What's in a label? Local beer and wine makers get creative

Clark County purveyors employ the help of graphic artists to attract customers' attention

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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It may not work for book covers, but sometimes you really can judge a drink by its label.

At least you can if the label is done well, displaying something of the character of the beverage inside.

For designers of Clark County wine and beer labels, that means going beyond just walking the walk; they also have to drink the drink, Don Elliott, an award-winning designer who created most of the labels for Ridgefield's Gougér Cellars, said with a laugh.

"It sounds like a joke, but you really do have to sample the wine," Elliott said. "You have to try it a lot, so you can portray your experience with it."

Elliott's label design for Gougér's port wine called Mine Mine Mine won a double gold award in the 2010 San Francisco Wine Competition. It beat out 3,897 entries from 27 countries and is the only Pacific Northwest winery to ever win the high honor.

The thin, sleek bottle with its black label and white words came about after Elliott tried the wine and discussed the distinguishing characteristics with Gary Gougér, the winery's owner and vintner.

"For Gary, his wines are, for the most part, big and bold, in-your-face wines," Elliott said. "So we created a kind of style, scrolling, to show that."

For a red wine, to show its vibrancy, he made a design that looks like a sword on a black background. For whites and rosé wines, he uses softer shapes with brighter colors, implying a lighter character, Elliot said.

"You have to set the expectations accurately with the design, and then hopefully the product exceeds those expectations," he said. "If you set the wrong expectations with the design, even if they might otherwise like the wine, the customer will be surprised and disappointed."

Bryan Helfrich, who has designed many labels for Vancouver's Loowit Brewing, said collaborating with the brewers and learning about the beer is critical to creating a perfect design.

"It's got to fit into the brand," Helfrich said. "A lot of times, they'll kick me labels of beers they haven't brewed yet, but they'll tell me about the flavors and ingredients they're using. A label is kind of like a piece of collateral, an image of the beer you keep with you after the beverage is gone."

Helfrich's favorite design is the roaring green dragon on the label of Loowit's Shimmergloom stout. He also frequently gets compliments for the dark figure slashing through hops flowers with a sword on the label of Loowit's Shadow Ninja IPA.

"They have the coolest names for their beers," Helfrich said. "It really helps them stand out."

The art of labels has grown increasingly important in branding as the craft scene continues to grow in Clark County and throughout the country.

"We call it 'shelf awareness,' " said Elliott. "And yes, that is a shameless play on 'self-awareness.' But when you have a wall of wine, you need something on the label to differentiate it, especially a new wine, if it doesn't have a lot of brand awareness."

Key to that is looking at trends in labeling, paying attention to them and either creating your own spin on them or willfully ignoring them, Elliott said.

"You have to know how to capitalize on the trend without falling into it," Elliott said. "Right now, minimalist labels are big. But you have to think, what is that trend trying to accomplish? Will it stick around? Do you want to go further with it?"

Gougér said Elliott's labels have been a wonderful component of his wine and marketing.

"My labels are stunning," Gougér said. "We get so many compliments. When I first went to Don, I said, 'I'm just starting out. I want a label that's modern, and you have free reign to create whatever you want.' He's just a master."

Getting a customer to grab a wine off the shelf in the first place is half the battle, he said.

A good label can draw a new customer in, and after that the wine quality will keep them coming.

"You have to get them to pick it up, and once they buy that wine, well, the label idea is only good for that one purchase," Gougér said. "After that, it's what's in the bottle that will bring them back."

Michele Bloomquist, who owns Heisen House Vineyards with her husband, said she was very interested in using the French concept of terroir for her labels.

"Terroir — it means that the wine is an expression of the unique location where it was crafted, capturing the soil, the water, the weather — and capturing it at each winery like nowhere else on Earth," Bloomquist said. "That was my inspiration for the design."

Her labels show an image of the historic Heisen House, built in 1898, and the property, which was settled in 1866 by Alexander and Mary Heisen.

She worked with graphic designer Glenn Wright, who took the image of the property gateway and transformed it into a charcoal rendering. The winery uses the image on almost all of its wines, but uses different colors on the label to show the wine's character, Bloomquist said.

"I think it really captures that sense of place," she said.

In a way, it's almost sad when a great wine doesn't have a great label design, Elliott said.

"There are some really amazing wine makers that just don't have a budget for design," Elliott said, "and I understand that. But doing it right … a great label can really help draw eyes to your product."