‘Waiter! A bottle of 1975 Warhol please’ – why every great artist has to do a wine label

Here’s a good pub quiz question: what do David Shrigley, Tracey Emin and, er, Prince Charles have in common? The answer is they’ve all painted works of art you can order in a restaurant. Because while a wine bottle may provide only the slenderest of canvases, that hasn’t stopped some of the biggest names in the world of art from daubing something onto the label’s few square inches.

The latest to do so is Olafur Eliasson, the revered Icelandic–Danish environmental artist who created a work for the 2019 vintage of Château Mouton Rothschild – a series of ellipses that form a ring charting the path of the sun in relation to the chateau’s location in Pauillac, south-west France. If you really want to understand the bond between fine art and fine wine, there is no better chateau to start with. Since its first artistic collaboration in 1924, the roll-call of names to grace its bottles is astonishing: Salvador Dalí doodled the winery’s ram emblem for the 1958 vintage, Jeff Koons modified a first-century Roman fresco in 2010 and, four years later, David Hockney provided an empty and full glass.

Other names to have graced its grape vestibule include – and you really need to take a deep breath here – Georges Braque (1955), Henry Moore (1964), Dorothea Tanning (1965), Joan Miró (1969), Wassily Kandinsky (1971), Pablo Picasso (1973), Andy Warhol (1975), Keith Haring (1988), Francis Bacon (1990), Lucian Freud (2006), Anish Kapoor (2009) and Gerhard Richter (2015). Prince Charles too, his watercolour landscape gracing the 2004 vintage, which celebrated 100 years of the Entente Cordiale.

Wine labels have existed for centuries – the jars buried with King Tutankhamun are said to have been etched with details about their vintage, region and even quality (the Vivino app was still in the pipeline at this point). But Mouton was the first to truly embrace the art, when a 22-year-old Baron Philippe de Rothschild decided to break with tradition and invite the designer of a Parisian theatre to create something new. That idea lay dormant while the Rothchilds were forced to flee France during the Nazi occupation. After restoring the vineyards damaged by German troops, Philippe revived the idea of artist-drawn labels, starting with a Churchill-inspired V for victory by the illustrator, novelist and dandy Philippe Jullian. A tradition was born and, should you visit the chateau, you can see all of the works in its Museum of Wine.

These days, Julien de Beaumarchais de Rothschild is in charge of commissioning the artworks, alongside his brother and sister. The criteria are simple: the art-loving family simply have to like someone’s work, although they “also consider their eminent position in the art world, which must be comparable to that of Château Mouton Rothschild in the wine world. The artists agree disinterestedly, because they do not need Mouton Rothschild to enhance their reputation.”

While the artists are given complete creative freedom, tracking them down isn’t always easy. For the 1982 vintage, Baron Philippe was determined to recruit the film director John Huston. His wife, Baroness Philippine, discovered he was filming Under the Volcano in an isolated part of Mexico accessible only by boat and, undeterred, she set off on her own. “She arrived,” says Julien, “in a place described as ‘unknown to men or gods’. But after three days there, she returned with a watercolour of a ram leaping in Dionysiac joy.”

Julien’s decision to involve Eliasson began, unsurprisingly, over a bottle of wine after the two met at an exhibition in Versailles. Eliasson’s willingness arose from his love of food and drink, which also have professional uses. “The kitchen at my studio,” he says, “plays a very important role with my team, acting as a kind of social glue, bringing people together around a table to exchange ideas. The prospect of turning a wine bottle into an artwork seemed an extension of that.”

His path-of-the sun-label reflected a desire to focus on the winemaking process. “I find it fascinating that every plant stores a bit of sunlight and soil in its leaves and fruit,” he says. “The environment is transformed into a liquid that you take into your body. This is worth reflecting on when you hold the bottle or take a sip.” Mixing alcohol with art can, of course, have its pitfalls. “I started work by having a glass,” says Eliasson, “but that produced nothing but silliness and fun. I decided not to have another – until I was done with the first sketch.”

Mouton Rothschild may have been the pioneer but, since the turn of the century, artists and wine have become a pairing as reliable as oysters and Chablis. Tracey Emin sketched a solo drinker for Mark Hix’s Portuguese Tonnix range; Rebecca Horn created a 3D kinetic sculpture of copper wire and mirrors around a nine-litre salmanazar of Ornellaia’s 2008 Super Tuscan; Yoko Ono’s design for Chianti Classico by Nittardi paid tribute to both the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who once owned the winery, and to John Lennon, with the words “Imagine You” underneath various vessels.

Some estates, such as Leeuwin in Australia, follow Mouton Rothschild’s lead with their own artist series. Contributions have included John Olsen’s Frogs in Riesling and an intoxicating abstract by aboriginal artist Jimmy Nerrimah for a 2013 Shiraz.

Ruinart also has an artist series. You might not think David Shrigley, with his strange childlike drawings and blunt wordings, was a great fit for the world’s oldest champagne house. But it let him loose on its range last year, allowing him to cartoonify the font and add some offbeat statements around the label that, he says, “they just about accepted”. His messages for the range included: “You can judge a bottle by the label”, “Worms work harder than us” and “Keep your filthy hands off our grapes”.

For Shrigley, designing a wine label was an opportunity for self-improvement. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to get to go to Reims and meet a cellar-master and develop a deep understanding of how champagne is made otherwise.’ You end up learning an awful lot about stuff.”

While not unaware of other, er, motivations (“We got to eat lots of nice food and drink lots of very good champagne”) Shrigley saw the project as a necessary step for himself as an artist. “If you’re just left to your own devices then, after a certain point, you have much less to make art about. Left to your own devices, you’re never going to go out and make art about grapes. It was an opportunity to change a little bit.”

While it was a nice career interval for Shrigley, for others it’s an all-consuming part of their life. Dave Phinney is the winemaker at Orin Swift, producing deep Californian reds and elegant whites. He grew up around galleries but was also immersed in the LA skateboard/punk scene in the late 80s and early 90s.

So when it came to releasing his first wine, an inventive zinfandel blend called The Prisoner, he wanted to make a statement by using a modified version of The Little Prisoner by Goya. The Spanish painter’s etching of a crouched figure in shackles is not, it’s fair to say, the most immediately commercial image that springs to mind.

“Everyone told me it was a horrible idea,” says Phinney, laughing. “My father-in-law is in the wine business and he almost forbade me. ‘You can’t do that!’” But his take on this unsettling look at human brutality was a success. “That gave us the confidence – and artistic licence – to continue.”

Since then, says Phinney, Orin Swift has treated label-making as seriously as wine-making. And he’s not joking. Phinney knows of three Orin Swift drinkers who have tattoos of the company’s labels, a fact that reflects the amount of work that goes into them. For its red blend Machete, a photography shoot that was supposed to be over in a matter of minutes ended up taking three days.

Creating the artwork for the winery’s Abstract wine was an even bigger labour of love. Inspired by a collage he saw in an Italian fashion magazine, Phinney decided to make his own from all the pages of magazines and books he’d torn out over the years. “I thought, ‘How hard can it be? I’ve got the photos and an idea.’ But it was way more difficult than I thought – how the colours interact, how the images interact, was a real puzzle.”

By the end of the first day, he’d only completed a tiny fraction of the collage, so he emailed all his staff telling them to work from home until he was done. By the time the collage reached its finished size, around 5ft by 12ft, he had to build a scaffold just to photograph it.

Then there were the potential issues with intellectual property rights: his lawyer advised him to sign the finished collage and sell it to his wife for $1 so it was considered an artwork and therefore allowed more leeway with all the photographs it contained. That wasn’t the end of the story: Phinney has since pieced it all back together, fixing things that bothered him, then placed it between two huge pieces of transparent lucite. And now he’s looking for a metal-worker to frame it, so the work can be displayed. “It will need a base of about half a ton to offset the weight,” he says.

Having the artwork in this form has unexpected benefits: when Phinney saw the reverse side, he used that as a label for one of Orin Swift’s members-only wines called Inside Out.

If this sounds obsessive, that’s because it is: obsession is what makes good wine and good art. But it’s not just about obsession. Both endeavours require patience, an understanding of the world and its rhythms, an ability to express something in a new a way. After speaking to Phinney, I wondered if he was just as much an artist as a wine-maker. Then I realised that maybe they’re the same thing.

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