By Bill Marsano. This perplexing book is beautifully produced and generously proportioned. The publisher has given his all (not without hope, however, of getting it back--note the price). It's most impressive. So why is it also rather disappointing?
Frankly, it's because we are led to expect too much. Title and subtitle suggest a richly informed and wide-ranging survey of label art from many sources over many decades. In fact the coverage spans just a few years, a few places (nearly 85 percent of the designs are from California) and two designers (Jeffrey Caldewey and Chuck House, who are pre-eminent in their field). And the subject isn't art but label and package design: in short, sales tools. Even the title is a pretentious flim-flam. 'Icon' means either 'sacred image,' which is hardly justified here, or those vulgar little cartoons that offend the eye on computer screens the world around. Surely they didn't mean <that>?
Then revelation comes: Icon is the name of the design firm headed by Caldewey and House. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is a glorified promotional brochure.
Within those rather severe limitations this is a pretty attractive coffee-table production. Each of the more than 100 wines shown has its own page and is shown in full--the whole 'package,' not just the label. Some are delightful, charming, friendly and fun, notably those of Bonny Doon (whose owner is the famously humorous Randall Grahm), Frog's Leap, Gundlach Bundschu, Honig, Whitehall Lane and (too few) others. Elsewhere, elegance is to be found, as is cutting-edge stylishness--and, unfortunately, other labels that seem prim and merely dignified, as if standing on ceremony.
Each package portrait faces a page with a blessedly brief paragraph of odd facts, high-flown hooey and grammatical lapses (one wonders about the editing here; the first error, although admittedly minor, occurs in the very first line of the introduction). By hooey I mean insider designer prattle like 'the five-sided label . . . represents the five grape varietals used in the blend.' To me, symbolism fails when the designer has to explain it. Especially because this selfsame label clearly lists not five but <four>. Or 'A separate aureate banner proclaims the wine's reserve pedigree.' 'Aureate'? Oh, you mean gold-colored or gold-tone? 'Banner'? Oh, that's the tacky little strip made to resemble, complete with nail holes, the brass title tags found on ancient picture frames. Frankly, a designer still using such old-hat stuff in 2000 has more reason to blush than to boast.
One important point that does come through is that good design isn't simply "dreamt up" but discovered and developed from facts and artifacts specific to each project. A good example is the elegant Lewelling label, inspired by the 19th Century calling card of the winery's founder. Another is Whitehall Lane's, based gloriously on the melted-crayon artwork of the winery owner's three-year-old daughter.
Wine geeks will love this book and so will designers. Ordinary wine-drinkers will enjoy a quick riffle or two but then are likely to leave it on the coffee table and forget about it.--Bill Marsano is an award-winning writer on wines, spirits and travel.