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  • Writer's pictureAlex Swart

DESIGN GONE SIDEWAYS: Branding Wine and a Wine-Themed Musical

Updated: Feb 4, 2023


As the pandemic lock-down continued and travel became impossible, I found welcome escape in a trilogy of novels by Rex Pickett. Sideways, the first entry in the series, chronicles a road trip taken by two buddies through California wine country. More so than the 2004 Oscar-winning film adaptation, the book delves deeper into the mysteries of Pinot Noir and the lives of struggling author Miles (Pickett’s alter-ego), his friend Jack, Terra (changed to Stephanie in the movie), and Maya (Miles’s true love).

I was especially moved by the second novel, Vertical, which goes even further geographically and emotionally. If Sideways is Pickett’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, then Vertical is his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which reads like a road movie—but on a river). In addition to wine and romance, Vertical takes a bracingly honest look at aging and filial dynamics. Now, a newly successful Miles assumes responsibility for his elderly and ailing mother Phyllis. She is alternately charming, difficult, and very vulnerable. I could relate; my mother had died fairly recently after a long struggle with her health. Pickett’s book brought it all back for me.

I reached out to Rex Pickett by email and told him as much. He replied. It turned out we attended the same university, UC San Diego, at roughly the same time—but didn’t know each other then. We had both been inspired by the same professor, renowned film critic and painter Manny Farber. Pickett went on to become a filmmaker and author. I got into advertising—what one might call an “art of the moment” (to borrow a phrase from genre theorist John Cawelti).


Rex was launching a collection of wines from Chile: a Pinot Noir (of course), a red blend, a Rosé, and a Sauvignon Blanc. Rex fell in love with the country and its delicious wines while researching his third book in the trilogy, Sideways 3: Chile. He asked me to think about branding the collection. My partner Ellen and I were actually en route to Santa Barbara wine country when Rex texted that he was ready to move forward. I jumped at the chance to create a brand for the writer who was responsible for putting our getaway destination on people’s radar, and who had spurred the resurgence of Pinot Noir, as well as the temporary downfall of Merlot.

It was a design challenge. Walk into your local wine store and prepare to be overwhelmed by rows and rows of bottles marketed with banal labels mostly consisting of wedding script coupled with engravings of bucolic estates; all them are competing for attention. If you’re not an oenophile, which brand do you trust?

Well, the author of Sideways knows something about wine. So we called the brand Rex Pickett’s Sideways. The labels are designed to stand out next to more traditional bottles on the shelf. REX PICKETT’S forms the letter I in SIDEWAYS, which is vertically positioned. The sans-serif title is bisected by a graphic bottle shape, which contains the year and type of wine. This configuration travels across three grape varieties (as well as a blended offering) but the color schemes vary. The Pinot Noir label, featuring maroon typography on a bright green background, alludes to Christian Struzan’s design for the 2004 movie poster. The Sauvignon Blanc label is a dramatic marriage of black with straw and old gold. The Rosé label meshes white with coral and celery green. The blend—called Red Harvest (after the Dashiell Hammett novel)—consists of white lettering and graphics on a dark red field. Look for them in North American stores next month.


The Sideways story has now been reimagined as a theatrical production with original songs and music. To advertise this new production, I conceived of key art (the image that promotes a work of entertainment) inspired by Dutch Golden Age still life painting. The flowers, fruit, and poultry depicted in those works symbolize off-canvas characters. Similarly, in my poster for Sideways, four Pinot Noir-specific wineglasses represent Miles, Maya, Jack, and Terra. Consistent with the Sideways wine labels, the title treatment is placed vertically within a modern, asymmetrical composition.

Color was carefully considered. The brand palette from the Pinot Noir label—a green field with foreground elements in complementary shades of burgundy/reds—is maintained. Even the checkered picnic blanket is tinted green, which makes the dark, plum-colored liquid in the wineglasses pop. A single red rose is placed between the glasses because I see Sideways as a serious love story in the guise of a comedy. There’s no food in the composition as the characters, as I interpret it, are principally interested in wine and romance.

Rex Pickett’s Sideways: The Musical will be performed live, oratorio-style as a “Concert of Songs,” at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, California on September 10, 11 and 12. And, yes, naturally, one of the songs is titled No F**king Merlot.

©2021 Alex Swart • All rights reserved.


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