Guest article

Uncorking the dark side: How wine brands are embracing the allure of the macabre


Related tags Halloween Drinks Marketing

We love Halloween and the 'spooky season'. And up-and-coming wine brands are using our obsession with all things spooky to stand out from the crowd with their compelling brand stories and sinister tales. Rowena Curlewis, CEO of drinks design specialist Denomination, takes a look at some of the brands going completely against traditional wine marketing cues with their ghoulish and spine-tingling themes.

Around this time of year, as the nights draw in and “spooky season” seems to stretch much further and longer than just Halloween, there’s something about the dark side of life that has us in its thrall. 

In fact, you can feed your fix in an instant all year round: TV documentaries and podcasts detail true crime, streaming services spew out creepy series from The Haunting of Hill House​ to the latest American Horror Story​, alongside dramatic adaptations of real-life events are available at the touch of the button or the flick of a page.

We’re drawn to them because they tap into the most powerful emotion we can experience – fear. With each watch, listen and read, a surge of dopamine and endorphins courses through our brains, stoking our intrigue.

It's this potent emotional response that an increasing number of wine brands are harnessing, as they delve into the thrill of the sinister and the uncanny. At the core of crafting a compelling brand lies storytelling, and what better narrative to weave than one that is cloaked in mystery, tantalising the senses and providing a vicarious kick?

Embracing the dark side

In the US, winemakers and drinkers have been embracing this trend for a while now.

Customers keen to show off a rebellious streak have long been drawn to brands that err on the side of ghoulish and disturbing, such as Orin Swift, which enjoys cult status. Many of its labels are the stuff of nightmares, but that didn’t stop E&J Gallo snapping up the hugely popular brand a few years ago.

Meanwhile, Phantom Wines  - produced by Bogle Vineyards in California - is inspired by the tales of the phantom that haunts their cellars.

In Europe and Australia, we’re also seeing greater pick-up. Australian brand 19 Crimes [part of Treasury Wine Estates' portfolio] celebrates the convicts turned colonists of the 18th​ and 19th​ centuries, who were taken in prison ships from Britain to the southern hemisphere for committing one of 19 crimes punishable by transportation.

Their faces are depicted on pack, their stories told via an app.

19 crimes halloween inset

This year, the brand added glow-in-the-dark faces of Dracula and Frankenstein to some of its labels (pictured right).

These labels allow customers to scan a QR code on the packaging to access the characters discussing vine flavour profiles.

It builds on their successful strategy - in 2020, 19 Crimes was voted the UK’s top supermarket wine brand​ – of combining the macabre with a playful edge.

The power of darkness

Central to creating a strong brand, one that’s going to make a powerful connection with its target consumer, is storytelling.

And creepy or supernatural stories have been a timeless part of human tradition, captivating and haunting our imaginations since the dawn of time. It speaks to something primal and emotional, people tend to remember the stories that elicited fear or at least sent a shiver down their spine.

As brands like Apothic and Trapped have shown, taping into the dark side is a striking way to disrupt a sector and leap out to customers from the shelves.

With so many wines taking the path well-trodden when it comes to brand and packaging identity, balancing ‘evil’ and ‘accepted’ cues effectively resonates emotionally and connects on a deeper level. We slowly focus on imagery from ‘the other side’ – it’s subtle, sophisticated and chilling all at once.

'Wine is a serious business. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it, play a little fast and loose with the rules'

Emerging from years of restricted lives thanks to Covid-19 means that indirect thrill is even more appealing. Most of us don’t have the bottle to veer too far from the beaten path – but we’re endlessly fascinated by those who do.

All of this has the potential to impact on the consumer drinking experience. There is a sense of daring when a consumer chooses and then opens one of these wines.

Provoked by danger and fear, their senses are heightened and there is a perception that the wine inside will be unexpected, dramatic... a dangerous expression.

The perfect balance

The beauty of this brand strategy is that it appeals to multiple audiences and at different price levels.

take it to the grave inset

From premium wines like Trapped to more affordable varieties, such as Take It To The Grave, an inexpensive pinot noir (the secretive nature of the grape sourcing became the inspiration for the brand).

The job for brand strategists and designers is to create the perfect balance. Intrigue and excitement rather than repulsion; tension and fear rather than terror.

And to ensure that quality cues and expectations are met so that people still understand explicitly what they’re buying.

Wine is a serious business. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it, play a little fast and loose with the rules.

We can always put the cork back in the bottle and go back to our safe, secure and comfortable lives – until the next time we feel like a little adventure.

About the author:​ Rowena Curlewis is the founding partner and CEO of drinks design specialist Denomination. Her insight, passion and knowledge about the drinks industry means she is a regular contributor to drinks and design press, and has lectured and chaired panels in design, innovation and drinks packaging.  Denomination has studios in Sydney, London and San Francisco: working with clients great and small from around the world.

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