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Vintners are learning that wine by any funky name may sell as well

SONOMA, Calif. -- Would you pour a glass of Marilyn Merlot? How about pulling out some Screw Kappa Nappa for that next college reunion?

Wine labels, once dominated by ornate script and just as fancy verbiage, have gone from frumpy to funky.

``It's making wine less elitist, and it's making wine fun," said Paul Dolan, partner in Mendocino Wine Co., whose labels include Tusk 'N Red and Big Yellow, a cab, of course.

A quarter-century ago, wine names stuck to the classics, as vintners tried to establish brands and teach customers there was more to wine than red or white. Now, with most US consumers familiar with at least the big four grape varietals -- chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc -- and with a lot more wine competing for market share, the dynamics of naming have shifted.

Like the critter labels, or wines named after animals, oddball labels aim to start a conversation with consumers.

``It's easier to remember a dancing bear than a multisyllabic Italian last name," said Donny Sebastiani, a proprietor in Don Sebastiani & Sons. The company came out some years ago with the quirkily named Smoking Loon and has branched out to Gino DaPinot, Used Automobile Parts, a blend of five Bordeaux varietals grown in the Napa Valley, and the cork-free Screw Kappa Napa.

Speaking in the viticultural vernacular stems from the drive to attract younger consumers, who are becoming more interested in wine, according to various surveys, said Linda Bisson, a professor in the wine department at the University of California at Davis.

``The word I've heard most about the kind of marketing appeals they respond to is `kinky,' " Bisson said. ``The name jumps out at them off the shelf, and they go, `Oh, what is this?' "

Names like Fat Bastard, an elder statesman of wacky wines, which goes back to 1996 and is imported from France by Click Wine Group of Seattle. Or Marilyn Merlot, which has been around for 20 vintages and is one of a number of wines offered by Napa Valley-based Marilyn Wines under agreement with the estate of the late actress.

Some consumers are wary of fanciful names.

Paul Homchick, a San Francisco marketing director who writes about fine wine and more at www.sweetandsourspectator.org, gets suspicious when he sees an outrageous name, wondering if ``they named it that way because there was no other way to market it." Still, he was pleasantly surprised to find he liked a wine called The Chocolate Block from the Boekenhoutskloof winery in South Africa.

In fact, playing the name game can be tricky, said John Locke, spokesman for the Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, a well-respected winery known for a long tradition of nutty nomenclature including The Heart has its Rieslings.

``Our fondest wish is that people would know us primarily or almost exclusively for the rapturous quality of our wine, and that's what we spend most of our time thinking about," he said. ``But we've got to be us, and it would not be like us to put a conventional, pedestrian, banal, and/or pretentious label on our wines."

Sometimes a name is just too out there.

Bisson recalls having labels made for some merlot produced from the UC Davis vineyard in Oakville. Everything looked great. The script was elegant; the lettering gold. Just one problem: Due to a printer's mixup, the wine was labeled not as mellifluous merlot, but by a much less appetizing name: Melrot.

They reprinted the labels.

Loony labels

Here's a look at some unusually named wines.

TUBBY TRAILBLAZER: Fat Bastard. The wines are from the Languedoc region of France and are imported by Click Wine Group of Seattle. The name comes from a winemaker's exclamation after trying a satisfactory barrel sample.

PIN-UP POWER: Marilyn Wines, from Napa Valley, are made under an exclusive agreement with the estate of Marilyn Monroe. Royalties go to The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York and the Anna Freud Centre in London. Labels feature photographs of the actress and other wines in the Marilyn Wines portfolio include Marilyn Cabernet, Norma Jeane, A Young Merlot, and the Marilyn Velvet Collection.

ZINFUL EXCESSES: 7 Deadly Zins, a blend from seven Lodi-area growers, from Michael-David Vineyards. Also striking a moralistic note, Pinot Evil, a pinot noir from Underdog Wine Merchants, featuring a label with three monkeys adopting the traditional see no, hear no, speak no evil poses.

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