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Naughty Wine Brands: Deep Satisfaction or Lousy in the Glass?

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Dateline pre-dinner, Saturday. A text comes in: "Hon, Finished at the gym, meet u at home. Bring Big Pecker ASAP." The hurried response: "Waiting all day! Cabernet or Chardonnay?" Wine names like Big Pecker, once forbidden on labels, represent a new subset, thick with innuendo. But the verdict is still out on the staying power of blue wines in today's market.

Suggestive names alone may keep shoppers wink-winking, but label images have remained prim in tone. Not one bottle on a recent shop tour qualified for an R-rating for visual content. That could change as obscenity standards evolve in the eyes of those who judge and approve labels.

Wine label approval is regulated by the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The process of submitting a label includes listing the wine's alcohol level, the number of milliliters in the bottle, and the Surgeon General's disclosure about the potential ramifications of alcohol consumption. Additionally, the process involves the review of prospective brand names and images. Beyond the required data, the approval process appears to be discretionary and without clearly defined rules. Which brings us to the current wine label climate.

Since the New York Times profiled risqué names in a piece by William Grimes in 2011, new brands have trumpeted increasingly suggestive terms and phrases, still shy of George Carlin territory; the late comedian's infamous benchmark seven words from 1972 remain absent from wine labels, although a few are aptly used to describe many commercial grade bottlings. But Lenny Bruce's "ass" and "balls" have indeed slipped out of confinement into the vetting process as names -- but not pictures -- on bottle script. Red Ass, Pompous Ass, and Broke Ass are among a few brands utilizing ass while Tait Wines' The Ball Buster, a Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot blend hailing from the Barossa Valley in Australia uses the singular version of balls in the common phrase.

Blue labels generally fall into three categories. By far the most common features sexual or body-part slang worked into the name or phrase, often with a picture to develop the theme. A modifier is added to the slang (Big Ass Cabernet), the word is used as part of a known phrase (Kiss My Ass Wines), or an accompanying picture appears alongside the slang term or phrase (a donkey named Sir Jackson is part of the Kiss My Ass series). Curiously, slang gets approved: ass and pecker have passed the litmus test, but formal terms buttocks and penis are starkly absent from labels.

The now obsolete brand Big Pecker was likely validated by the rendering of two parrots with beaks clearly visible sharing the label. A wine simply called Ass, Pecker, or Cock -- without accompanying pictures of donkeys, beaks, or male birds -- may not make the grade. The precise approval process is not public and appears to be at the discretion of judges. So consumers guess at the limits: full-frontal nudity, probably not. Using adjectives like thick, long, good, or bad to describe parrots and roosters: probably no-no's.

Just when wine prudes thought the feds were overly permissive, along came a brand named after a sexual threesome.

Menage a Trois, representing the second category of racy labels, is a brand from California's Folie a Deux winery. With at least twelve different bottlings based on blends and varietals, Menage a Trois enjoys widespread distribution, sales, and approval in the United States. Suggestive images and double entendre are absent: just plain old script advertising three people having sex -- using a French phrase for the act. Could it be that the secret to naming wine after sexual acts or situations rests squarely in translating the phrase to another language or in using numbers? If that's the case, the gates may open quickly. Soixante-neuf rose, anyone?

Other examples in this class include PromisQus, a California red blend which makes a play -- without pics -- on the notion of multiple (grape) partners. But The Big O, from Unionville Vineyards in New Jersey, uses a barely visible font to name their red Bordeaux blend.

A final category -- quasi-naughty -- features racy pictures without sexually-charged slang. Marilyn Wines, produced by Nova Wines based in St. Helena, California, are a sort of homage to the late Marilyn Monroe, based on new pictures of Ms. Monroe each vintage, showing skin but never approaching full nudity. Naked Earth, an organic French brand sourced out of the Languedoc-Rousillon, uses a drawing of three very naked women floating over Earth, dancing in space, to sell red and white blends. The nudity is not full-frontal but is drawn with great detail.

Well-known labels like Fat Bastard produce smirks but are now considered only naughty "lite" in the larger context of labels. Most wine fans I've spoken with consider the significant number of Bitch brands on shelves to be in poor taste, best left off bottles.

With only a few exceptions, naughty labels are gimmicks which come and go. It's not about the wine; the labels get all the attention, with a few exceptions. The bottles are similar to gag t-shirts purchased at tourist gift shops; startling for the innuendo for a week or two, then quickly forgotten in a back drawer. It's another example of the power of labels, names, and pictures over bottle content.

Full-on nudity, drawings of sexual couplings, and George Carlin's small list of badness may eventually wind up on labels, with no particular reason other than to stand out on cluttered shelves. My mother-in-law would blush. But, then again, she told me recently Menage a Trois was her favorite red.