Waiter, There's a Critter in My Wine

Why did the chicken cross the road? To be featured on a wine label, of course. But what’s really behind the fad of naming wines after animals?

Illustration: Kris Chau

Not to mention the black swan, yellow tail, smoking loon, dancing bull and leaping stag? If you go into a store to buy wine today, you’d better have a whip and a chair, because it’s a jungle in there among the liquor shelves.

Forget the days when wines had long, hairy French names and drawings of grand estates on the labels. Today, wine labels are likely to be decorated with hairy animals that come from places more like wildernesses, wastelands and backwoods than vineyards. Here are the names of some wineries: Buffalo Creek, Antelope Ridge, Badger Mountain, Cougar Crest, Deer Meadow, Elephant Island, Elk Cove, Salmon Harbor, Lion Hill and Monkey Bay. You don’t need a sommelier to find a wine these days; you need National Geographic magazine. The names of some of the most popular wines in Honolulu sound like creatures raised by Marlin Perkins: Dancing Bull, Little Roo, Bobcat Zin, Chameleon Merlot, Pink Elephant, Smoking Loon and Le Grand Noir, France’s “Black Sheep,” which brags on its label: “Wine that doesn’t sheepishly follow the herd.” 

It’s estimated that one out every five new wines is either named after an animal or has a picture of one on its label. In the industry they are somewhat dismissively referred to as “critter wines,” but, baby, hear them roar. The website beveragedaily.com reports that critter wine sales topped $600 million in 2006 and, judging from the menagerie I saw in Safeway recently, the critters continue to devour the wine market.

The question is, just as Fonzie’s water-ski jump over a shark spelled the moment when you knew the TV show Happy Days had run out of steam, have critter wines “jumped the shark?” Are they on their way to becoming an endangered species?

Wait, speaking of endangered species, there are sharks decorating the labels of legendary pro golfer Greg “Great White Shark” Norman’s wines from Australia and California.

The reason critter wines have been able to scratch, gnaw and charm their way into the liquor market is surprisingly simple. “People have a hard time remembering what wine they drank the night before, their memory washes away,” says Lian Fu, a certified sommelier and president of  The Wine Stop on South King Street. “Animals are easy to remember.”

Associating a wine with an animal gives less experienced wine drinkers a kind of shorthand way to identify their favorite wines, sort of the way election ballots in some of your less literate third-world countries use photos and party symbols on election ballots instead of names. (“I vote for Mr. Badger!”)

Some critter wines, like those from Napa’s Stag’s Leap Winery and Australia’s Yellow Tail, have been around for years and offer the full buffet of choices, from merlots to chardonnays. The initial point of using critters was to catch people’s attention and amuse them at the same time.

Roy Fujimura, the liquor buyer for Tamura’s Fine Wines and Liquors on Waialae Avenue, points out that critter wines have gone to extremes. A South African winery spoofs haughty French wines such as those from Cotes du Rhone, naming theirs Goats do Roam. “It’s not an expensive wine, but it drinks OK and people buy it,” says Fujimura. “But people in France are kind of ticked off.”

Fujimura says Tamura’s has more than 2,500 different labeled wines available, but it’s the critter wines, with their bright, colorful and sometimes comical labels, which capture customers’ attention.

One of the most curious is probably “Hello Kitty” Wine, whose label sports the ubiquitous white feline generally found on tote bags. Hello Kitty wine surprisingly comes not from Japan but Italy. In this case, its raised paw might be waving bye-bye to your money.

Unlike most critter wines, which are medium to low priced, the Hello Kitty sparkling wine runs $50 a bottle while the regular whites and reds cost $20 to $25.

Of course, the dog-lover demographic is sufficiently covered in the universe of critter wines. Punk Dog Wines is popular and available at both The Wine Stop and at Tamura’s. This Napa winery set out to make wines “with huge character, bold flavors with unusual blends.” It succeeded. The taste of Punk Dog’s 2005 “Sophie’s Riddle” wine (Sophie is the name of the winery owner’s feisty mongrel) is described as “Brambleberry fruit with a bit of spice and a touch of arrange chocolate and vanilla … pairs well with barbecue.” To me, the riddle seems to be why anyone would ingest the stuff.

Some of the more interesting, which is to say, strange, critter wines include Lady Bug (you just can’t get enough pictures of insects crawling on your wine label); the Rex-Goliath Giant 47-Pound Rooster “Free Range” wine (which has a 47-pound rooster on its label); the Thunder Chicken Sweet Pink Apple Wine (the rooster’s girlfriend?); and Army Worm Wine. Now, Army Worm Wine comes from Duluth, Minn., and is actually made from mashed-up furry green caterpillars. I’m told it tastes like chicken. Old, green, furry, smashed-up chicken. Cheers.  

Charley Memminger is planning to release a new Hawaii wine called “Gecko.” It will taste cute and, after drinking it, you’ll feel like you can walk on the ceiling.      

Read more about restaurants gone wild on the next page.

Photos: by David Croxford

Restaurants are Wild

When it comes to ordering wine in some of Honolulu’s finest restaurants, many patrons give in to their animal instincts and go with the ducks, frogs and horses. There’s no shame in ordering “critter wines” when dining out.

“If it’s a bottle on the wine list, you should never be ashamed to order it,” said Nate Aoyagi, assistant manager and bartender at Michel’s at the Colony Surf. Like a lot of upscale restaurants, Napa Valley’s Duckhorn wine is one of the most popular. At $98 a bottle, Duckhorn is nothing to quack at. Frog’s Leap merlot is another critter favorite, at a more modest $60.

At 3660 On The Rise, co-owner and wine buyer Russell Siu said Yellow Tail wines ($35) join Duckhorn and Frog’s Leap as favorites. “Frog’s Leap is a very good wine,” he said.

Amuse Wine Bar in the Honolulu Design Center serves wine by the ounce through self-service dispensing machines. But food and beverage manager Tony Castillo says customers are drawn to the labels with the critters. Australian wine Marquis Phillips, which sports an eagle and a kangaroo on the label, is popular. The machines have 80 wine choices and are a good way to cut your favorite wines out of the herd.

Matt Iannaccio, assistant manager and wine purchaser at Morton’s The Steakhouse said the Wildhorse pinot noir is one of his customers’ creature comforts.  Perhaps the strangest critter wine he serves is Devil’s Lair.

“The label has a creature that looks like a dog with a tongue that sticks out, a big eyeball and big teeth,” he says. “There’s also a fifth leg that has fallen off. I haven’t tried it but many people drink it and have not complained.”