Labels for the USA: Fable and Buitenverwachting

I had my first sighting of the new labels of Fable Mountain Vineyards this week. This is the winery that used to be Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards, was bought by American Charles Bank’s Terroir Selection and reborn as Fable – “Tulbagh” was deemed too much of a linguistic hurdle for the targeted United States market (heaven forbid any effort should be demanded of Americans!).

The welcome reintroduction of a bit of terroir into the name is accompanied by a wholesale redesign of the labels – out goes the cheap-looking, colourful vulgarity of the original “concept”, along with the names Bobbejaan and Lion’s Whisker, which are replaced by Syrah (yeah, well, safe enough) and Night Sky (huh? they clearly didn’t learn quite enough from the original disastrous nomenclature).

fableIt must have been a hugely expensive process, altogether, making and correcting the disaster. How the first labels and idea were ever accepted was something of a mystery to most outsiders right from the start (though Christian Eedes says he really liked them). A combo of downmarket “critter” labelling and Afro-kitsch, they seemed to me, betraying the seriousness of the excellent wines – and downright ugly to boot. But all, or most, is now fixed. The estate name is more respectable in that it suggests that it is a place rather than a marketing concept, and the new labels are … better, though not Anthony Lane’s greatest achievement..

Jackal Bird keeps its name, and it was a mock-up of the Jackal Bird that I saw, when winemaker Rebecca Tanner and viticulturist Paul Nicholls brought along a bottle of the delicious 2012 to a wonderful small tasting of new-wave chenin-based blends (of which I will write more), organised by Christian Eedes, who, I now glumly notice has also written about the new labels).  That’s the bottle in the grainy and bleached pic alongside, with Rebecca Tanner in the distance (the partial heads are those of winemakers Donovan Rall on the right of the pic and Suzaan Alheit on the left, in case you’re wondering).

I saw another of the Fable labels this evening, at the elegant Wade Bales wine and whisky jamboree in Cape Town. It was revealed to me that each label has its own pretty etching, only slightly kitsch this time (I think we must be pleased that Charles Banks is collecting wine terroirs rather than art, or there might be another collection like that at Delaire-Graff, packed with Dylan Lewis and Tretchikoff!). I believe the new vintages, with the new labels, will be out sometime in November.

Moved to verse , I wrote this pathetic limerick:

There once was a great wine called Fable,
But they gave it a terrible label.
It was ugly and kitsch,
But they noticed the glitsch
And amended it when they were able.

***

A different-but-similar story about difficult South African names and the Americans emerged when I had a pleasant lunch recently with Lars Maack of Buitenverwachting and veteran cellarmaster Hermann Kirschbaum (the other winemaker, Brad Paton, was away camping). Lars told me how his US importer had persuaded him to label the wine Bayten rather than Buitenverwachting for that market – and how, remarkably, the volume of sales had grown hugely, apparently as a direct result of this move. (It’s a disappointing and chastening lesson, but maybe worth absorbing.)

baytenI love the old Dutch-Afrikaans names of some of our historic farms. But you don’t have to be overly sympathetic to monoglot Yanks to accept the legitimacy of having trouble with “Buitenverwachting”. The estate’s solution seems to me to be both elegant and eloquent, and not at all a sell-out. The name “Bayten” comes across like a brand name of the estate, and there’s no denial of the full old Dutch glory of the name (which means, of course, “beyond expectation”).  In fact, “Buitenverwachting” appears twice, though small, on the front label alone. I think that Lars and his team have cleverly resolved what is a genuine problem with dignity and with respect for the truth.

How about another bad limerick?

“Buitenverwachting” was proving too tough
The marketing team had had quite enough.
Send the Dutch name to Satan,
Relabel it “Bayten” –
Now the Yanks just can’t get enough of the stuff!

***

Poor Chris and Suzaan Alheit, of Alheit Vineyards, also at the above-mentioned white blends tasting, are similarly confronting the nomenclature problem. No-one loves old vineyards, tradition and history more than they do – but when tinkering with names for a new wine, even they are realising, reluctantly, that the historically plausible “Bovogelfontein” might just not go down too well in London and New York.

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