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It’s time to stop laughing off wines with funny names

Until recently, names (and labels) of the good stuff were almost always formal, stodgy, functional.
Image: Reuters

Yetti & the Kokonut B’Rosé? Wildman Piggy Pop Pet Nat? When I spotted these Australian wines in a shop, I started laughing. The names were cute, but I wasn’t ready to take the wine itself seriously. My rule of thumb has long been that if a wine has to use a funny name to get you to grab it, the liquid inside the bottle probably doesn’t have much to say for itself. Think Mad Housewife, Broke Ass, Fat Bastard, and the like.

But Ronnie Sanders of VS Imports, who brings the Yetti and Wildman wines to America, says both are so popular he can barely keep them in stock.

They’re part of a new wave of wines with tongue-in-cheek names that range from silly to punny to in-your-face sexist. But the point isn’t to cover up for weakness in the wine. Edgy winemakers are using the names to signal how different their wines are from traditional estates’ conventional vino.

The trend is booming.  The surprise is how delicious the juice inside the bottles can be.

Until recently, names (and labels) of the good stuff were almost always formal, stodgy, functional.

Playful critter brand logos (which appeared after Yellowtail, with its jumping wallaby, launched in 2001 and became the bestselling wine in the US) adorned cheap, generic plonk. Such labels as 3 Blind Moose, Smoking Loon, Elephant on a Tightrope—you get the idea—made wine seem less snobby and more approachable, but most of the wines were forgettable.

Then, about a decade ago, something began happening. “The natural wine movement raised amusing names and labels to a whole new level,” explains Sanders. “These counterculture winemakers want to communicate a different idea about quality wine. A new generation of retailers search them out because they resonate with younger drinkers. And social media has been a strong influence.”

UK Master of Wine Tim Wildman sketches the appeal of his Astro Bunny Pet Nat name and its mad label on his winery website: “. . .[T]he foaming candy pink, boozy fruity bubbles made you feel like that bad bunny in her spaceship and want to yell ‘F— Yea.’” In other words, it’s all about the vibe.

On Instagram, vivid, cartoonish labels look a lot more fun than a dull chateau or winery name, or the owners’ names in black on white.

The cynic in me notes that thousands of wines on retail shelves must fiercely compete for your attention. Droll names are effective marketing. Each of the two friends who make Yetti & the Kokonut also has his own not-funny label, and Sanders says neither sells as well as their collaboration.

One early California advocate of combining wine and fun is Napa’s Frog’s Leap winery, which has been selling humour and seriously good wine since its founding in 1975. The name is an inside joke—the original property was a commercial frog farm—combined with a takeoff on the famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The winery’s official motto: “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.”

Today, many more California wine names wink, especially for natural wines such as the Hornswoggle Stay-in-Bed Red by J. Brix, billed as a blend of red varieties that “play extra deliciously together.”

But the winemaker who elevated zany names for fine wine to an art is the ever-inventive Australian, Chester Osborn of D’Arenberg, noted for his infamous collection of loud shirts, boisterous party animal persona, and 70 lush, rich reds and whites that range from $15 a bottle to $100 a bottle. Such names as his the Money Spider, the Vociferate Dipsomaniac, and the Cenosilicaphobic Cat always make me smile. (Cenosilicaphobic means “one who is afraid of an empty glass.”) All the wines are bold, savory, vibrant, smooth-textured, and delicious, which is why d’Arenberg picked up the Winery of the Year award at last year’s London Wine Competition.

Australia’s goofy humor spawned an era of provocative labels such as Passion has Red Lips, which bears a pulp fiction-style label. Natural winemakers are taking it one step further with outré names like Astro Bunny. In comparison, such French examples as Tout Bu or Not Tout Bu or Bordeaux’s Bad Boy seem almost literary.

Clearly, wine names such as Where’s Linus?, Mushroom Panda, and Her Majesty’s Secret Service show there’s a new spirit of fun among winemakers experimenting everywhere, along with a desire to make serious wine without taking themselves too seriously.

Note to self: Maybe it’s time for drinkers to do the same.

Here are 10 goofy bottles whose wine inside definitely won’t disappoint.

2019 Fairview’s Goats do Roam Red ($9)
The name of this solid, spicy-fruity everyday Rhône-style blend from South Africa is a riff on “Côtes-du-Rhône.” The French objected, but the winery insisted it came from its own goat herd accidentally escaping into the vineyard.

2018 Bonny Doon Vineyard Le Cigare Volant Cuvee Oumuamua ($20)
This spicy, savory Rhône blend’s name is a witty nod to a decree passed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape forbidding UFOs (nicknamed flying cigars in France) from landing in vineyards. (That looks prescient now that NASA is investigating UFOs.)

2019 Domaine du Possible Tout Bu or Not Tout Bu ($28)
Bright and tart, this certified organic, chillable red with lavender and herb aromas comes from Roussillon, in the south of France. All the winery’s labels are heavy on puns.

2020 Domaine Babass Groll N’Roll ($30)
French musician turned natural winemaker Sebastien “Babass” Dervieux makes this sulfur-free violet- and cherry-scented red from old vine grolleau grapes in the Loire Valley.

2019 Dirty & Rowdy Winery California Mourvedre Familiar ($30)
There’s a global geek following for this startup with a silly name (winemaker Hardy Wallace’s nickname is Dirty; his partner’s is Rowdy) that reflects the kind of wines it makes. This entry-level red is punchy, juicy, lip-smacking.

2020 Wildman Astro Bunny Pet Nat ($36)
One of Wildman’s two petillant naturel wines, this ultimate beach blend of three white grapes and red nero d’avola has aromas of strawberries and a watermelon-like freshness.

2018 Yetti and the Kokonut Mt. Savagnin ($40)
Made from a grape popular in the Jura, this skin-contact white is not one of those polarizing orange wines. It tastes of tropical fruit and nuts, with a zing of acidity and rich texture.

2017 Frog’s Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($55)
This is one of Napa’s under-sung classic cabernets. Made from organic grapes, it has aromas of mint and dark berry fruit, flavor notes of cassis, and a succulent, silky texture.

2018 Sailor Seeks Horse Pinot Noir ($55)
There’s a funny story behind this name. According to the winemaker in Tasmania, the moral of the tale is not to let yourself be pigeonholed in life. The wine is lively, light, elegant, and perfumed. In Aussie lingo: smashable.

2017 D’Arenberg the Dead Arm Shiraz ($57)
Only Chester Osborn would name his earthy, deep-fruited, opulent, and concentrated icon wine after a disease. When a wood fungus kills off parts of an old vine, it leaves a “dead arm” or branch, reducing the yield and intensifying the wine’s flavor.

© 2021 Bloomberg

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