May 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Avoid Label Mishaps

Tips from the pros to hasten bottling and protect appearance

by Jane Firstenfeld

  • A smooth bottling run requires intense advance planning. Coordinating label design and materials with your bottler will save time and money.
  • Larger labels may seem more impactful on the drawing board, but they can wreak havoc on the bottling line, especially when using bargain bottles.
  • Proof everything carefully: Do test runs of new packages and make sure your labels are approved and 100% correct before you print.

A striking, evocative label can inspire consumers to pick up and purchase a bottle of wine, and help them remember it the next time around. But no matter how enticing and memorable, a label that chews up costly time on the bottling line is not an asset to the bottom line.

Experienced bottlers and designers have learned to avoid such errors; whether you make decisions for a major, multi-brand winery or design and apply your own labels at a family establishment, you may profit from the hard-earned wisdom of these packaging veterans.

Everyone’s heard the real estate mantra: location, location, location. With wine labeling, we learned, it’s: planning, planning, planning. Four wine-bottling specialists, three long-established wine package designers and a label supplier all emphasized this point. From the earliest stages of label design to selection of suppliers and materials to scheduling your bottling runs, wineries must envision the entire process far in advance or face expensive, time-consuming bottlenecks at the last minute.

Coordinating among designer, paper and bottle suppliers, printer and bottler may seem challenging and will certainly take time. Each of these aspects represents a significant investment, and (our sources emphasized) failure of one element can force a redesign or—perhaps worse in the long run—release of an unflattering package that does not sell your product.

Start at the end
“My suggestion is to let the bottler, designer and label company work together on the label,” said Peter Oughterson, who owns both a winery (Highland Cellars) and a thriving mobile bottling operation in New York’s Finger Lakes region. When labels work, he said, “It’s great. When they don’t, everyone looks like a fool, and it’s usually me, the bottler. I work with the designer to let them know what my labeler can do and if I feel comfortable that the application will work. This few minutes spent will save everyone’s butt.”

“Successful bottling begins with a vision of the final package design that incorporates design and compatibility with bottling equipment capabilities,” agreed Wayne Van Wagner, plant manager of the mobile bottling division at G3 Enterprises, Modesto, Calif. “Component suppliers need to produce glass, closures and labels that consistently meet design specifications.”

“The problem is that the wineries just don’t check their packages. They give it to the bottler and expect us to make it work. Wineries are changing to less-expensive packages, and they often don’t verify that the packages all fit together. We try and do a great job, but it can be very difficult because someone does not check out the packages,” added John Davis, A T Mobile Bottling Line (ATMBL), Napa, Calif.

Durs Koenig, operations manager at Sonoma Wine Co., sent a list of specifics to consider. Among the problems he encounters at the massive Graton, Calif., facility: Tricky die-cut labels (not always easy to release from their backing web); heavyweight paper (harder to control); full, wrap-around labels (hardest to apply).

Material issues
Bottles continue to be a problem, especially inexpensive imports (for a complete report see July 2010 issue). Avoid this setback, Oughterson recommended, “by buying from a reputable supplier. Ask where the glass is made and who locally has used it. Also, beware of the ‘good deal.’ Ask to see some samples of that glass. As a mobile bottler, poor glass is a nightmare. Broken glass slows production to a halt because of clean-ups; it can cause injuries to workers and damage equipment. I have stopped bottling several times because of poor glass, and placed the daily charge on the customer,” he said.

Cheaper bottles can require changes in other packaging components as well: Supplies that are “supposed to be the same,” don’t always meet the same specs.

“The salesperson said that the same foils would work, and they don’t,” Davis said, citing a recent bottle run when foil capsules required manual application. “We have one of the best foil applicators and spinners, and 99% of the time we can make it work.” Nevertheless, a single-sized foil that purportedly would cap three sizes of bottles did not serve that purpose. ATMBL did not charge the winery, but Davis said there wouldn’t be a second chance. “It took an extra two hours to do the job. At $300 an hour, it could have been a very costly mistake,” he said.

“On the upside to glass from offshore locations,” he added, “quality seems to be improving.”

For labels, Davis said, “We have come to prefer plastic backs. Paper backing is more subject to tears. We have had a fair share of die-cuts being too deep: The label won’t peel off the way it should; the backing breaks and breaks and breaks. All this can eat up time splicing the labels back together.”

Koenig concurred: “On tricky die-cut labels, make sure the label is able to release from the web,” he urged.

Bill Huey, a wine label specialist at Labeltronix in Orange, Calif., cautioned, “Watch for cuts/nicks in liner paper.” He added, “Consider the bottle and wine temperature at time of bottling, then select label material accordingly.”

Paula Sugarman of Sugarman Design Group, Fair Oaks, Calif., advises her clients to always “work with a trusted printer to plan the project.” This will help achieve the desired look, get the best quality for the money and plan a realistic budget. To save time and money, look for an existing die-cut rather than creating an original, she suggested.

“Choose a printer who does scuff tests,” Sugarman added. “You don’t want the package looking shopworn before it gets the shelf.” To avoid scuffing, she said, “Always include a protective varnish.”

Early in the process, Sugarman recommended, “Connect the printer with the bottling line manager to coordinate guidelines and specifications for label application. Together, they will work to assure that things like roll diameter, label size and rewind position are correct.”

“Consider roll configuration using single or multi-roll layouts depending upon bottling line,” Huey said.

Sticky issues
Oughterson said he suggests several approved label companies and then contacts the selected vendor to work out which label, adhesive and backing paper will work for the application.

“Use proven wine label stock so you don’t have adhering problems,” said Patti Britton of Britton Design, Sonoma. “The adhesive for pressure-sensitive labels needs to be what works for the bottling line.”

Adhesives must remain appropriate after they reach consumers. “If your varietal is going to be in an ice bucket, make sure label stock is wet-strength,” Britton said.

“Specify wet-strength stock for white and sparkling wines,” Sugarman concurred. “This means the label will still look good after standing in water for a long time.”

Dave Schuemann, owner of CF Napa Brand Design, elaborated: “Wet-strength issues in both cold coolers and in ice buckets can be a struggle even when using wet-strength papers.” Sweating bottles can cause significant bubbling, he has found. Labels can fall apart or fall off completely, a definite branding deficit.

“We now recommend welded papers,” Schuemann said. A relatively new development of recent years, “These are wet-strength papers that have a layer of plastic sandwiched between the adhesive and the actual paper, which acts as a vapor barrier between the glass and the paper,” he explained. “Performance of these papers is fantastic and allows some labels to last hours—sometimes days—in ice buckets with good results.”

Size matters
You might think that larger or even wrap-around labels will provide more shelf-appeal, but that’s rarely the case. “Small labels are easier to apply,” Koenig pointed out. Reduced space between front and back labels (or multiple front labels) also can pose problems. “If they get close to each other, they highlight uneven horizontal application,” Koenig said. “The eye picks up the difference easily.”

“Large labels will find every imperfection in the glass,” Davis warned.

Van Wagner stressed, “Label applications need to conform to the bottle. Placing a large label on a tapered bottle will result in bubbling or wrinkling and impact the productivity of the bottling line.”

Tapered “Burgundy” shaped bottles are more challenging than traditional, straight-sided “Bordeaux” bottles. Britton noted, “The label shouldn’t be too tall for a Burgundy bottle: Otherwise, there will be wrinkling at the top or bottom of the label.” No matter what shape your bottle, “Make sure the bottling line can work with the shape of the label design.”

Huey said bluntly, “Total wraparounds only work if bottles are completely straight-sided.”

Schuemann noted: “The imperfections of so many low-cost wine bottles need to be considered in design. The size of the label often must be minimized, or helped by special die-cuts to fit a bottle and not bubble.”

CF Napa sometimes cuts a small dome out of the top and bottom of a label. “When on the bottle this is invisible, but slightly less material allows air to escape as the label is applied, and it can help significantly reduce the chance of bubbling during application.”

As part of a label redesign for St. Helena’s 75,000-case Duckhorn Vineyards, CF Napa engineered labels to fit the glass better. “Their old label was huge and wrapped a considerable part of the way around the bottle,” Schuemann recalled.

“This created havoc at bottling and also was a branding issue, since the brand name was not entirely visible from the front of the bottle.” A still large, but much smaller label not only solved application issues, it “saved them tens of thousands of dollars in paper costs over just the first press run,” he said.

Whether to emboss or deboss
Embossing to add textural interest is a now-familiar process, but debossing provides similar tactile appeal without potentially causing air bubbles to form during bottling. “Debossing creates texture by compacting the fibers of the label, literally making the label thinner in areas that are debossed,” said Dave Schuemann, owner of CF Napa Brand Design. Embossing pushes paper and adhesives up and away from the bottle, admitting air bubbles, he explained.

Whether embossing or debossing, Sugarman advised, “Get a test run on dies to be sure they meet design expectations.”

Proofing is paramount
“Knowing ahead of time exactly what you are going to get on press can be difficult, but there are a few tricks,” Sugarman said. “Better to do a test run than to print an entire job that isn’t quite right. If printing rotary offset or UV flexo, always get a dot-matched proof. It will be calibrated to the press that the job is printed on. Cost: $120-$220, depending on the size of the proof. It’s a wise investment. Always attend press checks for rotary offset or UV flexo printing.”

For digital printing, “The proof will be printed on the same press the job is run on. You’ll see exactly what you are going to get, and it costs very little,” Sugarman said.

CF Napa goes one further: “We always recommend that our customers get blanks to test on their lines or at the mobile bottler before printing,” Schuemann said. “A blank is the final label size, die-cut out of the paper stock used for the final print run, but without the printing,” he explained. “This is an inexpensive insurance policy to prevent unpleasant surprises,” especially when using unusual bottles or aggressive label textures.

Britton pointed out a few basic concerns that are often (disastrously) overlooked. “Have TTB approval before printing labels. Don’t have misspelled words on the back label. Have the correct UPC number on the bar code. Check to make sure someone else isn’t using your brand name.” Failure to do so may result in costly reprinting, relabeling or even rebottling.

Since, ideally, bottling is a one-shot affair, she added, “Give plenty of time for capsule production: Otherwise, you’ll be paying for air freight.” At the end of the line, shippers await the bottles—or they should. Make sure your corrugated or foam shipper is the correct size for your bottles. Similarly, Britton said, “If you are using a wooden box, have a sample made first to make sure the bottles will fit.”

Invest in timing
All these details of planning, timing and coordination may seem a daunting array, but wine people by nature must use these skills at every step during the life of their final product.

Few aspects of winemaking are predictable. Arranging for your product to reach its consumers in its most attractive presentation is something that can—and should—be planned in advance. It’s essential to building a sustainable business and, in the long run, a worthwhile investment. After all, time is money, so spend what you’ve got on wise planning.


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