A lot of bottle

Hugh Pearman continues his series of reports on consumer products with a foray into off-licence Oddbins and makes a sober judgement on the good, the bad and the ugly of drinks packaging.

I know what my ideal wine shop is because I use it intermittently but – thanks to the telephone – very seldom visit it. When I do, however, I love it. It is Berry Brothers & Rudd of St James’s Street in central London, an ancient emporium that is all the more remarkable for having (usually) absolutely none of its products on display. Which is why it is not the store I selected for this particular design survey. So why am I talking about it?

At Berry Brothers, there are chairs and the odd table on the uneven wooden floor. There is a Bob Cratchit figure perched clerk-like on a high stool, there is a giant, ancient set of scales and some of Berry’s little white-covered paperback catalogues. The idea is that you consult the catalogue, approach Bob Cratchit and place your order. He arranges to have the wine sent to you or – if you really insist – will disappear into the capacious basement and return brandishing the bottles. It’s a bit like shopping at Argos, only without the pictures and display cases. So until you take possession of your fluid of choice, you have absolutely no idea of what it will look like. Your selection is governed by many things, but an impulse purchase on the basis of packaging design is not one of them.

This throwback to the days when goods were sold on their intrinsic qualities rather than their appearance is now, I think, almost unique. But one of the reasons I chose Oddbins as the wine merchant for this opinionated little design romp is that its shops – despite putting absolutely everything on display – remind me just a little of old Berry’s. The wooden floors are often rough. The shelving is basic. The shop windows give little away of what lies within – being mostly covered with crude handmade posters. The layout is slightly chaotic. There is an absence, indeed, of almost anything that would conventionally be regarded as shopfitting. Even the explanatory labels on each wine, beer or whatever, are handwritten, with little comments by the staff.

Strange to think that Oddbins is owned by the Canadian drinks giant Seagram, since – apart from a slightly iffy facia design – it has kept most of the atmosphere of its eccentric independent roots, complete with its inspired use of the oddball cartoonist Ralph Steadman as image-maker of the firm’s printed material. And it wins the “wine merchant of the year” award so often it appears to be a fixture. After all, consider the opposition. Victoria Wine? Threshers? Unwins? These are sad, uninspiring places. No wonder newer chains like Wine Cellar try to ape the Oddbins style and no wonder so many people buy wine from supermarkets. But Oddbins manages still to feel a little “alternative”, slightly naughty, even (and this is clever) uncommercial. It is all, of course, thoroughly artful. But it is still a good place to go label-spotting.

This was quite probably the first time in my life I have been into a good wine shop and bought nothing. It was important that my choices should be made on packaging criteria alone: as soon as I started to think about the quality of the contents, I would end up with a rather different selection of bottles. The staff at the tiny branch at the top of Upper Street in north London, were unfazed by this. “You want to look at labels? You don’t want to buy anything? Great! We’ll spend a lot of time telling you our favourites and pulling down bottles for you!” Whatever training scheme they’re sent on, it’s a good one. Mind you, we did have different views on what made a good label.

Cheap drink gets a relatively high degree of design attention while the costlier, higher-grade stuff generally does not – with rare exceptions such as the tradition of contemporary art labels for Chateau Mouton Rothschild. On the whole, French, Spanish and German winemakers tend to stick with their conservative labelling while New World makers are a little more inclined to experiment. However, the branding of new wines, from any region, is likelier to lead to more interesting packaging than long-established names. With spirits, tradition or mock-tradition is even more firmly entrenched, and design freedom is allowed only with “fun” mixer drinks. We don’t need that kind of design freedom, but then again we don’t want too much of the tweed-jacket-and-pipe image, either.

So I was surprised and amazed to find that my favourite bottle – in fact, range of bottles – in Oddbins was its own-brand single malt whisky selection. Anything less like whisky labelling can scarcely be imagined. Each label is a block of solid colour, the colour shade and intensity depending on the flavour of the spirit inside, from light Speyside to dark peaty Islay. The lettering is very Sixties revival, very Patrick McGoohan. The explanatory labels on the back are if anything even better, since they feature a complete colour spectrum and a highlighted key word to describe each particular whisky. These words include fudge, sea salt, pepper, dark chocolate and so on.

All in all, Oddbins’ malts are brilliantly packaged. The labelling responds to the individual contents while still being very clearly a “family”. It succeeds in demystifying the arcane business of whisky connoisseurship – presumably with a younger market in mind. It is a big risk. Since these do not look like whisky bottles at all, there may be sales resistance. But not from me. The designer – also, I am told, responsible for Oddbins’ excellent own-brand Welsh mineral water with its O motif – is a consultancy known as Strong. The only spirit to approach it is the oh-so-designerly Absolut Vodka. I don’t like vodka, but the clear plastic boxes containing five differently flavoured miniatures look delicious: destined no doubt to sell in their thousands as stocking fillers.

Back to wine. Interestingly the well-regarded Rhone wine firm Chapoutier is the only one in the shop to include Braille – the dots are raised out of otherwise unremarkable trad labels. This is a noble gesture, but the dots tend to get scraped off in transit, leaving the labels looking somewhat worm-eaten to the sighted even if they remain legible to the blind. Far more striking from a visual point of view is Masi’s mass-market 1996 Soave and Valpolicella: narrow black, unfussy ribbon labels circle the clear bottles. They are challenged by Oddbins’ own-brand red (Chateau de Jau) and white (Domaine de Joy) plonk, which have mildly anarchic labels by Steadman. Finally in this bargain-basement sector, an ambitious Spanish producer, Torrontés & Treixadura, does well with its Cueva Solana white, giving the bottle a tiny label with a vibrant abstract sun motif.

This small-label trick was no doubt picked up from New World producers, which frequently used this device to underline their difference and modernity. They’re doing it less now as they’ve gained confidence, but a good example is Mitchelton’s Preece 1995 Chardonnay, which is carefully considered as a package with green glass, black capsule top, and an almost postage-stamp-sized label featuring a rough scraperboard landscape scene. All the information you need is on a bigger label on the back. Such treatment suggests reasonable quality, and accordingly it is priced at a mid-market 6.49.

Minimalist labelling is even more in evidence on the beer bottles of the Ontario-based Sleeman company. The clear glass is sparingly moulded with the brewery’s name, but everything else is packed into a tiny neck label and the crown cap. Since the ale and the lager are almost the same colour, the top is virtually all you have to go by. If you’re looking for an alternative to Beck’s for your designer party, Sleeman looks like a good option.

As for soft drinks – sadly Oddbins didn’t offer Orangina, or at any rate not in this branch. I’d go for the stippled glass bottles on looks alone, every time. Instead, I picked a can of Barr’s Irn-Bru. This is a vivid, slightly tongue-in-cheek design job reeking of testosterone, in blue, orange and silver. OK, so it’s Post-Modern, but this was a bit of irony I could carry through the Gorbals with relative impunity, and you can’t say that of a ready-mixed Campari and soda.

And so to the dogs. Selecting naff drink labels is a tricky business, since we all tolerate a bit of kitsch in the right context – like a themed restaurant, for instance. And, if the kitschness is intentional… Take Valdespino’s Cream Sherry at 4.79. The label sports a vast, cheery and highly-coloured Spanish lady guitarist in national costume. Other sherries in the range display the charms of her ample colleagues. As the Oddbins description put it: “for lovers of large women everywhere”. No-one is going to tell me that the designer did this with a straight face. It wins my “so bad it’s good” award.

As for the simply bad (packaging rather than contents, remember), consider Masi’s potent Recioto della Valpolicella 1993. This is a wine of port-like concentration, but they’ve given it a scalloped label with swags of washed-out grapes and listless cherubs. How odd that a company producing an excellent design for its mass-market product should lose the plot when it came to the top of the range. At a penny under 12, I would have thought it needed a little help getting off the shelves.

And the worst of all? I couldn’t find watery sweet Liebfraumilchs such as Blue Nun or Black Tower (congratulations Oddbins), but I found an even viler bottle. Another range-topping wine, this time from Spain. I give you the Faustino I 1988 Rioja Tinto Gran Reserva at 11. This one has the lot: spray-on fake dust, parchment-effect labels, a sort of printed medallion, and that gilt wire netting round the bottle that has some strange significance for Spanish wine producers of a certain type.

Such gimmickry is not, however, as suspect as the phenomenon of the oddly-shaped bottle. Traditional bottle shapes have evolved as near-perfect functional containers: to go for a whimsical shape is tantamount to defying the laws of nature. The good designer recognises this and makes only the most superficial styling changes.

No less an authority than Hugh Johnson writes that the wine inside the medallion-man Faustino I bottle is actually very good, and the 1988 is just right for drinking now. I’m never going to test that assertion because my very soul would revolt against buying such a bottle. But this is rare. Let’s face it, design scruples normally come nowhere in this. Would you choose a cheap bottle with a great label in preference to a dull-looking 1961 Chateau Margaux? You would? Tell you what – I’ll buy the fab label, you buy the Margaux. Then we’ll do a swap.

THE BEST

Oddbins’ own-brand range of malt whiskies, from 13.99 to 23. These have intense colour impact and great Sixties lettering: Trainspotting meets Danger Man.

The good

2 Oddbins’ house red (Chateau de Jau) and white (Domaine de Joy), 3.99. The Ralph Steadman labels makes these look like they should cost more.

3 Cueva Solana white 1996 by Torrontés & Treixadura, 3.99. This Spanish producer woos the design-conscious mass market with a hot sun logo.

4 Oddbins’ own-brand Brecon Carreg mineral water, 0.39 per half litre. This has simple, impactful labelling based on Oddbins’ O motif.

5 Sleeman lager and ale, 1.09. With no main label, these sparingly moulded bottles make the light-coloured contents seem very desirable. Canadian chic, if that’s not an oxymoron.

6 Chapoutier Rhone wines,Saint-Joseph Deschants 1995, 9.49. This is a rare example of a label with Braille.

7 Masi Soave/Valpolicella 1996, 4.99. These have a good unfussy design for the competitive plonk market.

8 Mitchelton Preece Chardonnay 1995, 6.49. This sports another postage-stamp label, carefully considered in relation to bottle and colour.

9 Absolut Vodka: clear pack of five differently flavoured miniatures, 6.99.

10 Barr’s Irn-Bru in cans, 0.59. This looks great, if a trifle over-macho.

SO BAD IT’S GOOD:

11 Valdespino Cream Sherry, 4.79. It’s not over until the fat lady sings. Choose the Fino and you get a slightly thinner one. Kitsch classics.

SIMPLY BAD:

12 Masi Recioto della Valpolicella 1993, 11.99. This may be 16 per cent and slugging it out with ports, but did it have to have a cod-baroque label? Why so bad when Masi’s cheap range looks so good?

AWFUL BEYOND REDEMPTION:

13 Faustino I Rioja 1988 Tinto Gran Reserva, 10.99. A pretty good wine in a tooth-achingly repellent bottle. Do they think we’re impressed by spray-on dust, parchment-effect labels and gilt wire netting? Are they mad, or simply misinformed?

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