Eric Kent Wines, an award-winning boutique wine label that features emerging artist’ work on their bottles, is a family affair run out of a cooperative in Santa Rosa, CA: Kent, Colleen, and Kent’s sister Renee Humphrey run the business. Kent makes the wine; Colleen curates and produces the artist labels; and Renee distributes the wines in restaurants and wine stores.
The idea to create their own wine label was conceived 10 years ago when Colleen was still in art school and Kent was running his own advertising agency. Kent, who holds no formal winemaking degree but is a self-proclaimed “hyper-enthusiastic wine geek,” and Colleen, an artist and former art director, decided to combine their love for wine and art and founded Eric Kent, whose name is an inversion of Kent’s first and middle name. At that time they knew they wanted to make wine, but had no idea what their label would look like. With so many artists surrounding Colleen on a daily basis and seeing the need for unknown artists to get exposure, the idea to feature art as part of their labels seemed like a natural extension of their passions.
In the 10 years they’ve been operating Eric Kent Wine Cellars, Conversations was the first time the couple shared their story together. Kent said that until now they tell their stories individually and differently, so they were excited to be able to share for the first time as a unit. And we were excited that Conversations provided an opportunity for them to do so as we believe Conversations is a forum for sharing stories that inspire. It also reinforced that Conversations is just as inspiring and beneficial for the speakers as it is for us Karten Designers. To tell their story, Kent and Colleen took us through visual tours of the label art curatorial and winemaking processes.
It was inspiring to meet and hear people who are passionate, taking big risks, and making things happen. Below are some of the takeaways from Conversations: The Art of Wine that are beneficial for anyone in any business.
HAVE A STORY TO TELL
The combination of art and wine is nothing new. As Kent mentioned, Mouton Rothschild has been putting Picasso, Miro, and other famous artists alongside the winery name on the front of their labels forever. But what makes Eric Kent unique is their display of deserving, but yet undiscovered talents whose work compliments the spirit of each vintage. As Colleen guided us through the process of how she chooses the label art, she explained that throughout the year she meets with numerous artists to experience their work and be inspired. Once the vintage is made, she will do a tasting to, similarly, experience the wine and be inspired. Then she’ll go back to the potential pieces she’s acquired that year, and will choose a few that set the tone for the vintage. The piece that evokes the same emotions as the wine is the art that eventually is featured on the label. To best describe the goal of the process, Colleen says the art must complement the spirit of the particular vintage. The Eric Kent story is manifested when consumers drink the wine, as the art brings an added dimension to the drinking experience by providing a conversation starter, as well as engaging multiple senses – taste and sight – in an emotional experience.
At the end of every Conversations, we have a Q&A where guests can interact with the speaker(s), often sparking in-depth discussions. Kent was asked if it hard to leave the corporate advertising world and start his own business. He replied no, it wasn’t. The hardest parts came after they started their wine business. And looking back, Kent said the key when taking a risk is to stay ignorant. If he had known how hard it was, he and Colleen probably wouldn’t have started Eric Kent Wines. His words were reminiscent of Steve Jobs, who advised in his famous commencement speech “to stay hungry, stay foolish” because if we didn’t we’d never have anything new. Similarly, Kent lived this maxim when he and Colleen first decided to start Eric Kent Wine Cellars. He considered entering University of California Davis for formal training in winemaking, but realized that many of the wines he most admired were crafted by people who had no academic training, thus they were not confined by convention and often invented their own unique way of making wine. Kent and Colleen’s bold career change is inspiring and a testament to the importance of risk-taking, and most importantly, staying ignorant.
DO WELL BY DOING GOOD
Today, it can be argued that it is not enough to just have a product. Products need to be tied to a cause in order to differentiate themselves. Not only does it help cultivate a story for the product or brand, but also the product then resonates with the consumer more. With extensive experience in the advertising world, Kent and Colleen knew this better than anyone. Thus, they knew their wine needed to go beyond the grapes. The Humphreys took this to heart and have integrated their message and theme throughout the EK experience. By having artwork serve as the label for each vintage, Kent and Colleen provide emerging artists with the opportunity to get their work – be it a painting, poem, or photograph – in front of a larger audience than they’ve ever had. The Humphreys stay true to their cause and their brand story, incorporating the artists into every touch point of the EK experience. The labels are designed specifically to feature the artist’s unique work on one side and their name and contact information are printed on the other. The Humphreys also tell the artists’ stories on their website, show more examples of the artists’ work, and provide links to their websites. By being seen on EK labels, a number of artists have sold their work, received offers to be in shows or commissioned to produce new works. While Eric Kent Wines donates a portion of its sales to the artists who create the work on the labels, it’s the exposure that is invaluable to these artists.
DON’T BE CONFINED BY THE RULES
When starting a new business, it’s helpful to follow the rules and use them as a loose guide. But often times, if you go by the book, you can get stuck in a rut between generic and conventional. Hence the importance of challenging the rules and tinkering to find alternative ways so that you can stand out and be different. Such as Kent and Colleen did with their wine labels. Traditionally, the front label on a bottle features the logo, graphics, and other branding elements while the back label is placeholder for government warnings and generic verbiage about soils and climate. But in order to feature art like they planned and give it the attention it deserves, Kent and Colleen realized after a few rounds of concepting that they needed to have two front labels. Despite the branding risk, they committed to showing nothing but the art on one side. They achieved this by playing around with the font size and the typography as well as the layout to design the “other” front label that has their own branding, contents of the bottle, the artists’ information, and the mandatories. Now, because they were not confined by the rules, the Eric Kent story can be shared on every bottle.
Before they poured their 2012 Small Town Pinot Noir, 2010 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, and 2009 Kalen’s Big Boy Blend Syrah for guests, Kent and Colleen concluded by saying that they keep doing what they do, and love what they do, because they get to create a product that facilitates positive experiences and makes people happy. As Kent said, “the way I see it, making wine, discovering new art, and sharing them both with others is about as good as it gets.”