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Winemakers Rely on Lions and Tigers and Bare ... Marilyn Monroe to Sell Their Bottles of Red and White

Can a monkey convince you to buy a certain wine? How about Marilyn Monroe?

A number of winemakers believe they can, and so-called “adventure” or “lifestyle” wines — those with fun labels and catchy names — have been pouring into the market in recent years.

Images of a scantily clad Monroe are splashed on the bottles of Marilyn Wines’ Marilyn Merlot. Colorful monkeys grace the labels of Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Papio varietals. Twin Fin Chardonnay has a Cadillac driving on a beach with a surfboard sticking out of the trunk, and an abstract illustration of a red guitar festoons bottles of Red Guitar Navarra.

Industry analysts say the segment is a push to get younger buyers — the 21- to 29-year-old "millennials" — to consume wine and lure them away from drinking the traditional entry-level alcoholic beverage: beer.

"The barrier to [the] young demographic is the complexity of the industry," said UBS senior beverage analyst Kaumil Gajrawala. "The critter labels and some of these labels that make wine a little more fun have broken down the barrier."

One of the most risqué such wines is Coopers Creek Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand — called “Cat’s Phee” in the United States to make it less offensive — which has a cartoon of a demonic-looking gray feline on the label and, obviously, a very attention-getting name.

“There’s no doubt that the label plays an important role in the purchasing decision,” said Ben Dollard, president of Pacific Wine Partners, a division of Constellation Wines — which produces Monkey Bay, Papio, Twin Fin and Red Guitar. “I think there’s a place for these wine labels. They appeal to an audience that maybe hasn’t enjoyed wine in their everyday life before.”

There are no statistics available on how this specific segment of the market is doing in terms of sales, according to Jon Frederikson at the independent wine consulting company Gomberg, Frederikson & Associates. But he said the trend goes back almost a decade, and has piggybacked on another one that's made wines less intimidating: referring to them not by region as was once almost exclusively the case, but by the name of the grape or varietal (i.e. Sauvignon blanc, Pinot noir, etc.).

"Those names brought a common denominator for people to understand wine types," said Frederikson. "Before, they had regional names, which were very hard for people to understand. Labels have come down to earth as have wine styles to make them more user friendly and approachable."

One of the most well-known wines in the mesmerizing-packaging segment is Yellow Tail — written as [yellow tail] on the label — whose logo is a multi-colored kangaroo and whose staggering success has inspired countless copycats. About 7.5 to 8 million cases of Yellow Tail wines are sold in this country annually, according to Frederikson.

“Look at their track record on the U.S. market,” said John Gillespie, a partner at Wine Colleagues, a consulting firm that has Marilyn Wines as a client. “For a long time, it was the fastest growing brand.”

But some wine aficionados approach with skepticism any bottles of red, white and rosé adorned with dazzling labels, whether they sell well or not.

"It's good for the wine industry in that it opens it up to a huge group of people that would never try wine," said Kelly Scanlon, 39, who has taken advanced and intermediate certificate-level classes at the International Wine Center in New York. "But for more educated consumers, it's probably more of an annoyance. It's very basic wine."

And some ordinary wine drinkers don't seem to be jazzed about the fun-labeled wines, either.

“Would I buy them? No,” said Lily Stoyanovski, 38, of San Francisco, who regularly attends wine tastings in Napa Valley. “I’d always buy the one I think would taste better: the cleaner label wine.”

New York psychologist and wine enthusiast Evan Schwalbe, 33, said wild labels make him wonder about what’s inside the bottle.

“That’s the first thing I would question: Is it cheap wine being marketed to the masses rather than to someone looking for a fine wine?” he said. “It kind of tarnishes the image a tiny bit.”

The producers of adventure wines insist that crazy labeling isn’t just a marketing ploy used at the expense of quality.

“If those wines weren’t of quality, we would never get another purchase — ever,” said Dollard. “I don’t think because it has a fun label or somewhat contemporary positioning that it should be in the ‘low-quality’ bucket.”

Gillespie echoed those sentiments, and said Marilyn Merlot consumers weren’t just average Joes with no taste.

“Our base tends to be daily drinkers of wine and people who buy more expensive wines,” he said. “Take the label off and pour the wine, and the wine is terrific.”

Scanlon, the wine student, said that while there isn't a hard-and-fast rule linking quality and labeling, there is a tendency for the lifestyle segment to fall into a different category in terms of complexity and consumer base.

"There is a connection between labeling and quality — it's not absolute or 100 percent, but generally you can draw a correlation," she said. "I don't want to say they're not quality wines, but they're not going to be high-end, more sophisticated, structured wines. The marketing isn't appealing to that sort of consumer."

But Gajrawala, whose company, UBS, has had Constellation Wines as a client, said the fun-label segment is not dumbing down the industry from a business standpoint. If anything, he said, it's making American drinkers of alcoholic beverages more sophisticated by introducing them to wine at a much earlier age than has previously been the case.

"That demographic would be drinking beer otherwise," he said. "It's bringing an incremental consumer to the category, which is a good thing for the industry — even though it might not blend well with its traditional or historical image."