Simple Wine News: The Art of Wine Label

We will discuss how art made its way onto the labels of fine wines, the role the Rothschilds played in that story, and the points common to the Art Russe Foundation and Bordeaux grand cru wines.

The conservatism of Bordeaux is part of the regional image. The idea of designer wine labels is alien to the Bordeaux winemakers who are afraid to be misunderstood. Castles, towers, oaks and coats of arms do not raise eyebrows, but even those are generally sketched schematically, in background sepia. Anything else is straight blasphemy. Modern art on the label? God forbid. What Baron Philippe de Rothschild did for his 1924 vintage caused great outrage. However, he did not do it without reason: aged twenty-something, the baron was determined to do his utmost to prove his neighbours and the world not only that Mouton was not a second wine (the «error» in the 1855 classification was not corrected until 1973, with the approval of the President of the Republic, then Minister of Agriculture Jacques Chirac), but, indeed, was the first among the first. He made a decision that the entire vintage be bottled at the chateau, which at that time was considered an inadmissible luxury and eccentricity.

Propaganda Tool

Traditionally, wine estates made wine, while merchants aged and bottled it. Appropriation of the last two operations required building a cellar three times as big as before, investing in production during three years with no sales during that period and, finally, required courage to deal with a backlash from wine merchants. The world was to learn the incredible news: toute la récolte mis en bouteilles au château («entire vintage bottled at the chateau»). Putting that inscription on an out-of-the-ordinary label was a bold move, but a logical one. In the end, it was printed defiantly on the underbelly of an avant-garde sheep painted by the cubist Jean Carlus. A poster with a slogan instead of a label, which still looks like the most radical one in the Mouton collection. However, a global crisis broke out, and boring traditional labels replaced arty communication. It is not until 1945, sensing the aspiration of the post-war world to breathe more freely, that Baron Rothschild reverted back to his youthful idea. From then on, modern artists, both recognized masters and rising stars were commissioned for label art for each new vintage.

Added Value

Here they are, the scribbles of Salvador Dali, the abracadabra of Joan Miro, the outer space of Wassily Kandinsky, the blue women of Marc Chagall, the manly thyads of Pablo Picasso, the unpretty models of Balthus, the clones of Andy Warhol, the angels of Ilya Kabakov, the cheerful mockery of antiquity of Jeff Koons, and the infernal shadows of Anish Kapoor. The Rothschilds paid ten boxes of wine for each artwork: five boxes of the vintage the artist was commissioned for, and five more boxes from the chateau cellars - a total of 120 bottles. A couple of years ago, a Mouton 1945 – 2012 vertical collection was sold at an auction in Hong Kong for US$376,600, or US$5,700 per bottle, which is ten times more expensive than either bottle separately. The 1945 vintage decorated with Philippe Jullian's Victory remains the chateau's most expensive bottle to this day. The end of WW2, an outstanding vintage and the label launching the vertical collection are the three main drivers of collector value.

Impact on Art Market

The choice of an artist can drive the price of a vintage not yet bottled. A mere rumour that the Rothschilds intended to commission a Chinese artist for their 2008 vintage label art, drove a 20% price spike in the en-primeur market. Excited Chinese investors reacted even more enthusiastically when the rumour was confirmed: the price soared by 300%. The most curious metamorphosis, however, occurred with the works of the Chinese surrealist Xu Lei. A known artist, he never really caused a stir. Year after year, some of his works were listed at art auctions with rather modest price estimates. As soon as the new vintage of Mouton reached the cellars of the wealthy Chinese however, Xu Lei's exquisite drawings on silk became a sensation. In 2014, Marlborough, a New York based contemporary art gallery, paid US$3 million for his Stone Rainbow.

A Good Art Year

Label art stimulates the market's attention, sometimes in most unexpected ways. In the Year of the Sheep, according to the Chinese calendar (2015), the demand for Mouton increased noticeably compared to other first grand cru wines, especially its vintages with a recognizable sheep on the label. Vintages with label art by Pierre Aleshinsky (1966), John Huston (1982), Keith Haring (1988), George Baselitz (1989), Raymond Savignac (1999), Xu Lei (2008) and Miguel Barceló (2012) were among the most sought after.

In Mouton's Steps

The liberties taken by Philippe de Rothschild inspired many winemakers for their own experimentations with art. The legendary Vega Sicilia in Ribera del Duero was the first to continue in Mouton’s steps in the early 1960s. David Alvarez began producing a limited batch of Vega Sicilia Unico magnums (2,000+ bottles) with art labels. He chose not to commission new artworks but rather opted for the existing ones, mainly by the local masters Antonio Vasquez, Miguel Barcelo and Benjamin Palencia. At a 2009 auction, a complete vertical collection of 23 Unico magnums 1960-1990 was sold under a stormy applause for US$102,800. The latest «art magnum» belongs to the 2007 vintage. All the original paintings are kept at the estate.

In the early 2000s, the young Riojan bodega Altanza launched the Spanish Art Series, decorating the label of its top 2001 reserva with reproductions of Juan Miro paintings. According to the Wine Advocate, the Miro Foundation was paid US$80,000 in copyright. In 2004, Miro was followed by Salvador Dali; in 2008 by Francisco Goya (the top 3 included, of course, The Naked Maja); in 2010 by Joaquin Sorolla, an impressionist of the beginning of the last century. The amount of copyright was not disclosed, but the idea paid off, with price per bottle already nearing US$100, and the Chinese series with reproductions of paintings by the contemporary artist He Jiaying has been launched in parallel with the Spanish collection.

In the U.S., Artist Series, several wineries launched limited edition wine art series at the same time: the Californian Imagery Estate Winery, Amuse Bouche Wines and Kenwood Vineyards, and the Washingtonian Chateau St. Michelle and Woodward Canyon. Kenwood was the very first to launch a collection immediately after the 1976 Judgement of Paris Wine Tasting. Miro (1987) and Picasso (1989) were again among the selected artists. In 1980, the writer Henry Miller allowed winemakers to use his drawing Le Clown in exchange for 14 boxes of wine, later inherited by his children. Most often, however, Kenwood contracted young artists, mostly Americans, for its label art. The standard fee is several thousand dollars plus ten boxes of wine. 2017 saw the release of the estate's fortieth art label.

The baron also had his followers in Champagne. Claude Taittinger, a passionate art collector, wished to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the house with the release of a special bottle. He commissioned the founder of op art Viktor Vasarely for the label design. The Champagne Collection Brut de Taittinger 1978 was released in 1983 in a shiny metal shell, «drawn onto» the bottle as if it were latex, with a graphic impression creating an optical illusion. As of today, the collection includes 13 art vintages (the best vintages of the past 40 years). Among the commissioned artists are Arman, André Mason and Roy Lichtenstein.

In Italy, the German publisher and gallery owner Peter Femfert has been the most consistent follower of the Rothschilds. In 1982, he acquired Casanuova di Nittardi in Tuscany, a part of the large estate once owned by Michelangelo. Starting from the very first vintage (1981), he designated the Vigna Doghessa vineyard for his art project, commissioning the Italian artist Bruno Bruni for label and wrapper art. As of today, the collection includes 34 art labels and art wrappers created by such masters as Günther Grass, Karl Otto Goetz, Yoko Ono, A.R. Penk, Hundertwasser and others.

Russian Art Cru

Curiously, the art of wine label or art on wine labels in Bordeaux has long remained the prerogative of the Rothschilds - Philippe and his daughter Philippine. A special room was built to house their growing collection, which also began to travel the world. On exhibition opening days, art historians repeatedly noted that the collection represented a mini anthology of art of the second half of the 20th century. It was not until 2014 that Bordeaux saw the emergence of a new player who landed on the right bank terroir with an established large collection of art: the Art Russe Foundation of Andrey Filatov, a Russian entrepreneur and patron of the arts. By that time, his collection comprised of more than 400 paintings by Russian artists who lived and worked in the Russian Empire, the USSR or abroad. The collection has been traveling the world, with its various parts exhibited in the Louvre, in Abu Dhabi, then in Beaulieu in the UK. In Bordeaux, it has a very special exhibition space: wine labels.

Unlike the Rothschilds who used art to draw attention to their wines, Art Russe uses wine to draw attention to Russian art. The Foundation acquired Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs, a small estate included in Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, one of the most prestigious Bordeaux appellations. The large-scale reconstruction project under the supervision of one of France's best architects Jean Nouvel included construction of a brand new cellar. Fully re-equipped, the chateau hired the renowned oenologist Louis Mitjavile and has been perfecting both its wine and its style from vintage to vintage. Reproductions of paintings by Nicholas Roerich, Mikhail Vrubel, Ilya Repin, Viktor Vasnetsov, Vladimir Serov, Filipp Malyavin, Nikolai Fechin and Fyodor Reshetnikov replaced the labels. Twelve paintings are selected for each vintage.

Reckoning that one could no longer surprise the market with label art alone, Art Russe went even further. To cause a stir and become a notable phenomenon, the Foundation trespassed against something seemingly sacrosanct in Bordeaux: the shape of the wine bottle. A more «broad-shouldered», thickset shape was pulled out of the depths of the 18th century (one of the many shapes that existed at that time) and revisited in accordance with the rules of elegance. The striking scarlet colour, artist and artwork names instead of the name of the chateau, Art Russe in big letters on the capsule and cork, the golden engraving Saint-Emilion Grand Cru on the dark glass, the unusually shaped boxes and pricing similar to that of the estate's world-famous neighbours have all played a role in this spectacular turn of events in Bordeaux. The first (2014) vintage was released last year and aroused great interest not only in Russia, but also among French restaurateurs. Russian art is «in», and wine turned out to be a good «propaganda poster», just like 90 years ago, when the young Baron Rothschild informed the world about bottling Mouton at the chateau.

Vassily Raskov