Embrace the Quirky

Some serious wines hide behind funny labels

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Savvy wine drinkers, restaurateurs, retailers, and critics have proclaimed, “It’s what’s in the bottle that counts” and generally dismissed labeling and packaging of wine as distant background considerations when choosing a wine. In fact, wines with flashy labels, quirky names, and nontraditional bottles were often judged before they were even tasted as nonserious wines.

You need to put away your wine-label prejudice and consider it an adventure in finding new wines to try.

I began searching out new wines to try about 10 years ago strictly by how the label struck me. That is how I was exposed to Owen Roe’s Sinister Hand. The bloody, severed hand (gross sounding, I know) illustration attracted me to the wine. The clincher was the intriguing story of the king who cut off his own hand and threw it ashore to be the first one that “touched land” and therefore claim it. Within hours, I was drinking my first bottle of Sinister Hand and loving it. Without that label, I would have never bought the delicious blend of syrah, grenache, and mourvedre. Other great examples include Blender Boy, Mercury Head (with a real Mercury-head dime glued to the front of the bottle), Spare Me (with the figurine of a female bowler), Sofa King Bueno, Two Left Feet, Psychedelic Rooster, and The Ballbuster. 

The next time you are at your favorite wine shop, pick six bottles that you know nothing about but have labels that attract your eye and stories that stir your imagination. The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t like the wine and you move on to your next choice. Who knows, that bottle of Plungerhead could be your new favorite wine.

The following don’t have quirky labels, but what’s inside the bottle definitely deserves your attention.

La Sirena Pirate TreasuRed 2007 is a new offering from acclaimed winemaker Heidi Barrett. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, grenache, and petite sirah, it is dense and dark, with layers of black fruits, spice, and chocolate. Silky and smooth on the palate, it incorporates the quality and seriousness of a Heidi Barrett wine with fun and mystery.

The spectacular 2008 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir is a real beauty. The best pinot noir yet from Talbott, it has expansive notes of ripe black cherry, blueberry, and spice, with just a hint of earth. It shows just how lovely Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir can be and is silky, smooth, and rich. It pairs wonderfully with roasted duck. 

Tolosa has produced a wonderful value with their 2008 Tolosa No Oak Chardonnay. From the Edna Valley, it offers up clean and bright flavors of crisp pear, lime, and kiwi. Try it by itself as an aperitif or with light seafood dishes.

On the other end of the spectrum is Landmark Overlook Chardonnay 2008. A blend of 75 percent Sonoma County and 25 percent Santa Barbara fruit, it was aged 10 months in French oak. It exhibits baked pear, apple, creamy lemon, and toasted almond qualities. It is not over-oaked or flabby at all, showing crisp acidity and a lingering, flavorful finish. Dungeness crab, fresh salmon, or fettuccine Alfredo are perfect companions for this impeccable chardonnay.

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