May 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

A Conversation with Lisa Ehrlich Connecting brands and wine packaging, and how to work with a designer

by Laurie Daniel

When Chicago native Lisa Ehrlich was growing up in Wisconsin, wine was always on the table. But her interest in wine and food deepened when she spent her junior year in college in Aix-en-Provence, France, where she also picked Grenache grapes during a harvest. Although her studies had prepared her to become a law professor, wine and food turned out to be a bigger attraction, and Ehrlich went on to become a co-founder of Chicago's famed Charlie Trotter's restaurant, where she developed the wine program.     

When she left Charlie Trotter's in 1990, Ehrlich embarked on a career in wine sales, marketing and management at companies such as Seagram, E. & J. Gallo Winery and Robert Mondavi Winery. More recently, she spent 12 years as an executive at Purple Wine + Spirits in Graton, Calif., where she developed more than 40 brands, including Cryptic, Raeburn and Calista. She also launched a spirits division.

Since 2016, Ehrlich has run her own consulting company, Lisa Ehrlich Consulting. She's a frequent speaker at marketing conferences and a guest instructor at the University of California, Davis, Extension.

Q: Lately, you've done some work with spirits brands. What do you think the wine industry could learn from the spirits world about packaging? 

Lisa Ehrlich: Spirits packaging serves a bit of a different function. On premise, spirits need to be recognizable from a distance, on the back bar, as opposed to a wine bottle on the table. At home, a spirits bottle, once opened, has a longer-lasting relationship with the consumer than a wine bottle. Possibly these things have driven spirits producers to take more risks with their packaging to stand out and differentiate themselves.

Even with wine packaging being more standardized than spirits, there is still some room to play, and one of the areas that could be the next frontier in wine packaging is glass. Custom glass can be expensive, requiring the purchase of custom molds, long lead times and relatively large volume commitments, but with the surge in craft spirits, some glass producers have developed custom glass programs with shorter lead times and smaller volume commitments. They also are offering customization of an existing glass mold where it doesn't fundamentally change the shape of the mold - for example, the neck finish, the punt or adding a custom cartouche. You can see this trend in one of the most dynamic wine segments, rosé wine brands, where they're using both glass and non-traditional closures to stand out.

Rosé producers, particularly from southern France, are leading the way. The Gerard Bertrand Côtes des Roses glass bottle has a rose sculpted into the punt and a Vinoseal closure, giving it a real luxury feel and, at the same time, a look that stands out. Whispering Angel has a branded cartouche on the front of the bottle. These are things you might see in spirits, but not as often in wine. Other packaging features used in spirits are combining silkscreen with a printed paper label, using leather, wooden and metallic materials for labels, as well as clear, colored or adhesive medallions. While more expensive than a simple printed label, these are elements that can really set packaging apart.

Q: You've developed brands that have fairly traditional packaging, while others have a more innovative look. How do you decide which is more suitable? 

Ehrlich: It's really about who is drinking the wine, which segment you're talking about, where it's being sold and how it's being consumed. It works to be daring and clever for rosé wines, red blends and other popularly priced wines (such as Spanish Garnacha) that have a strong retail presence and are enjoyed in more casual settings. Packaging in these segments has a good deal of leeway to experiment and be creative. For wines consumed in upscale restaurants, and for more traditional market segments, such as wines from the Russian River or Napa Valley, Bordeaux or Burgundy, it's harder to break the rules. It's riskier for a wine drinker to buy these bottles, and more traditional packaging is reassuring. Luxury packaging can be a guide for consumers as to what to expect inside the bottle. You can't stray too far from the packaging conventions in well-established luxury categories without potentially losing some of your key customers.

Q: You've launched many brands. Are there instances where the concept didn't work?

Ehrlich: You can have the best package design and concept, but if the wine in the bottle doesn't match the wine drinker's expectations, or it's not quite at the right price point, it won't work. Everything needs to come together: the packaging, the wine and the price positioning. You can tweak these things as you go, but success is much more likely if you get it right out of the gate. For example, an elegant, oak-aged red blend might not meet expectations of red blend drinkers looking for jammy, soft, rich red wines, even if the packaging stands out from the pack. It's also hard to move people up to higher prices in wine segments that offer outstanding value and quality at lower price points, even with great packaging.

Take the case of Cryptic, a red blend that I launched, targeted to a higher price point than where most red blends were selling at the time, with more luxurious packaging and a drier style of wine. A large retailer pointed out that while Cryptic was among the best packaging in the store, it wasn't generating the repeat purchases that might be expected. The suspicion was that it simply wasn't the style of wine the red blend drinkers were seeking. They might move up in price to try it, but they soon went back to the jammy red blends they enjoyed at lower prices. Perhaps the wine was just ahead of its time, although the brand seems to have found a niche.

Q: How does packaging help you reposition a brand?

Ehrlich: It's much harder to raise the price perception of an existing brand than it is to launch a new brand at a higher price point. For example, it's tough to take a $25 Napa Cabernet and raise the price to $40 or $50 for that same wine once people are used to buying it at the lower price point. There are some packaging upgrades, however, that can really make a big impact. These include more white space on a label; limited use of color; a smaller, more elegant typeface; and subtle label-finishing techniques such as sculpted embossing and debossing, embossed paper textures, foil stamping, and high build and spot varnishes.

An example I worked on is Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet, which originally started out as a value proposition when Napa Cabernet grapes were much more affordable. As grape prices went up, it became necessary to move the program up market. By switching first from the orange label with a large Celtic medallion logo to a beige label, and then increasing the size of the label, using more expensive-looking white paper with black print, reducing the size of the logo, and enhancing it with high build and deep embossing, the wine was successfully repositioned at several price tiers above where it had been.

If the design is non-traditional, it helps to ground it in at least one or more classic elements such as typeface or layout. While it works successfully in craft beer, it's tricky to pull off bold designs or colorful illustrations in wine, particularly as the price point moves up. Where it's successful, it's been by done limiting all the other elements on the label, such as was done on the label for The Prisoner or the Sine Qua Non collection.

Q: When choosing a designer for your packaging, it's obviously important to find one who's a good fit for the brand. What advice would you give someone who's looking for a designer?

Ehrlich: First, look for someone with experience in the category. Wine and spirits packaging design requires a wide range of skills, including knowledge of the wine consumer, the competitive market, wine packaging suppliers and government compliance rules, to name a few. While it can seem appealing to work with someone who is new to wine packaging and can offer a fresh approach, the learning curve is steep

Find someone who is collaborative and can help guide you through the design process, allowing you to provide valuable direction to them. It never seems to work to tell a designer, "just surprise me," or "I'll know it when I see it." The best designs start with defining your packaging objectives and preferences up front, before you start working on the design. This usually takes the form of a packaging design brief. A well thought-out design brief sets a clear direction for the designer and prevents excessive back-and-forth that can drive up cost and anxiety on both sides.

But counterintuitively, it's also important not to over-direct a designer. Once you agree on the direction and goals, you need to give them enough free reign to execute their vision. I've seen great designers get tripped up on having to design around a particular idea that the client has in mind that doesn't really pan out, or by having their design deconstructed by the client to the point that it no longer hangs together.

How do you find a designer? Keep track of designs you like and who did the work. Often you can find out who designed wine packaging with a bit of internet sleuthing. Printers and glass decorators can be helpful in locating a designer and can vouch for their work. You will want to determine what it's like to work with an agency or individual and think about the designer as you would any member of your team when you determine fit. Will they recommend packaging vendors and help source packaging materials, or do they just turn over the artwork to you? That might be fine with you if you already have packaging experience and vendors in mind. Be sure to discuss your budget and timeline up front.

Q: For your labels, it's also important to find the right printer. What advice do you have? 

Ehrlich: A wine label designer who is experienced with wine packaging should have experience with a range of printers and can help guide the decision about which printer to choose. Generally, you will want to select a printer based on the label design, volume of labels, timing and cost.

As with a designer, you should look for a printer who is collaborative. Involve them as early as you can in the design process, so that they can review the design. This allows them to make valuable recommendations about printing techniques and ways to cut costs. Different printers may have specialized equipment, such as a laser that cuts intricate designs into the label, or offer state-of-the-art, multi-station offset printing presses that allow many different techniques during the same print job (e.g. embossing, varnish, foil stamping). For short runs, it's most cost-effective to print digitally, and there are printers who offer strong digital printing departments. It's ideal to have a printer who is based locally, so that it's convenient to meet with them in person and for you or your designer to attend press checks.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for more than 21 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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