The wine industry has been corporatized and globalized as much as any other. But there’s one estate where the shots are still called by a single person at a family-owned shop: Château Mouton Rothschild, a member of wine’s most exclusive club, the five "first growths" of Bordeaux.
Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, now in her early 70s, has been running the show at Mouton since 1988. She doesn’t make the wine, but she makes the winery’s most visible decision. Each year she chooses an artist to create an original label for the bottle of the grand vin, the estate’s premier product. The tradition began in 1945 when her father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, celebrated the Allied victory in World War II by designing the label himself with an elegant V, and it has been carried on ever since, with Bacon, Picasso, and Warhol among those contributing designs.
The label series has no parallel in the wine world. It is a grand cultural experiment and evidence of one family’s pride — as well as an example of using fine art to market luxury goods. This year, Rothschild picked a painter of unparalleled power, both on the canvas and in the marketplace: Lucian Freud, who earned the distinction last May of being the most expensive living artist when his Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) sold for $33.6 million at Christie’s New York. No, there isn’t a mountain of ungainly flesh on the label of the latest Mouton release — the 2006 (high-end red Bordeaux is always aged before it’s sold). Instead, a colorful zebra is poking his head in from the right toward a potted palm. The label was unveiled and the wine officially released (it runs about $500 per bottle) in late February at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, in conjunction with an exhibition of all the original designs, running through March 8 at the Wolfsonian and Florida International University.
"What Lucian did was so smart," says the baroness, an effusive former actress, from her home in Paris. "He knew he couldn’t have a naked lady on the label of Mouton! His signature style wouldn’t work in this case. So he simplified." The zebra could be Freud’s far-fetched riff on the heraldic motif of two rams butting heads that was introduced by Rothschild’s father and continued by other artists.
As marketing goes, the process of picking the designer is decidedly old school. "There’s no real organization to it — I choose artists that I like," says Rothschild, a collector of Picasso and Pierre Alechinsky, among others. She doesn’t own any Freuds, but the 86-year-old artist is a friend of her cousin Eric, also the proprietor of a first growth: Château Lafite Rothschild. So arranging his participation was easy.
Not that she lacks for options for her grand project. "I get hundreds of artists every year saying they want to do the label," Rothschild says. "But they’re usually not well known enough or not talented enough."
Does the program translate into increased value for the wine? Probably not significantly. Peter Meltzer, Wine Spectators auction correspondent, says that according to the magazine’s Auction Index, Château Mouton Rothschild commands extraordinary prices in celebrated vintages such as 1945 ($8,138 per bottle on average), 1959 ($1,564 per bottle), 1982 ($825 per bottle), and 1986 ($625 per bottle). But the 1959 would be spectacular without Richard Lippolds starburst artwork, and Rothschild is the first to say that this is one book that shouldn’t be judged by its cover. "The bottom line is that the only thing that matters is what’s inside the bottle," she says. "If the wine is bad, the label means nothing."
In the lesser vintages, however, the images can make a difference, according to Jamie Ritchie, the head of North American wine sales at Sotheby’s. "People will often buy a wine just so they can have a complete set of labels," he says. Indeed, many high-end collectors prize "vertical" sets of Mouton bottles — one from each year.
Artists, of course, don’t know the quality of the vintage until the label is already affixed. The supremely talented Joan Miró found himself on the forgettable 1969, a year when no one in Bordeaux made very impressive wine, while John Huston, known for his film direction rather than his drawing, scored the legendary 1982.
In any case, the pay must go down easy. Following the custom established by Baron Philippe, the baroness recompensed Freud for his labors with 10 cases of wine in total: five of the Mouton 2006 that his work adorns and five of earlier years that are more ready to drink.
The artists seem happy with the arrangement. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, whose work graces the 2002, received some of the excellent 1989 (label by Georg Baselitz). "We’ve opened only one bottle," says Emilia, who adds that the main reason they participated was to be in such stellar company. "All the famous artists are there. It’s a very prestigious tradition."
So Mouton’s labels are a kind of marketing magic that burnishes reputations all around: of the wine, of the artists, and — if the first two are up to snuff — of the drinkers themselves.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.
"Freudian Sip" will appear as "Label Conscious" in the March 2009 issue of Art+Auction.