April 22, 2006

"animal pragmatism"

i have written about midwestern beers whose names are related to dogs, such as moondog ale and new glarus's tail wagger. i find those "critter names" refreshingly different from the history-inspired names of german beers (like "king's pilsener" or "warsteiner -- the queen of beers"), and spotted cows get more attention from me than fake heraldry:


according to an article in today's new york times magazine, there seems to be a solid trend to put "critters"* on a bottle's label, at least when it comes to wine:

Animal Pragmatism

Yellow Tail Wine

For a shortcut, clichéd summation of growing consumer sophistication, consider the wine category: Back when we didn't know anything, wine meant Blue Nun, jugs of Gallo, little bottles of Lancers and hokey Aldo Cella commercials. Nowadays we have taste, and even suburban megamarts have huge and varied wine selections for the demanding mass affluent. Of course, real wine connoisseurs have walked the earth for many years — as have nonconnoisseurs who find such people to be annoying snobs and who find today's megamart selection to be a big, bewildering taunt. It's one thing to sense that there's a huge spectrum of quality represented on that shelf, but it's something else to make a decision. Perhaps, in light of this, it's no surprise that a new factor has emerged that apparently helps many of us parse the options: the "critter label."

A critter label is any label that features an animal, from a hippo to a frog to a penguin. According to ACNielsen, the market-research company, 438 viable table-wine brands have been introduced in the past three years, and 18 percent — nearly one in five — feature an animal on the label. "Combined with existing critter labels," the firm said in a summation of its research on this matter, "sales of critter-branded wine have reached more than $600 million."

It's a bit surprising that a market-research company has decided to define a wine category by its label design. It seems more logical to consider wine by, say, variety or region or vintage. The appearance of the bottle obviously has no effect whatsoever on the quality of the product, and as Danny Brager, who is vice president of ACNielsen's beverage-alcohol unit, explains, there has not traditionally been a "critter" category in his firm's database. But while critter wine may not be an official term in the wine business, it's a notion that has been bandied about in various forms quite a bit in recent years. "The industry is talking about it," Brager says. That's why ACNielsen decided to put some formal research into the critter question.

The alpha critter, it seems, is a kangaroo, the one represented on the label of the Australian wine brand Yellow Tail, which came into the U.S. market several years ago and, in part thanks to a ubiquitous marketing campaign, now moves millions of cases a year. Needless to say, Brager attributes the success of any given critter wine to such traditional factors as quality and price, not just its mascot or label design; consumers see Yellow Tail, at less than $8 a bottle, as a good value. "We don't want people to think if you slap an animal on it, it'll sell," he says. Still, that brand was "one of the very first ones to depict an animal on the label and almost seemed like it made a connection with the consumers who were looking to have fun with their wine," Brager continues. "People associated the wallaby and the label, and it was easy to ask for when you walked in the store." [...]

*critter is a dialectal form of creature, which goes back to the latin participle creatus (created). the dictionary of american regional english (DARE) lists several spellings (crittur, creeter, creetur, cretter) and meanings. it can refer to "any animal", but especially to "a domestic animal". in the north it refers to a domestic bovine animal or to a bull, while in the "midland" it is denotes a horse or a mule. it can also refer to a person (often in a humorous or affectionate way) or to "anything to which a balky or contrary personality may be attributed". DARE also lists the compounds "critter-back" (horseback, as in "i went to church critter-back") and "critter flung" (thrown by a horse).

one of the most famous critters in literature must be mrs. gummidge in david copperfield by charles dickens. it's difficult for any character in the book to have a conversation with her without her pointing out that she is "a lone, lorn creatur'" and that everything "goes contrary" with her.


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