In focus: The art of wine

While the worlds of wine and art have been linked for centuries, wine brands are increasingly looking to the art world for inspiration. Lucy Shaw finds out how the collaborations work, and why the resulting bottles are highly sought after.

Fine art and fine wine are enjoying a golden age at auction. In May, Meules, a painting from Claude Monet’s celebrated Haystacks series, fetched US$110 million (£87m) at Sotheby’s in New York – the highest sum ever paid for both a Monet painting and an Impressionist artwork.

Proving that contemporary art has equal pulling power, the same month Jeff Koons’ stainless steel Rabbit sculpture sold for US$91m at Christie’s in New York, allowing Koons to reclaim his title as the living artist with the most expensive artwork sold at auction, knocking David Hockney off the top spot, whose Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) went for US$90.3m last November. Being a perishable product, fine wine has yet to reach such dizzying heights at auction, but records continue to be smashed as prices soar.

Five bottles in Château Mouton Rothschild’s artist series

In April, Sotheby’s Hong Kong broke its own record for a private owner collection wine sale at its three-day event, which brought in a cool US$30m. According to Liv-ex, last year wine was a more stable investment than gold, with Burgundy emerging as the star performer.

Combining the compelling worlds of fine art and fine wine can prove incredibly lucrative, but there has to be a genuine reason behind the collaboration and an authentic story to tell; if it were as easy as simply slapping the Mona Lisa onto a bottle of Chianti Classico everyone would be at it.

The first winery savvy enough to realise that merging the worlds of art and wine could be both hugely enjoyable and profitable to boot, was Bordeaux first growth Château Mouton Rothschild, which, over the past 75 years, has commissioned some of the most influential artists of the 20th century to create bespoke artworks to adorn the labels of its grand vin, starting with the victory vintage of 1945.

The château’s hall of fame reads like a Who’s Who of eminent modern artists – Braque, Kandinsky, Chagall and Picasso all created artworks for the estate, while more recently Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Anish Kapoor and Jeff Koons joined the elite line-up.

It’s a roll call most wineries could only dream of, but the revered reputation of Mouton and its wines has allowed the château to cherry-pick who it would like to work with, paying the artists in cases of Mouton, including ‘their’ vintage.

Begun by Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1945, then passed on to his art-loving daughter, the charismatic Baroness Philippine, today the project is looked after by Philippine’s youngest son, Julien de Beaumarchais, who has the pleasure of picking the artist each year. Rather than working to a given theme, Mouton gives its artists carte blanche to let their imaginations run wild.

The only stipulation is that the work needs to be rectangular in shape, so that it will fit comfortably on the label. The size of the final works has ranged from postage-stamp tiny to 1.5m high. The results of this artistic freedom, according to de Beaumarchais, are “fascinating and dazzling”.

Mixed media artist Benjamin Craven redesigned Brancott Estate’s Sauvignon label

Miró took inspiration from the Rothschild racing colours of blue and yellow in his nautical-themed design, while Andy Warhol’s signature Pop Art style saw him create two line-drawing studies of Baron Philippe set against a bright pink background.

Many artists, from Salvador Dalí and Dorothea Tanning to Xu Lei more recently, end up returning to the theme of the house’s namesake – the ram. While most present the château with just one finished work, Dalí, David Hockney and Pierre Alechinsky offered Mouton a number of designs to choose from.

All of the works are kept by Mouton and are on display at a permanent exhibition inside the château. de Beaumarchais believes marrying the worlds of fine art and fine wine makes Mouton’s releases more enticing to collectors.

“Working with established artists undoubtedly enhances the value of our vintages, but I am not entirely sure what comes first, the artist or the wine. Saying that, when people drink a Mouton vintage, they often remember it for the artist’s label.”

The wines do well at auction. In 2015, a 66-bottle collection spanning 68 vintages from 1945 to 2012 sold for £295,000, while 25 limited-edition five-bottle cases, featuring the 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013 vintages, went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London this April for £750,000, with all proceeds going towards the restoration of the Nôtre-Dame de Paris.

Advertising mogul-turned-winemaker Sir John Hegarty, best known for creating the famous Levi’s laundrette advert in 1985, thinks Mouton’s artist labels have been so successful that any other wineries doing a similar thing end up looking like imitators.

“Mouton Rothschild established the idea of using famous artists to differentiate itself from other labels and to create an exclusive aura around their wine. If you follow that idea you are trailing in the wake of Rothschild. You are saying ‘we are like them’. You are not a brand leader; you’re a brand follower, and that is not how a great brand is born or maintained,” he says.

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