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The Art of Wine: Inside the World of Label Art

The Art of Wine: Inside the World of Label Art
December 14, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Christie's

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Many wine enthusiasts might consider a stellar vintage a work of art, painted on the palette with thoughtful brushstrokes. In some cases though, the bottle's label itself - the smallest of canvases - is an actual artwork.

Château Mouton Rothschild offers the richest tradition of commissioned labels, with famous artists adorning bottles since 1945. Featured artists include Dali, Picasso, Warhol, Haring, Koons, and Hockney, among many others. Even Charles, Prince of Wales - now King - designed a label in 2004. The art adds a new dimension of collectability, expanding beyond admiration for the wine itself.

The idea was born from Baron Philippe's belief that art and wine go together. Indeed the two categories sit atop the collectible ecosystem in sophistication and high-society acceptance. Criteria for an artist's selection reflects this position, as the winery considers only those artists who boast a similar stature in the art world to Château Mouton Rothschild in wine; in other words, no selected artist is in need of Chateau Mouton Rothschild's promotion. Conversely, Mouton's wine needs no help from the artist.

The artist reveal itself is an occasion of celebration. Just last week, for the recently revealed 2021 vintage, Christie's auctioned an assortment of formats featuring the label of Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota, along with an invitation to the 2022 reveal at the estate. That package sold last week for €237,500 against a wide estimate range of €30,000 - €200,000. The price isn't particularly accessible, but not everyone needs a nebuchadnezzar, an imperial, a double-magnum, three magnums, and six bottles of the same wine. Although in talking about $250,000 wine, we've left the realm of "need" altogether.

The Shiota selection is not a case of riding a hot market. The artist's auction record of $395k, established in 2021, is not dramatically more expensive than the 2021 vintage assortment, and just one of her top 20 auction sales has come in 2023. But she suddenly finds herself in the company of some of the best selling artists ever.

However, owning a Château Mouton Rothschild vintage can be one of the more accessible (used relatively) ways to own the work of those celebrated artists, albeit in a format produced to an extent that would make most prints & editions blush. But Andy Warhol was no stranger to prints & editions, and a magnum of the 1975 vintage displaying his label recently sold for €750. Prices for the Mouton Rothschild generally outstrip 1975 vintages from other First Growth producers.

The same can be said of Salvador Dali's iconic 1958 label, which is slightly harder to find and often starts in four-figure territory for 750ml bottles. Pablo Picasso was selected posthumously in 1973, with the work chosen from Baron Philippe's personal collection to ensure his inclusion. Magnums cross over $1,500, though single bottles remain accessible.

Time and time again, even when the Château Mouton Rothschild scores lower than peers critically, observers point to the label as a catalyst driving prices to levels competitive with or in excess of other First Growths. This pattern sometimes holds true even in the absence of a famous artist: the 2000 vintage sells well due in no small part to its beautiful gold enamel relief of the Augsburg Ram, a Mouton motif. To the wine aficionado, it's probably a little like a non-sports-fan picking a team to root for in the "sportsball game" based on the uniforms. But if there are no intentions of consuming the wine anytime soon, aesthetics count for something, particularly when the vintages stack up well against the field critically.

And that's the key: it's never the label alone commanding high prices. It's simply an additive attribute. With or without the work of Warhol or Dali, Mouton remains a prominent First Growth producer.

But the art without the wine can still draw spirited bidding. Much as original card art or photographs can sell for premium prices, Keith Haring's original art for the 1988 vintage sold at Christie's in 2017 for $87,500, handily outperforming a $20,000 - $30,000 estimate despite it being a small work on paper.

Labels by esteemed artists aren't exclusive to Mouton Rothschild, though they are often more broadly commercial in nature than dearly collectable. Yayoi Kusama collaborated with Veuve Cliquot on La Grande Dame 2012 as part of a gift box. Tracey Emin sketched the label for Tonnix, a Portuguese red priced not much higher than $10. Yoko Ono designed the label for a 2005 Chianti Classico by Nittardi, a $20-30 bottle.

But none can compete with the acclaimed partnership between stellar First Growth wine and top tier art offered by Château Mouton Rothschild. Who will add their name to the list of global superstars selected to grace a Mouton label next? Whispers (produced only by us) suggest the odds are shortening on Gary Vee and his Responsive Ram from Veefriends.

Baron Philippe would roll over in his grave.


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