Tim James: Against silly wine names

September 14, 2015
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 8 Comments
Blankbottle Confessions of a White Glove Chaser


Has anyone else noticed the rash of silly phrases being given as names to wines? Blankbottle’s “Confessions of a White Glove Chaser” (a cabernet) is one of the most egregious examples. Sadly, I suspect we’re just at the beginning of a bizarre, artificial and irritating trend.

In dear old classic Europe, the largest word on a label is usually the appellation, the area from which the wine comes, with even the producer’s name sometimes so reticently placed as to be almost hard to find. The idea that the Chaves, say, could give their Hermitage a whimsical name – let alone a whole whimsical phrase – is horrifying, but fortunately unimaginable. Terroir still counts there for more than ephemeral marketing fashions.

In the New World, place name is usually subordinate to both producer name and variety name. This was a great breakthrough of honesty, which first became dominant in the USA, and importantly replaced the aping of European appellations. The use of more or less fanciful names took hold mainly for blends where varietal naming was impossible or too unwieldy. That’s generally been the case here too, though the imaginative naming of single-variety wines has also become commoner. Mostly the names have been nicely discreet and elegant – often enough just “Estate Red”, “Proprietor’s Reserve” (a rather American formulation, that, I think), but otherwise generally a name that has some significance to place or aspiration or history – Botmaskop, Aristargos, Three Soldiers, Columella, etc.

There were occasionally some strange, perhaps poetic names, but they were few, and didn’t get much beyond Bruce Jack, in fact, with his Flagstone wines called things like Music Room Cabernet Sauvignon and Writer’s Block Pinotage.

But now, look what’s happening. These are a few that I’ve noted recently:

• Louis Nel’s sauvignon and cab on the CWG auction are called, respectively, A Thousand Kisses Deep and Living in the Past.
• Giant Periwinkle (OK, even the winery name is a bit odd, but it is meaningful given its Agulhas orientation) has Old Lady on the Corner Pinot Noir.
• Lorraine has a Love of my Life Pinotage Rosé, which is admittedly not as ridiculous – but only just.

It’s clearly not just a local thing, as I see that Richard Kelley, a Brit, has adopted the practice pretty universally for his range of Cape wines for export. Each name is rather more ghastly than the last, culminating in a white blend called Doctor Melck and the Spiders from SARS. And no, I’m not in the slightest bit interested in knowing why it’s called that – I just wish it weren’t! It seems so arch and contrived….

But Richard is a seasoned marketer of wines, and doubtless has good commercial reason for this silliness (and I’m just an old fogey). Same goes for Peter Walser and his usually very good range of Blankbottle wines. But I certainly wouldn’t be keen on buying, and would never order off a winelist, say, wines called Epileptic Inspiration, or Casting for Chris and Becoming Paul.

I first became properly alerted to this trend at the launch of Duncan Savage’s latest wines a few months back. Duncan too! It‘s getting serious, I realised. Duncan’s original pair were modestly (and with an admirable lack of imagination, let alone of vulgar showiness) called, Savage Red and Savage White. Now we have a blend called Follow the Line. Again, I don’t care why, I’m just irritated, despite the charming labels. Duncan’s Syrah is called just Syrah – but we’re warned that future vintages will be The Girl Next Door. Perhaps she knows the Old Lady on the Corner. I wish they’d cross the bloody street together and get run over by a taxi.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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  1. Tim JamesSeptember 17, 2015 at 9:29 amReply

    Vdb – I can’t see any “personal slur” in these light-hearted comments. As for these self-righteous comments about the relative importance of what’s in the bottle – well, whoever said anything different? Certainly not me. I have written extremely favourably about some of these wines. The Louis Nel CWG sauvignon I mentioned as one of my favourites. and the CWG version of Follow the Line too. Giant Periwinkle is a producer I admire. As is Blankbottle. Surely that doesn’t disqualify me from talking about a trend that I find trivialising when it comes to serious wines? (Though I did intend it all a bit less seriously than some people have taken it – a slur, surely not?)

    And the irony is, in fact that people who use these arguably silly names are, I’d say, the ones who are implicitly suggesting that the labels are more important than what’s in the bottle, and attracting attention via them rather than via what’s in the bottle.

  2. VdbSeptember 16, 2015 at 11:59 amReply

    Hi Tim,

    Have you ever stopped yourself to ask where these “silly” names come from? I’m sure there are some of them which are pretty arbitrary- however the majority, I’m certain, have interesting stories to tell. Whichever, doesn’t matter.

    Considering alcoholic beverage economics, it’s quite clear that wines not only compete with beer and spirits, but also vehemently amongst themselves. This obviously creates the incentive for winemakers (especially boutique) to set themselves apart from the well established and famous wine empires.

    There is nothing wrong with being a purest, by all means I can relate. Although this article feels like nothing more than a personal slur against some alternative and progressive winemakers.

    I agree with Bernard: It’s what’s IN the bottle that matters at the end of the day. However, if the wine producer can craft a product which is congruent on the IN- and OUTSIDE it has the potential to become a ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ (a complete work of art.)

    You start the article off by “Blankbottle’s “Confessions of a White Glove Chaser” (a cabernet) is one of the most egregious examples,” which is quite ironic if you read this article on the same website:


    I rest my case, and kudos to the winemakers out there with the “audacity” to push the boundaries in the world of wine.

  3. Tim JamesSeptember 16, 2015 at 8:49 amReply

    Rumour, Rick, and word of mouth – the marketer’s best friends! By the way, I’ve just learnt of a few more for Bernard and other fans to look out for. An outfit called Rosendal Wines has two wines in its Noble Nomad Range: “He Stole my Horse” and “He Slept under the Stars”. A witty aspect of the latter, that the Widow admittedly enjoys, is that the name in printed upside down on the label. (You can see them here: http://www.rosendalwines.com/collections/noble-nomad.) I do suspect that if this virus spreads wildy , and the ante keeps on getting upped, nomenclature will be obliged to revert to older, less baroque traditions.

  4. Tim JamesSeptember 16, 2015 at 8:27 amReply

    Hey Bachus – I like that! Larfed out loud.

  5. Rick, The Cape CrusaderSeptember 16, 2015 at 12:16 amReply

    But with all respect ‘Bachus’, the Widow is very well informed. Doctor Melck and the Spiders from SARS has yet to see the light of day so I wonder, therefore, how she knew of its existence…? Thank God she didn’t hear about the newly created ‘Abraham and the Heretics’ Pinotage before the penning of this article otherwise poor old AIP would be turning in his grave…
    Rick, The Cape Crusader

  6. BernardSeptember 14, 2015 at 6:55 pmReply

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your interesting article and blog.I don’t have any issue with quirky or interesting labels and names at all really. All the wines you just mentioned I actually actively seek out because its different. It’s the contents of the bottle that matters at the end of the day. And if their egregious names get some publicity, be it negative or positive, the production team probably succeeded. It also adds a fun talking point with the in-laws.
    The french wine labels (to grossly generalise) are often quite boring and similar looking. Some resemble old public health hospital entrances with names that are not memorable to the average wino.

  7. BachusSeptember 14, 2015 at 10:34 amReply

    Why did the Old Lady and The Girl Next Door cross the road and Follow the Line?

    To avoid the grumpy old widow.

    • Pierre RabieSeptember 16, 2015 at 1:12 pmReply

      Loved the comment Bachus!. The Old Lady is 92 years old and she lives in Bredasdorp. She bested me (the advocate) in a quasi-legal battle. Would love to tell you the story Tim, while we have a bottle of my Sea Witch Pinot or Kelp Forest Syrah or Oupa Pierre se Steen.

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