queen brunches, pirate parties and supports Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia nonprofit writing lab. There are dozens of wineries up and down the length of California, like Ridge Vineyards, that combine live music with wine-tasting events. Even Target is now in the game with a multicolored wine cube “branded” by famed Napa master sommelier Andrea Immer. If you want to raise your hipness quotient, consider Sofia, the sparkling wine in a can, made by Francis Ford Coppola and named after his famous director daughter. There’s star power for you! But none of these wineries have the track record of hiring premier illustrators and turning them loose to define the brand the way Bonny Doon has.

Wine marketers go to hell
Randall Grahm hates wine marketers. He’s consigned them to the eighth circle of hell, in his own magnum opus of wine marketing called Da Vino Commedia. Also in wine hell are those who espouse wine as part of gracious living, along with wine consultants, technologists and makers of synthetic corks.

The terza rima homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy is lavishly illustrated by Alex Gross. The brochures, in three editions, include tasting notes, a speech Grahm gave at University of California at Berkeley’s 4th Annual Symposium on Neuroesthetics and a jeremiad against wine critics.

Spend any time with Grahm and his creative director John Locke and you come away with the sense of really smart, subversive humanities majors who can’t believe their good fortune to have lucked into the wine industry. And they are passionate about making the most of it. They make the wines they like to drink. “For good or ill,” Grahm says, “our wines have a friendliness, a directness. The tannins are not so hard. They are approachable.”

When it comes to enjoying wine, Bonny Doon wants to lower the barriers to entry. “We want to make wine less foreboding, less onerous. We want to create a dialogue with the consumer. We want them to ask, ‘Why is there a spaceship on this label?’”

The creative briefs come down
Putting a cartoon on the label doesn’t mean the wine is silly, according to Grahm. The labels are the result of creative briefs that communicate the taste of the wine, the price point, and what a consumer can expect in regard to quality.

Five years ago, Toronto, Canada, illustrator Gary Taxali was contacted by creative director John Locke. To get his creative wheels spinning, Locke sent Taxali the following brief about a Syrah Port:

“This is, pretty much as advertised, syrah port to which has been added a small amount of our raspberry liqueur,” Locke wrote. “The internal code name for this beverage is ‘pantelones par abajo’ which translates roughly to ‘pants go down.’ This is some seriously sexy juice for consenting adults only. I could get a date with this stuff. It is very dark. It is very lush. It is very rich. It is very smooooth in that sort of uptown, Night at the Apollo sort of way. Ooohhh yaaaaahhhhhhh. While I am playing the booty card here, the wine will be bottled in a very traditional, old-fashioned bottle that has a little of a taper to it though the product itself is very different from traditional port. We could go very antique with the suggestion of the erotic somehow if we want to go for subtlety.”

Subtlety? Taxali sketched a monkey in a hat looking at a stripper’s go-go boots. Above the monkey’s head rose an empty thought bubble. What’s on his mind? Take a wild guess.

Locke asked for a revision that would include a pair of panties on the monkey’s hat. Taxali talked him out of it, emphasizing the wit of the image would be lost if such an obvious element was drawn in. “OK, Gary” Locke replied, “but you owe us a pair of panties in the next label!”

“What kind of client thinks like that?” Taxali asks. “A priceless one.” The wine would ultimately be called Bouteille Call.

Over the years, Taxali has created more than 45 labels for Bonny Doon, and, as Randall Grahm has hoped, the labels have made a direct connection with consumers. Bonny Doon wine club subscribers e-mail Taxali to tell him they cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

“The people at Bonny Doon have reminded me of what’s great about being an illustrator,” Taxali says. “Our relationship is one of mutual respect. Bonny Doon is the only client I will accept strange ideas from. I love the challenge with them and I know it’s going to result in a picture I am very happy with. They have sent me crates of wine for my lectures and art shows, own me to Chicago for dinner and a small art show (Randall bought all the work) and, of course, a wine tasting. No other client has gone out of his way to promote my gallery work and been directly responsible for increasing art sales. In my contract, I negotiated that I would receive a crate for every label I illustrate.”

I don’t need to show you no stinking creative brief
Randall Grahm’s relationship with Santa Rosa-based illustrator Chuck House doesn’t require a creative brief to generate a breakthrough label. It does require a good café and a waitress with a sense of humor. Their unwritten rule is, according to House, “that we use only the tools you can find at Kinkos or what we can borrow from the waitress. That means white out, tape, scissors. We’ve borrowed lipstick from customers. We’ve used jam to paste up our designs.”

As for their methodology, Grahm keeps it simple. “We sit and we brainstorm,” he says. “We iterate. We’re not buttoned up, not run by committee.” It’s an admittedly disorganized approach that, according to Grahm produces “wonderful, spontaneous packages.”

For a Riesling that Bonny Doon produced, Grahm explains, “I had a dream of someone who has just put down the book they were reading, perhaps a large book on phenomenology. She’s dreaming. We look through the bottle and see her dream.

“Chuck painted it. Cut up a sushi menu. It looked like the fish were swimming in the bottle.” To achieve the see-through effect, the label was printed on transparent acetate stock. “It’s technical stuff,” Grahm admits, “and it took us five years to get it right.”

Ultimately, House says, “It’s not about technique. We approach our work with a beginner’s enthusiasm. I want to evoke the spirit of the wine, those qualities that stick with the brand. Bonny Doon labels are a legitimate physical expression of what the wine embodies.

“Randall’s enthusiasm is contagious,” House continues. “My work is to communicate his passion. The whole idea is we won’t want it to look like any one else’s wine label.”

Bonny Doon’s biggest seller is called Big House Red. Launched in 1990 with a label by Chuck House, the grapes are grown in the Bonny Doon Vineyard one-half mile from Soledad State Prison. Despite the initial suspicion that no one would buy wine featuring a prison on the label, Grahm liked the resonance between the artist Chuck House, the slang term for prison, Big House, and the colloquial name for vin ordinaire, House Red.

Grahm says, “I told Chuck, ‘I want a prison but I don’t want it menacing.’ What he came up with looks half like a prison and half Italian villa. It was the first of our irreverent labels, and the wine has proven to be extraordinarily popular.”

Is it the label? Locke is too circumspect to say, but he does admit, “A great label enhances our commercial success. And we sell a metric buttload of this wine.”

Tastes good to me
He’s fat. He’s bald. He’s got his finger up his nose. And now he’s eating it. He’s Gary Taxali’s creation and he adorns Bonny Doon’s bottle of Freisa. How this smiling tub of lard came to grace the 2001 Bonny Doon offering to its wine club is funny, instructive and, like most things at the Dooniverse, a private joke and an attempt to educate the palate of Americans who love wine. Freisa is a grape practically unknown in America, perhaps because no one can agree on what its wine is supposed to taste like. The two-panel label speaks to this bifurcation of opinion, and represents Randall Grahm’s not-so-subtle disdain of wine critics.

On the first panel, Taxali has drawn the boy picking his nose. Yuck. Beneath the drawing is the hand-lettered caption “Totally Repugnant.” It is a quote picked up from the preeminent wine critic Robert Parker, a man who commands such respect with the wine-drinking public his opinion can literally make or break a vineyard. The second panel shows the same smiling boy with his finger in his mouth. Yum. This time the caption reads, “Immensely Appetizing,” and it is a quote from renowned British wine author Hugh Johnson, also a force in the industry. And here’s the joke: both quotes are about wine made from the same grape, our friend Freisa.

The point is, if these two giants of the wine industry can’t get it right, you are on your own. So you might as well spend some time educating yourself about what you like to drink. As far as commissioning Gary Taxali’s hilarious label, Grahm says, “You don’t need a marketing coordinator to do that.”

You just need honesty, passion, integrity and a sense of humor. The results are guaranteed to be an original expression of the brand. The variety of labels, the diversity of artists commissioned—who range from the splattered gestural energy of Ralph Steadman to the delicate lyricism of Annabelle Verhoye—speak to an eclectic taste, and the unwillingness to be pigeonholed. If everyone with a hot tub is swilling chardonnay, you can bet Bonny Doon is pulling up its vines. While the rest of the wine industry is zigging, Bonny Doon will be zagging. And that’s the essence of the Bonny Doon brand. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.
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