A Pretty Face
Label maker Wright of Thomasville creates magic outside the bottle
By Cynthia Adams
Sometimes it’s a mere 3 x 3 inches, sometimes a fraction more on the wine bottle. Inconsequential, you may think. Hardly, says Don Wright, who heads Wright of Thomasville, a creator of labels for wines, spirits, liquors and more.
Wright insists there “is an art to making wines, and an art to making a label.”
He goes further: “The label sells the first bottle. The product sells the second. If you don’t know a name, you have to be attracted by what you’re seeing on the package.”
Stephanie Bolton — once a chemistry coed at Wake Forest University and now director of research and education for the Lodi Winegrape Commission in Lodi, California — agrees.
“In retail settings, many American wine consumers choose a wine bottle to purchase based on the price and their attraction to the label — just like judging a book by the cover,” Bolton explains.
The label, a mere understudy, ascends to stardom.
“The less we know about our variety and regional preferences, the more likely we are to let the label guide our selection.”
Consider it a minute billboard, the creative expression of the winery, which poured years of effort into each bottle on the shelf. In other words, a piece of paper affixed to a bottle may motivate a shopper to put the wine into a shopping basket — or leave it on the shelf. More surprisingly noticed Bolton, who has worked in wine education here and abroad, a label can even influence how the drinker experiences the wine once in the glass.
“I’ve observed that most consumers are more likely to enjoy a wine if they love the label artwork,” she says.
What’s more, she says, labels can turn us off to a wine that may be perfectly delicious and of high quality: “For example, I’m really put off by wines with labels featuring photos of pets!”
“Wine labels absolutely affect purchases,” insists Stacey C. Land, certified sommelier for 1618 Midtown in Greensboro. “A pretty label is as good as a pretty face.” She says she’s watched her customers and coworkers fall in love with that appeal: “Even after describing two wines to them with the ‘dull’ label being described as the better wine for their particular taste profile, they still want to taste the ‘fun’ label,” she has observed. “One of the reasons I like to blind taste is that I know for myself that a label can affect me,” she adds. Land also oversees the 1618 Book Club, their playfully named wine club. She’s seen label appeal at work.
This is all old news to Don Wright, one of four descendants running the family-owned Wright business. The company began producing wine labels in 1995 when their dad saw opportunity and diversified. “Our father, Bill Wright, was a graphics designer,” he says. “Label design really appealed to him, much more from an aesthetic basis.”
Eleven years ago, industry standard Furniture Today magazine marveled how Wright of Thomasville finessed labels for everything from mattresses to wine, beer and liquor bottles.
“Label this a success,” the industry publication quipped.
Founded in 1961 on Main Street in Thomasville by brothers Bill and Tom Wright, Wright began the year Don was born. “I came out a chunky, fat kid, and dad got nervous he wouldn’t be able to feed me and started a company,” he jokes.
For the first 15 years, Wright produced graphics, mattress and furniture tags. Then North Carolina’s wine industry began emerging — and the Yadkin Valley, the state’s first viticultural area, was at their back door.
Shelton and Raffaldini “were very, very early customers,” Wright recalls. RayLen, too.
Wright produced Childress Vineyards’ labels from the beginning, he says. Approximately 25 wineries in North Carolina alone became customers.
“There were some tax dollars and state assistance to farmers turning over tobacco crops — that’s where the Yadkin Valley appellation came from,” says Wright. “You own printing equipment, and you can print anything. We just happened to be there.”
Closer to the coast, Duplin Winery, in Rose Hill, is a good example of what labeling can do for an up-and-coming company. Brothers Dan and David Fussell began bottling muscadine wine in 1976 — not in bottles but in Mason jars.
Bill Wright became convinced that a new label could make a difference in the Duplin Winery’s sales. He acted.
“Dad just dropped in while commuting between Wilmington and Thomasville. We had just gotten into the wine business. He went in and met with them, and being as creative as he was, he said, ‘You know, I think we can make this look a little bit better.’”
Bill returned to the Thomasville plant on Prospect Street and set to work. Duplin’s redesigned label leaned heavily upon their coastal proximity. “He got an artist to paint the logo — the Cape Lookout lighthouse and a seagull — and it significantly impacted their business. They are crushing it.”
Evidence of its success?
“Within the first year, just changing the label itself, unit volume increased six times. And they were able to raise their pricing by 20 percent,” Wright recalls.
So, what makes for a great label? “The real magic happens when you are hopefully able to convey the personality of the business,” Wright says, “the company you’re representing, the people making the product.”
The label must begin with a conversation with the makers, Wright says, telling a story in little space. (The standard label size is typically 3.5 x 4 inches.) “I want to talk to the guy who grew the grapes, made the wine, and have him tell me his story.”
But the story has to be short, he says. “It has to happen in a one-tenth of a second — the average amount of time a consumer has to register while shopping, processing and making a determination to explore more or pass it up.”
For a shopper with no knowledge of the vintner, there is little to drive a choice but visuals.
“If you don’t know a name, you have to be attracted by what you’re seeing on the package.”
Late in 2019, Wine Enthusiast suggested design guidelines.
“Your label should not look cheesy,” the wine publication intoned. “It should be readable, not feature things like dark type on a black background. Also, labels with technical information should be accurate and communicate something of value to the consumer, not just a bunch of boilerplate blather.”
Wright himself is partial to “that little thing that catches your eye,” he laughs. “I’m a huge fan of foil stamp. People claim I’m a magpie because I like shiny objects.”
Land notes that “a well thought out or super creative label may not contain something serious (Chablis or Bordeaux) but it can be something more fun, groundbreaking or even just rule breaking.”
Wright agrees. “You can go traditional, or can create an image that you’re new and young and fresh and different, or put yourself in the design category and look like you’ve been around a long time and have provenance . . . that’s all about design. Because no one knows until you sell that first bottle!”
Examining the die cutting, screens, embossing, design, color and, configuration Wright weighs execution scanning bottles on the wine store shelf. “I drive myself crazy, looking at the bottle from the vantage point of how did they make that label?”
He drinks in the stimuli, he says, and slacks his thirst by studying the marketplace.
Irene Moore, a Southerner, is a veteran wine and food writer. She leads the Miami chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a society of professional women in food, fine beverage and hospitality. (Wine lover Julia Child was also a member.)
“The label is the first thing that we see that makes us pay attention to a wine. Do wineries miss out on sales because their label is unappealing? Often they do.”
She says “U.S. drinkers first pick a wine by the grape variety they like, and then by price.” Beyond that, Moore says label appeal likely depends on “age and gender.”
“I always go for the ‘pretty’ label or one that suggests a lifestyle that appeals to me. A male might choose a more ‘masculine’ label.”
Some labels whisper to exclusivity and cult vintages. Those wines seem to demand decanting, the proper glass, and accoutrements. Wright marvels at the culture that surrounds certain wines.
“The unspoken, unwritten rules as to how wine gets consumed; these rituals,” Wright sighs, who is a wine lover himself. “But the reality is, there is some good juice in the bottle, and am I going to get with friends and experience it?”
He notices that over the years, the wine industry has learned not to take themselves and their wines so seriously: “It has lightened up and said, ‘Hey, let’s have fun! When it started, it was heavy. And we were competing with California. Now (North Carolina vintners) know they have their own story, and are comfortable in their own wine skins!”
Moore has a special pick, and it relates to a lighthearted spirit. “One of my favorite wine labels is ‘La Vie en Joy,’ by Famille Gessler.”
She is taken with the fact that the label denotes happiness. “I would always buy their wine because of their label and because it suggests joy in life to me.”
Wright recalls the last bottle he bought simply because of the label’s appeal.
“I just bought a really nice bottle of champagne for a gift. It was Billecart-Salmon, French. Like Veuve Clicquot, but it is a rosé color.” He grows animated discussing the label’s savory specifics. “It has a screen print, raised varnish; almost like a fingernail polish!”
Then he reminisces about spying a bottle bearing a Wright-made label, one with its own special detail, sitting behind a bar or on a retailer’s shelf, telling its story in miniature.
“That’s us!” he recalls happily. “We did that!” h
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to Seasons’ flagship, O.Henry.