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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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Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto working on his design for the 2014 vintage of Ornellia’s Vendemmia d’Artista series

Kevin Shaw, owner of dynamic drinks packaging design agency Stranger and Stranger, is more optimistic about the future of artist wine labels and their place in the industry. “Wine has had a connection with art ever since a winery owner commissioned his printer to engrave an image of his château onto a copper plate,” he says.

“Since then, there has been every kind of château image in every kind of style. And if you don’t have a château then how about a watercolour of the vineyards, or a woodcut of the rolling hills; anything that helps tell a story. All of these have been done to death, so it’s only natural for label art to have expanded to pastiches of old masters and Impressionists, then on to more contemporary abstract expressions,” he says.

“As a label designer, I love the added layer that fine art brings to a label, so much so that I’ve even had a forger on the payroll, and use art all the time to add style to the storytelling.”

English Pop artist Allen Jones’s design for Nittardi’s art series

One winery that has latched on to the power of contemporary art as a means of storytelling is New Zealand’s Brancott Estate, which enlisted the talents of young British artist Benjamin Craven, creator of this issue’s cover image, to give its Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc label a bold new look for a limited-edition release.

Taking the original label as his inspiration, Craven, known for his use of bright pastel colours and contrasting patterns, reimagined the New Zealand landscape as a series of interlocking geometric shapes.

“I wanted to bring the vibrant flavour of the wine and the Marlborough landscape to life in a fun, playful design that stays true to the original,” he tells db. In a truly modern union, Brancott first found out about Craven through Instagram.

Asked to create four unique labels, Craven found working within the confines of a tiny wine label too limiting, so ended up creating an A2-sized artwork, sections of which were cropped and rotated to become the final four label designs. designs with happy colours and summer pool scenes as a way to escape the grey.”

“I liked the way the mountains in the original label look like torn paper, which made me want to use a collage effect in my deconstructed twist on it,” says Craven, who counts Baroque sculptor Bernini, Andy Warhol and David Hockney among his artistic influences. Craven’s bespoke artwork for our July issue brings to mind Hockney’s A Bigger Splash.

“I get the Hockney comparisons a lot, which I don’t mind, as he’s a great artist that’s still chipping away in his eighties. I come from Leeds, which is bleak a lot of the time, so I fill my designs with happy colours and summer pool scenes as a way to escape the grey.”

For German art collector and gallery owner Peter Femfert, making the most of his art world connections proved a canny way to help him sell the thousands of bottles of Tuscan wine he inherited when he bought Chianti estate Nittardi in 1982. In a fitting twist of fate, keen to please his new Venetian wife with a dream home in the Tuscan hills, the art dealer struck upon a property once owned by Renaissance master Michelangelo.

When I took over the estate I had 15,000 bottles of wine to sell, and a good way of doing it quickly was by asking some of the artists I worked with to create two bespoke paintings for me, one to be used on the wine label and the other on the tissue paper to wrap the wine in, to give the project a point of difference from Mouton,” says Fermert, who has amassed a collection of 72 original artworks by the likes of Yoko Ono, Allen Jones, Karl Otto Götz and Alain Clément, many of which are on display at the estate.

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom by Ilya Repin appears on bottles of Arte Russe St Emilion

While he had to hustle hard at the start, his artist labels are now so well known that he has a waiting list of artists keen to join the Nittardi hall of fame. Like Mouton, Femfert lets the artists paint whatever they like, though this approach has occasionally landed him in hot water.

“An Austrian artist painted an erotic Bacchanal scene that I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell in America, so I had to ask him to go back to the drawing board,” he says. While clearly an opportunity to indulge his love of art, the artist labels have also been a huge commercial success for Femfert.

“We have a lot of keen collectors who await the release of the new label each year. I recently had a Japanese wine lover ask me if he could buy the whole collection, but we don’t have the stock left to be able to do it,” he says.

While Nittardi and Mouton work with international artists, Margaret River’s Leeuwin Estate uses its labels to shine a light on contemporary Australian artists.

Reserved for the most ageworthy wines from each vintage, Leeuwin’s Art Series has been going since 1980, with Western Australian artist Robert Juniper kicking off the series, which now comprises over 150 artworks by the likes of John Olsen, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker and Clifton Pugh.

Inspired by Mouton’s labels, Leeuwin’s founder, Denis Horgan, travelled to Bordeaux to ask for Baroness Philippine’s blessing to create his own art series focusing on Australian artists.

Rather than bespoke commissions, the majority of the works in the series are paintings bought by the estate at art fairs and through local galleries, which are then reproduced on the labels and displayed on rotation at the estate’s in-house art gallery.

Taking a more targeted approach, Super Tuscan Ornellaia asks artists to interpret the characteristics of vintages in its successful Vendemmia d’Artista series, which launched in 2009 with the 2006 vintage.

Keen for its labels to be a platform for collectible contemporary art, the series is the brainchild of Ornellaia’s CEO, Giovanni Geddes da Filicaja, who asks winemaker Axel Heinz to describe the character of each vintage in one word, which the chosen artist must use as the foundation for a series of original artworks.

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Thibault Pontallier of Pont des Arts with La Conseillante 2016 featuring Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue

Since its inception, Heinz’s buzzwords have included: ‘exuberance’, ‘energy’ and ‘equilibrium’, which have been interpreted by the likes of Rebecca Horn, Ernesto Neto, Zhang Huan and William Kentridge into weird and wonderful works of art, with inspiration coming from as diverse sources as shamanic rituals and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, to a pair of secateurs.

Tim Banks, Ornellaia’s sales and marketing director, believes the art series gives the Super Tuscan an important point of difference to other fine wines. “Contemporary art and fine wine are both forms of cultural expression, and our artist labels help to raise the consumer’s experience above a 100-point scale,” he says.

When asked if the artists are paid in money or wine, Banks’ reply implies both: “Few artists are philanthropists or teetotallers,” he quips. As well as featuring the artworks on one in every six of its 75cl bottles, with each new commission Ornellaia releases 111 large- format bottles, including 100 Jeroboams, 10 Imperials and a single nine-litre Salmanazar, individually signed and numbered by the artist, which attract attention at auction.

Sine Qua Non’s the 17th hole in my cranium designed by Manfred Krankl

Banks says that in the past decade, the series has been “instrumental in accelerating consumer awareness of Ornellaia and the value of the wines”.

While appealing to investors who may be keen to snap them up on release then flip them down the line, Ornellaia has also used the project as a way to give back to the art world. Since the art series launched, the estate has donated over £1m in charity auction proceeds to arts foundations around the globe.

While wineries are increasingly looking to the art world for inspiration, some are taking the matter into their own hands, quite literally, working as winemakers by day and artists by night. Dave Phinney of Orin Swift is one such Renaissance man. Not only is he behind some of the most lusted after wines coming out of California right now, he also creates all of the original artworks for his labels.

The collage label for his Rhône blend, Abstract, which features everyone from Elvis Presley and Ernest Hemingway to the Queen, took three years to compile and three weeks to create, while he produced a dozen different labels for his red blend, Machete, from a photoshoot in Calistoga, featuring a machete-wielding, bikini-clad model behind the wheel of a vintage police car.

Another such polymath is Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non in Santa Barbara, who, like Phinney, creates the label artwork for his highly sought-after Rhône blends. Like snowflakes, each Krankl label is unique, as he creates a new collection for each vintage, making the wines all the more desirable – they often sell for four times the release price on the secondary market.

“Almost everyone told me that changing every label every year was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard, but I’m happy to say they’ve been proved wrong,” Krankl told Wine Spectator in a 2014 interview.

Both a self-taught artist and winemaker, Austrian-born Krankl is known for his woodcut prints, having honed the skill by experimenting on the lids of wine cases. One of his most famous labels, The 17th Nail in my Cranium, was created after an empty wine barrel fell on his head, leaving a gash that required 16 stitches. The wine in the bottle is the 17th nail.

Universally understood, a number of producers are harnessing art’s ability to bridge the gap between cultures. In the case of Château La Grace Dieu des Prieurs in St-Émilion, Russian owner Andrey Filatov, a transport billionaire- turned-philanthropist, is keen to use his Bordeaux labels as way to give greater global exposure to Russian art.

Filatov is the owner of the Arte Russe Foundation, and is custodian of one of the world’s largest private collections of late-19th and early-20th century Russian art. Having snapped up Château La Grace Dieu des Prieurs in 2014, Filatov decided to merge his two passions in 2017 by creating the Arte Russe wine collection, which features reproductions of 12 paintings from his 400-strong art collection on the labels of the château’s grand vin each year.

La Conseillante 2016 with Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue on its label

To better show off the paintings, the wines are housed in short, wide bottles rather than the tall, slender ones usually used in Bordeaux, giving the paintings more room to breathe. For Filatov, illustrating the diversity and progression of Russian art with each new vintage is a key aspect of the project.

The collections are sold in cases of six, meaning those keen to collect all 12 labels need to buy two. The wines are highly sought-after – single bottles sell for €200 a pop in France. “One wine lover went as far as buying one of the artist’s paintings after seeing his work on a bottle of our wine,” says Filatov.

Another entrepreneur keen to build bridges in wine through art is Thibault Pontallier, the ebullient son of the late Paul Pontallier, Château Margaux’s long- standing managing director.

Together with his business partner, Arthur de Villepin, son of former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin, Pontallier created Pont des Arts in 2010; an ambitious project that seeks to combine the works of exciting contemporary artists with highly collectible small-parcel wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.

Asian artists have featured heavily in the Pont des Art releases thus far, with works by Zao Wou-Ki, Yue Minjun and Yan Pei-Ming all gracing the labels, alongside Spanish painter Miquel Barceló and the late Piet Mondrian. It took Thibualt two years to secure the rights to one of Mondrian’s works, but the wait paid off.

In May a six-litre bottle of La Conseillante 2016 emblazoned with Mondrian’s 1930 painting Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue sold for HK$62,500 (£6,291) at a Christie’s Hong Kong auction in May – over three times its estimate.

“The idea is to work with respected estates like Domaine de Montille in Burgundy that are keen to do a few barrels of something a bit different, so that we have something unique to sell. Apart from La Conseillante 2016, all of the wines we’ve sold have been our own blends,” says Pontallier, who is keen to collaborate with a cutting-edge American artist to help launch the project in the US.

Like the Arte Russe wines, Pont des Art releases new collections in cases of six, with each of bottle sporting a different design. Pontallier has bold ambitions for the brand, with projects in Piedmont, Tuscany and Napa in the pipeline, alongside a potential partnership with Burgundy’s Domaine Dujac. He’d also love to do a Champagne with a label by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, best known for her polka dots and psychedelic pumpkins.

With thousands of wines competing for our attention, an artist label with a genuine story behind it is a clever way of standing out. Much as people might not like to admit it, we do judge books by their covers, and a striking label can be as important as the liquid inside the bottle when it comes to selling wine. And while wine is designed to be drunk, those housed in bottles boasting beautiful artist labels are that little bit more likely to be kept long after the last drop is poured.

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