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Critters on the label are key in US wine market

FUZZY EDGE Americans are buying wine with labels that feature animals more than twice as often as bottles without beasts, according to a new survey

AP , WASHINGTON

A fish, a monkey, a kangaroo -- Americans just can't get enough of the animals swimming, swinging and hopping onto wine labels.

In the super-competitive business of selling wine, animals give new brands an edge. When a beast is on the label, Americans buy a new wine twice as often as the competition, according to the marketing information firm ACNielsen.

Critters help labels stand out on crowded wine shelves. A curly tailed monkey swings across the label of Monkey Bay, a New Zealand brand. A loon paddles on the red-and-gold label of California's Smoking Loon.

A kangaroo -- actually, a yellow-footed rock wallaby -- helped start the trend. Introduced five years ago, Australia's Yellow Tail "was a spectacular success," said Danny Brager, vice president of ACNielsen's alcohol beverage team.

"And I think it taught the industry a lesson: You don't need to get bogged down into the details of wine pretension or snootiness to be a success, if you have the right product," Brager said.

Humble is the name of today's wine game. In addition to using colorful, funky labels, some of the hottest-selling wines have swapped their corks for screwcaps or are being sold in boxes.

California's FishEye Winery, which has a fish on the label, fits into that category. FishEye comes in 3-liter boxes as well as in traditional bottles.

It makes the wine less intimidating, said spokeswoman Laurie Jones. Approachable wines with memorable labels are able to attract consumers, especially when they're affordable, she said.

Most "critter" wines are priced between US$8 and US$12, according to ACNielsen.

It's more than just critters, said Jon Fredrikson, a San Francisco Bay area industry consultant.

Labels in general have grown more appealing, he said. There is Yellow Cab, which has a Checker yellow taxi cab, and there is Twin Fin, showing the back of a classic convertible at the beach.

"They've just become so much less intimidating and more approachable, especially to people who don't drink wine," Fredrikson said.

The taste of the wine has evolved in the same way, he said.

"The average American consumer doesn't want a big, tannic, heavy wine that requires aeration and maybe decanting," he said. "People want wines that you can open up and enjoy right now that are mellow, fruit-forward, kind of user-friendly wines that taste good and go well with food."

That's the story of Yellow Tail's success, said Roy Danis of W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd, which imports Yellow Tail. It sells for around US$6.99 a bottle.

"If they don't have a good experience drinking the wine, they're not going to come back, regardless of how pretty the picture is on the bottle," Danis said.

"The ultimate reason why people kept coming back was because we over-delivered on quality for that price point. Yellow Tail's success has to do with what's in the bottle," he said.

Annual sales of wines with animal labels or names reached more than US$600 million last year, ACNielsen said, while overall sales were nearly US$4.07 billion. ACNielsen records its sales data from supermarket point-of-sale purchases.

About 1,000 brands were introduced over the past three years, Brager said. Only about 400 had staying power. Of those, critter brands outsold the competition about two-and-a-half to one, Brager said.

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