Wine labels created by famous artists are fitting for Rothschild

British artist Lucian Freud created this label for Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2006.

Associated Press

British artist Lucian Freud created this label for Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2006.

MIAMI BEACH

A new painting by British artist Lucian Freud was unveiled at a South Beach design museum, but it wasn't the only new work of art in the gallery. The other one combined hints of blackberry, white pepper and vanilla with toastier notes and rich tannins.

Freud was commissioned to create the label for the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2006.

When Baroness Philippine de Rothschild presented Freud's work recently at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, many eyes were directed downward to glasses of the freshly uncorked, garnet-colored wine from the vineyards northwest of Bordeaux, France, where the baroness' family has produced its famed claret for five generations.

"If we didn't have a wine of such unquestionable quality, we couldn't put paintings on the label," the baroness said.

While other vintners have produced distinct logos to draw attention on crowded store shelves, the Chateau Mouton Rothschild label relies on its tradition and elite reputation as it is redesigned for every vintage, said Marianne Lamonaca, the Wolfsonian's chief curator.

The baroness' father, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, commissioned poster artist Jean Carlu to design the label in 1924 to mark the first vintage bottled entirely at the chateau. He revived the art label with a victorious "V" by Philippe Jullian in 1945 to celebrate the end of World War II.

When the baron took over his family's estate in 1922, most wine labels simply stated a chateau's name. Choosing an artist to illustrate the label was one of his many innovations to modernize the winemaking traditions in the Bordeaux region, Lamonaca said.

"He said that winemaking is itself an art, with the kinds of decisions that go into making great wine," Lamonaca said. "He felt that having the work of artists on the labels was a fitting combination."

The baron initially intended to mark a historic event from the following year for the next label, his daughter said. In 1946, that event was Gandhi's death.

"Gandhi didn't touch a glass of wine!" the baroness said, chuckling.

So, the baron commissioned a pastoral scene by Jean Hugo. "He realized art was more important than history," the baroness said.

Since then, the chateau has commissioned work from a contemporary artist for each new vintage.

Many of the early labels were commissioned from Philippe's artist friends. Later, luminaries such as Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Francis Bacon contributed paintings.

Freud's label for the 2006 vintage — an image of a happy zebra head and a potted palm tree — playfully echoes similar elements from his 1944 painting The Painter's Room.

(Of course the red-and-yellow zebra is happy. Freud, like all the artists before him, gets cases of "his" vintage of Mouton Rothschild in lieu of a fee.)

The chateau has preserved each artwork in a shadow box along with related photographs, sketches or, in some cases, alternate paintings that ultimately were rejected for the top third of the ornately scripted label.

Artists who otherwise might have balked at seeing their work mass-produced were enticed by the chateau's reputation for elegance and sophistication, said Francois Lacloche, who designed the shadow boxes for the chateau.

"Freud is an old man, a famous artist — he has nothing to lose by being on a bottle," Lacloche said.

It may help that buying a Mouton Rothschild is akin to investing in art: Bottles of its premium vintages sell for hundreds of dollars.

Some artists played with images of grapes or the chateau's iconic ram. Keith Haring set two rams with spiral horns atop sharply angled legs on the 1988 label. Salvador Dali scribbled a ram's wool in curlicues for the 1958 vintage.

Others paid homage to the baron or his daughter, who has run the chateau's operations since 1988. Andy Warhol set two different portraits of the baron in splashes of pink, purple and lime on the 1975 label. Mirror images of Philippine's glamorously full locks and wide smile are sketched in Robert Wilson's 2001 label.

The label collection was first exhibited in 1981 and has been shown around the world. Despite the roster of major artists on display, the exhibition is not meant to be a collection of modern art.

Individually, each piece is a charming note from a talented friend. As a whole, the artworks blend together like the rich flavors in red wine, intensifying the character of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

Wine labels created by famous artists are fitting for Rothschild 03/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 3:30am]

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