California’s well respected Kenwood winery introduced a premium series of wines with a label bearing a specially commissioned work of art. For 1975, the first vintage in the series a small strip across the top of the label had Californian artist David Lance Goines’ ‘Hillside’. The label was rejected as being ‘obscene and indecent’ because just noticeable was the outline of a tiny female nude lying on the hillside. The label was resubmitted with a skeleton instead but that too was rejected and a bare hillside was used instead. Twenty years later the label was resubmitted and accepted.
Artistic nudity has been a recurring problem. The most famous was Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s 1993 vintage which had a pencil sketch of a reclining nude. The winery didn’t even bother submitting the label and a plain background was used on wines exported to the USA. Today the blank labels are collectors’ items.
It wasn’t just nudity that ran foul of the censors. New Zealand winery Cooper Creek’s popular ‘Cat’s Phee on a Gooseberry Bush’ Sauvignon Blanc bore that name only in the USA where the authorities demanded an unnecessary ‘h’ added to the second word.
Decisions sometimes seemed arbitrary. Some years ago I visited Americana winery in New York’s Finger Lakes. They had a range of wines with patriotic labels but when they resubmitted a label for a new vintage it was rejected because it had an image of George Washington, although the same label had been approved for previous years.
In 2003 the approval process was reorganised, and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as TTB took over from the Bureau of Alcohol Tax and Firearms (BATF). Label approval could be done online and TTB took a much less restrictive attitude. It has been under the TTB that there has been an explosion of inventiveness in American wine labels.
Individual states can ban wines because they don’t like perfectly legal and approved labels. Bonny Doon’s punning ‘Cardinal Zin’ Zinfandel with a cartoon by Ralph Steadman was banned in Ohio on religious grounds.
In 2009 Alabama withdrew their previous approval from Cycles Gladiator which uses an antique painting of a nude lady flying with a bicycle. Hahn Family Wines, who own the brand, weren’t too upset because news of the banning caused sales to quadruple nationwide.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.