The email landed in my inbox in early February, announcing a new wine released “just in time for Valentine’s Day.” I nearly ignored it, along with the other daily offerings of new exciting products and ideas for articles on travel, cocktails, exotic diseases and other things I don’t write about. But the name of the wine caught my eye:
Playboy California Red Wine Blend.
The label, a photo with the iconic ears, bow tie and bodice of the Playboy Bunny, was rendered in a gold mosaic against a black background. The wine is a limited edition joint venture of Playboy and Lot18, an online wine retailer, to mark the magazine’s 65th anniversary. It was “masterfully created by the team at Lot18 . . . for wine aficionados and Playboy fans alike,” the press release assured me, as though those two groups are mutually exclusive. The label artwork was created by the magazine’s illustrator Katie Bailie “as a gracious nod to Playboy’s heritage.”
I growled audibly as I mulled the possibilities. It has been a long time since I’ve written a full-fledged rant. It was too late for Valentine’s Day, as I’d already written that column. But really, who would serve a Playboy-branded wine at a Valentine’s dinner? I’m no Romeo, but what kind of message would that send your date? Holed up in your man cave with the dudes streaming sports on TV while revisiting your vintage magazine collection, maybe, but date night? And in the #MeToo era?
A sample bottle arrived a few days later. It sat on my kitchen counter for a couple weeks. I glared at it while opening dozens of wines I considered recommending to readers to spend their hard-earned money on. The label, showing the costume with just a suggestion of a woman, seemed to be flirting with me. So finally, I pulled the cork and poured myself a glass.
And darn, if it wasn’t pretty good.
Were there “flavors of cherry and dark fruits” and spice notes of vanilla and toasty oak on the finish, as the press release boasted? Perhaps. I was impressed by the wine’s balance of fruit and acidity. It was lighter than I expected, rather than the heavy, confected wines all too common these days.
The press release, label and website gave no information about the grape blend of the wine, but that may reflect current consumer trends. Perhaps today’s wine drinkers don’t care what grapes make up their wine, as long as the end product is delicious. The classical paradigms of Bordeaux or Rhone Valley blends matter less than the satisfaction the wine offers in the glass.
The wine industry (and dare I say, the wine media) would have us celebrate the artisan vintner, farming land her family has toiled for generations, crafting distinctive wines from grapes grown biodynamically, organically or sustainably without pesticides or herbicides and tended preferably on horseback, fermented by no added yeast other than the toe jam of the vineyard workers who trod the grapes, and ultimately “curated” by hipster sommeliers who — well, you get the picture. Or else there’s the tech giant or medical guru who is parlaying his large fortune into a smaller one by buying into the utopian ideal of the vintner’s lifestyle.
Most of us drink somewhere between these ideals, of course, adrift in the sea of swill, the plenitude of plonk that defines supermarket wines. The key is in finding the good ones.
That’s why importers contract with local cooperative wineries in Europe or elsewhere to produce private label wines. Costco’s Kirkland brand, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart’s W winemaker select labels are examples of retail chains producing private label wines that often show well against others in their price range.
Lot 18 is a New York-based company that is pushing against the traditional three-tier distribution system by selling wine directly to consumers over the Internet. Playboy isn’t its only wine — there’s also one based on Elvis Presley, as well as other more traditional sounding labels from wine regions around the world.
And here where’s my initial thought of a rant against the Playboy wine comes into play. There are all sorts of wines we know more for their clever labels than the wine inside the bottles. Some are marketed explicitly toward women: Mommy’s Time Out and the popular Bitch brand — with the usual marketing hyperbole replaced by the wine’s name repeated throughout the label — are popular examples. Others, like the Playboy blend, seem marketed more toward men. My inner wine snob would prefer a company spend its money on improving the wine’s quality rather than its marketing.
There’s an industry maxim that says the first bottle is sold by the label, while the second is sold by the wine inside. That second bottle will never be sold unless the first is. That’s why wine names have gone well beyond Chateau This and Domain That to emphasize the fantastical and the silly, as well as established brands such as Playboy. The competition for our dollars is more about what’s on the bottle, not what’s inside it.