Judging a wine beyond its label

For the casual consumer, there are an overwhelming number of different wines to choose from these days.

How many times have you been baffled by the new wines multiplying in your neighborhood store? You scan the bottles as if you were looking for a familiar face at a party. When none appears, you are reduced to pure instincts and do what your parents always cautioned you against — judge a wine by its label.

The international wine industry knows this scene plays out thousands of times a day all over the world. Label design is a serious and lucrative business. Millions of dollars are spent on market research to test what sizes, shapes, fonts and images appeal to specific demographic groups.

Considering the wildly popular “critter brands” like Yellow Tail, Monkey Bay and Little Penguin, many people take comfort in cute animals when selecting a wine they don’t know. According to the research firm AC Nielsen, in 2005 sales of wine with animal labels exceeded $600 million, or about 15 percent of the total U.S. market.

If you fall into this category (and even if you don’t), look for Washington state’s Covey Run and the quails on the label. A covey is a family or group of quail or partridges. The name is inspired by the many quail that live and frolic among the vines. (Insert your own Dick Cheney joke here.)

The grapes are grown in the Yakima and Columbia Valley appellations, which lie east of Washington’s Cascade mountain range. Winemaker Kerry Norton describes the region as a grape-growing “ecotopia.”

The expansive Cascades create what is called a rain-shadow effect that produces prolific rainfall west of the mountains (an average of 50 inches annually) but very dry conditions to the east (8 inches annually). Growing-season days are warm, but temperatures drop dramatically at night during the summer months, cooling the grapes before they become overripe. The resulting wines are generally well-balanced and very food-friendly.

Covey Run produces a wide range of fruit-forward, affordable wines: chardonnay, chenin blanc, pinot grigio, gew?miner, cabernet, merlot, cabernet-merlot and syrah. You cannot go wrong with any of their wines.

Despite the critical praise and widespread popularity, Irene Castillero, brand manager for Covey Run, admitted the label is focus-group tested. “We tested different designs and layouts, but people really preferred seeing the illustrations of two quails above our name.”

It makes one wonder how soon it will be before we start seeing animal mascots on the campaign trail. …

LaVallee is a public-affairs consultant for Susan Davis International and a certified wine buff. He can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.