What Wineries Should Know About Labels, Printing, and Bottle Engraving

By Alyssa Ochs

In the wine industry, a label is much more than a sticker on the bottle identifying the brand. Rather, a label is an opportunity to tell consumers about your winery, the intricacies of a particular type of wine, and to highlight its character and quality. That is why it’s so important to put as much time and thought into what’s on the outside of the bottle as what’s inside.

The Importance & Basics of Wine Labels

The importance of effective label printing is to differentiate your product from other wines and help it stand out in the competitive market. Labels provide valuable information to consumers about the winery’s location, tasting notes and alcohol content. In the U.S., labels must also adhere to and be compliant with Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau standards.

To best serve consumers, wineries must consider temperature change, moisture and humidity when choosing label materials. Increasingly, wineries are choosing labels that are eco-friendly and sustainably sourced using biodegradable polylactic acid film, tree-free label stock made from bamboo or sugar cane, or FSC-certified paper.

Sara Nelson, president of Sara Nelson Design, told The Grapevine Magazine some designers stick strictly to art, while others, with more training and broader experience, can help wineries figure out how to visually express their brands.

“Depending on the research you read, from 50 percent to 75 percent of wine buying decisions are made based on the label. Your logo and label have a job to do: sell wine,” said Nelson. “To that end, whether you prefer flowers or animals on labels or whether you like blue is just one small consideration. A designer with experience in the wine industry should also be very familiar with TTB rules, regulations and policies. They should also be helping you to make sounds decisions that help both maximize revenue and minimize cost. That means attention to your competitive situation – anticipated price point; production; how you plan to bottle and label; and where and how it will be sold.”

Printer Options for Wineries

For wineries with in-house design teams or with the ambition to make their own, there are several printers in the marketplace capable of printing professional-looking labels. Options include both laser and inkjet printers, as well as flexographic label presses to transfer images onto labels for large runs of custom labels. Digital label presses are often ideal for small wineries, small batches and short-run labels. For all wineries, the primary considerations when choosing a printer are size, capacity and cost.

One option is the Kiaro! QL-120 inkjet label printer, which offers flexible printing options and speeds that can produce thousands of labels per hour. Meanwhile, some wineries choose to print and apply their labels with LX-Series Color Label Printers and AP-Series Label Applicators.

However, Nelson advises that the quality of DIY labels may not stand up to the expectations of the winery or the consumer. “It seldom makes sense for a winery in a competitive situation to design or print its own labels,” she said. “Very few consumer-grade printers can print with enough consistent precision or use materials necessary to compete with commercial print companies that specialize in beverage labels. Even if the hardware were available and affordable, consumables (ink or toner) can be atrociously expensive and not easy to source.”

 Kevin Crimmins, the director of strategy and business development for The Label Printers in Aurora, Illinois, told The Grapevine Magazine that the best technology for wineries is dependent upon what considerations and needs a winery brings to its printer.

“The dominant technology in label printing for a long time, whether for wine or really any bottled product, has been flexography,” Crimmins said. “Flexographic printing technology is well-suited to label printing due to its ability to efficiently imprint a high volume of identical images and complete the other steps necessary to produce finished labels with minimal handling and reliable consistency.”  However, Crimmins pointed out that digital printing technologies have also become widely used by wineries in recent years.

“Unlike flexography, digital technologies imprint images without reliance on plates,” he said. “This enables printers to create labels with variable images—every label can be different from all the others. Digital printing also delivers crisp, high-resolution images, and in some cases, it can enable a printer to more efficiently respond to requests for smaller quantity runs.”

David Noone of Noontime Labels in San Ysidro, California agreed that the best labels for a winery depend on the customer, product, and budget.  “We use digital presses exclusively, which provide a quality label that is very cost-effective,” Noone said. “Other printing techniques, like offset printing and flexography, do provide a bit higher quality but require much larger quantities to be affordable. Most of our customers find the differences nuanced and opt for the cost savings of digital.”

Savannah Bergin, the director of sales and marketing of Bergin Screen Printing & Etching in Napa, California, told us that her company thinks applied ceramic labels, also referred to as direct screen printing, are the most creative.

“Screen printing allows for the entire surface of the bottle to be used as the canvas,” Bergin said. “Use of a 360-degree design, shoulder and neck decoration is possible with screen printing. With other label application, that is not possible without either applying separate labels. Heat shrink sleeves would be the closest comparison, yet still not directly applied and fused to the glass.”

Material Options

When it comes to label materials, wineries can choose from paper stock, stick adhesive, and waterproof labels made with industrial materials. Wine bottle labels come glossy white, semi-gloss material, matte white, transparent or feature a cream texture parchment sticker. Another option is a transparent polypropylene label material for a “no label” look. Standard sizes include 5.5-inch by 4.5-inch labels with rounded corners and 3-inch by 5.5-inch oval labels.

Bergin told The Grapevine Magazine that paper, pressure sensitive labels, applied ceramic labels and heat shrink sleeves are commonly used by wineries today.

“Paper has been around for a very long time and is still widely used,” she said. “The alternatives have become labeling innovations in an effort to provide decoration solutions outside of paper. Everyone wants their label to stand out, and having multiple label printing options for everyone is what allows every brand to choose their own identity for packaging.”

Noontime Label’s Noone said that his customers only ask for pressure sensitive “peel and stick” labels.   “They can be printed on many different kinds of materials, from plain paper to textured estate papers, as well as vinyl and clear plastic,” he said. “They’re also available with different adhesives depending on the customer’s needs. Some of our customers recycle their bottles, so the high-tack removable adhesive is a pretty popular choice. Noone said that the “peel and stick” labels have the added benefit of being applied on an automated bottling line or by hand if needed.

“The most common materials our customers buy are the plain paper and the estate paper,” Noone said. “The plain paper is the most economical and can easily have a gloss laminate applied to make it waterproof, and the estate papers add texture for a higher-end look and feel.” Noontime Labels provides different label quantities, from 30 labels up to approximately 10,000 per label design.

Meanwhile, Crimmins of The Label Printers says for them no specific label type is more popular than others because wine branding has changed so drastically over the past 20 years. Wine labels were traditionally printed on paper-based label stock, often described as estate papers, that are suited to the high-end aesthetic for which wine brands strive.

“An equally compelling, but very different, aesthetic can be achieved by selecting one of the many plastic film-based label stocks available in today’s market,” Crimmins said. “For example, a metalized film might be chosen for its ability to give a label, or select elements within that label, a glistening or reflective effect.”

Crimmins went on to tell The Grapevine Magazine that, “It’s important to work with a professional printer who will take into consideration things like the surface onto which the labels will be applied, how they will be applied, and how the product is to be used. That way, they can help the winery make the right decisions about coatings that the material will need and which adhesive will allow the label to achieve a lasting bond with the bottle.”

Engraving Directly onto Wine Bottles

Wineries can also engrave labels and information directly onto the bottle. Engraving is typically more expensive, making it most commonly used for rare releases, special occasions, and milestone gifts. Engraved bottles offer a personalized touch that cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s product.

Laser technology, such as MAG PRO or MAG BOX, can be used for engraving, with custom and ready-to-order designs start at around $18 per bottle, plus a $75 setup fee. Bergin Screen Printing & Etching, for example, offers hand-etched and hand-painted bottle creations, providing an alternative to printing large paper wine labels for bottle sizes between 1.5 liters to 27 liters.

  Choosing the Right Printing and Labeling Strategy

After selecting a label design, assessing the number of labels needed, and determining the amount of labor that label-making will involve, wineries should be able to decide whether it’s best to print their labels or hire a printing company to handle the task for them.

Crimmins of The Label Printers emphasized that the label is what customers see before they taste, or even buy, a bottle of wine.  “Give some thought to how the aesthetic of your label will present your brand and will convey the feelings that you think your brand should evoke,” he said. “An experienced printer will have some ideas that could highlight your brand or support your aesthetic even more effectively than what you come up with on your own. Don’t be shy about asking a printer how they might enhance your label; you may really like their ideas.”

Crimmins understands the attraction of print-it-yourself devices because, after all, why pay a professional to make your labels if you can handle it on your own?    “Well, maybe I can put it this way,” he said, “I think it would be fun to plant some vines, collect the grapes, press them and go through all the steps to turn my juice into wine. Can I expect my homemade wine to be as good as the wine produced by vintners who’ve dedicated their careers to winemaking? Should I expect to make some missteps along the way in my winemaking venture? Maybe that approach is acceptable for a hobbyist. However, if wine is your business, the label really should reflect the same care, professionalism, and skill as you put into the wine itself.”

Nelson of Sara Nelson Design reiterated this point but also offered suggestions on how working with a designer can help wineries take advantage of both worlds.  “For a winery with a small budget, an experienced designer might take advantage of a printer’s collection of stock—cutting dies to save money, or they may design a label such that it can be printed on a digital press at your neighborhood print shop if you want to hand-apply them,” said Nelson. “With a healthier budget, a designer might include luscious finishes like deep embosses, holographic films and foils, laser cutting of intricate patterns, flocking, or more.”

However, Nelson said that high-end finishes are not always affordable or appropriate for winery labels.    “It may seem like a good idea to try to make a $7 bottle of wine look like $20 on the theory that it will look like a great value, but most that try it find that it doesn’t usually work out,” Nelson said. “There are times to use foil, precious metal inks, etched bottles, and such, but go carefully. Your designer should be able to help you think through the cost versus the ROI.”

Bergin of Bergin Screen Printing & Etching says that decisions of whether to hire a company to print labels, self-print labels, or invest in new label equipment depends on the size of the winery.    “When picking a label printing company, we recommend they physically visit their facility or showroom to get a feel for their portfolio of work, as well as the confidence they can produce quality results with precision,” Bergin said. “Choosing a label design and its application medium is a huge decision in the packaging phase for a brand.”

Accordingly, Noone of Noontime Labels advises wineries to take some time to think about what their needs are they can choose the appropriate printer.  “If you’ve been making wine for decades and have specific issues you’re trying to resolve or marketing goals to achieve, then finding the printer who can accomplish what you need at the price you want should be fairly straight forward,” Noone said. “However, if you’re fairly new to the business, you might not even know what you don’t know. If you think you might need a little ‘hand-holding’ and special attention, you need to make sure the printer you choose is willing to provide that.

“Many companies are very willing to educate their customers and actively find solutions for their needs, while some just expect the customer to give them what they need to provide the label that they want,” said Noone. “So, you should make sure your needs match the level of customer service that the printer is willing to provide. Establishing a long-term relationship is optimal, so you won’t have to worry as much if emergencies and problems arise.”

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