Vintage Art

by Iyna Bort Caruso

The paintings of Ross Bleckner are in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Guggenheim. So what’s his work doing on a wine bottle?

Bleckner is following blue chip masters in marrying fine art to fine wine. His rendering of a bird falling in flight adorns 200 cases of 2005 Gallery Blend released by Bedell Cellars on Long Island.

“The idea was to reference the connection between winemaking and art as creative endeavors, which appeal to the senses and engage the mind,” says Bedell owner Michael Lynne whose day job is co-chairman of New Line Cinema.

Artist labels date back to 1924 France when Baron Philippe de Rothschild commissioned a Cubist image by Jean Carlu to launch his first chateau-bottled wine. The idea of accentuating what went on the bottle and not just in it was so revolutionary, it would be another 21 years before Rothschild resurrected the concept. Since then, Chateau Mouton Rothschild had been a curator’s fantasy, its bottles embellished by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Warhol.

In New World wines, select vintages of California art label pioneer Kenwood Vineyards routinely quadruple in price. Two years ago, its Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon collection of 26 bottles from 1975 to 2000 was auctioned for $100,000.

“People taste with their eyes before they taste with their palate,” says Mark Mazur, with Biagio Cru Imports in New York. “We’re a visually charged society. Research shows people have a strong preference to attractive labels.”

Sixty percent of wine purchases are based on the label, according to Bob Nugent, an artist and consultant for Imagery Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley. Nugent commissions art for the vineyard’s labels and curates the Imagery Art Gallery housing the world’s largest permanent collection of original wine label art.

“I look for work that has an edge to it. Something that intrigues me, makes me look at it again,” Nugent says. Artists, drawn from every genre and multiple continents, are given full creative freedom, right down to deadlines. Nugent’s been waiting five years for one artist to deliver. Aside from some legalese, Imagery’s only demand is that its Parthenon icon is incorporated somewhere, even if it’s virtually unrecognizable. This autonomy has enabled Nugent to engage artists like Nancy Graves, Terry Winters and Sol LeWitt. LeWitt was among the most influential sculptors at the time. “Once he agreed to create a label, everyone wanted to do one.”

Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly is putting his images on a series of Billy O Wines, hoping the lure of the label will raise money for Seattle-area organizations. “I get involved with charities all the time but not usually with my drawings,” says Chihuly, whose wine cellar includes a few cases of Rothschild’s artist series. The Billy O Wine initiative expects to raise $250,000 over five years. The first release sold out in 15 minutes.

The question is, why do artists whose works grace the world’s greatest museums want their images on a bottle next to a plate of pasta primavera? It’s not the money. Compensation by many wineries takes a cue from Rothschild, who “paid” in wine. Says Chihuly, “Someday, somebody might collect it. It’s a nice feeling knowing the wine’s going to be around for a long, long time.”