rhône, syrah -

so bad, it's good: wine labels

When I first entered the wine industry, I worked at a wine shop in Manchester which taught me so much about selling wine to customers. Selling wine is fundamental to the business, but there are so many elements: understanding the needs of each customer, being able to explain a wine passionately in an informed manner, not trying to sell a wine to a customer that clearly doesn't want it but selling them a wine they didn't know they wanted, introducing a new wine to the customer, always on your toes, and always making it personal.

Or just pointing at a wine label. And that can really be it. Over the years, I've had many customers guiltily admit that they buy a wine just because of the label, not because of the style, the description, the grape variety, or the region—just on what the label looks like. And I always reply, that's exactly what I do too. I've bought many bottles simply because the label intrigues me, and discovered many great, interesting wines through doing so.

There are hundreds of wines in any wine shop, thousands if you go from one wine shop to another. The label has to stand out if the producer is going to sell their wines, otherwise they just sit in the shop while more exciting labels next to them are grabbed immediately.

Therefore a wine label should be expressive, memorable, and give an idea of what's in the bottle. But what if the label is so bad it's actually so good that it becomes irresistible?

Matthieu Barret is a producer from the northern Rhône whose nickname is "Petit Ours," which means "Little Bear," which gives you a clear idea of what he looks like and his character.

So it was natural for him to produce a wine, from Syrah, called "Petit Ours." And to have a rudimentary, childlike drawing of a little bear on the label. The background is black, the little bear outlined in grey. And that's it.

It's a truly terrible label. In various locations and countries, I've been selling this wine for twelve years now, and it's one of the easiest wines to sell. The label is so bad that in a wine shop every customer can't help but gravitate towards it. Questions are asked, such as is this wine any good? (And it is.) Why is the label so bad? (And it is.) In theory, that means the wine is a hand-sell but I've yet to encounter a customer who hasn't been drawn to the label and not left the shop without the wine.

Anyone who's ever encountered "Petit Ours" never forgets it—for me that's twelve years and counting. Buying a wine is like buying a record: the label draws you in. And sometimes, it's the bad labels that you can't resist, and you discover something you never would have otherwise. And, after all, there is a little bear on the label.