Taste: Spirits: By Any Other Name

Could a simple marketing trick change the way we buy wine?

We’ve come to expect wine to be intimidating. Traditional label terminology is bewildering, and when every bottle is branded with a tasteful engraving, it’s difficult to distinguish one wine from another, let alone determine which would best suit a meal. There’s a simple marketing solution to this confusion, of course — but is the wine world ready for Pizza Red?

This latest wine-packaging trend — labels that let you play sommelier in the state store — is particularly suited to this city’s BYOB scene. Stumped as to what to bring to Japanese BYOBs like Sagami in Collingswood or Kisso in Old City? Try Oroya wine, which spells out “sushi” in Kanji lettering on the label. This Spanish white is indeed terrific with flavors like soy, wasabi and ginger. Headed out for Thai at Aqua off Washington Square? Check out the zingy dry riesling from Washington’s Pacific Rim, whose label shows shimmering visions of chili peppers, anise, ginger and cilantro. Planning on pizza at Mama Palma’s? A lighthearted Australian entry takes the trend even further, naming the wine for the food it suits; Pizza Red has made it to Pennsylvania, but is only available by special order.

Wine geeks are predictably horrified by the affront to tradition, and industry resistance could well slow the progress of other food-specific wines onto state-store shelves. But if the wine tastes good, what’s wrong with easy-to-use labels? After all, wine is just another sauce on the side. We’ve got salad dressing and steak sauce; why not South American wines called “Chilean Sea Bass” or “Argentine Beef,” available in New Jersey?

These user-friendly wines are part of a larger movement that has already changed our drinking habits. Bright colors, irreverent names and edgy graphics are encroaching on turf once reserved for dignified ivory nameplates. Bargain brands lead the eye-catching pack, but some premium-tier and European wines are following suit.

Thanks to modern market research that shows humans remember images better than words, and the outrageous success of the cute Yellow Tail kangaroo, lower shelves are now as crowded as Noah’s Ark, loaded with an international array of Little Penguins, Funky Llamas, Smoking Loons and Rock Rabbits.

More controversial are those with novelty names designed to titillate, from puns like bulk-boxed Pinot Evil to innuendo like lip-smacking Ménage à Trois blends. Some are even R-rated, from dismal Royal Bitch chardonnay to darned delicious Fat Bastard shiraz. Traditionalists may decry such tactics, but regardless of how a wine cadges its first customer, success or failure ultimately depends on what’s inside the bottle, not out front.

Old may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.