We (ostensibly) do not judge books by their covers. But many of us choose the wines we buy strictly by the label.

Wine buyer Bill Abrahamson asked his Northgate/Top Ten managers to guesstimate how many of their wine customers based their buying decisions on labels. "The low was 30 percent. The high was 75," he said. "I think it's probably in that 40 percent range."

The approach is understandable in the ever-more-globalized wine arena. Abrahamson's stores carry about 2,000 wines; imagine if there were that many types of peanut butter or dish soap on the shelves. For all but the most knowledgeable consumers, finding a brand name and label design that appeal or connect makes as much sense as any method.

Still, even novice wine consumers are not necessarily cowed by having too many choices. They might not head into a store with a particular wine in mind, but they'll know it when they see it.

"These tend to be self-guided shoppers who are more intuitive," said Anissa Gurstel, manager of Pairings Food & Wine market in Minnetonka. "For them, the overall synergy of a package is what sells the wine. Does the bottle feel good when you pick it up, look good, spark your curiosity?

"We're visual people, so I think more people shop by the label than would admit it."

That's why wineries put increasing efforts into devising an imprint that sends a message, evokes an experience, provides sensory appeal (soothing, playful, sexy) that will entice a customer who has never tried the product. After all, they get only one chance to make a first impression.

Here's to the ladies

Most label-shoppers are women who are "acquiring the supplies for daily life," Abrahamson said. Marketers have known this for some time and have acted accordingly, as countless new brand names and logos have been targeted directly at that audience.

Today's wine stores are filled with labels bearing cute animals, cherubs and tricycles, often with art ranging from abstract to cartoons to cave paintings. Brand names might be sassy/risqué (Bitch, Ménage à Trois), whimsical (Seven Deadly Zins, Arrogant Frog) or out-and-out pandering (Mad Housewife, Mommy's Time Out).

On occasion, the choice of wine is very personal. Lisa Impagliazzo, owner of North Loop Wines & Spirits in Minneapolis, has heard of parties where women bring bottles with labels that best express themselves.

All is fair when looking for love in these wine wars. "If anybody's offended by the label Bitch," Abrahamson said, "they should look at who's buying. I never see guys pick those wines up."

Not all such efforts have worked. Beringer discontinued its "White Lie" chardonnay in 2007 because of sagging sales, and Red Bicyclette's suppliers were convicted of fraud when it turned out that their "pinot noir" was mostly other grapes.

On the other hand, Ménage à Trois is the top-selling red wine in America, and Fat Bastard is the most popular French chardonnay on these shores. A catchy label might entice one purchase, but it's what's inside the bottle that will get a consumer to come back for more.

The most successful trend, for a while, was "critter labels." Fueled by Yellow Tail's colorful kangaroo logo, wineries, particularly Down Under, started plastering lizards, monkeys and dogs on their bottles.

That movement "has kind of been dying because it's mostly associated with Australia," and those wines are losing popularity, said Christian Nesheim, owner of the Vinifera store in Plymouth.

Gurstel agreed, although she said "people still like what I call companion labels, with dogs, cats and horses. I'll hear 'Do you have anything with horses on it?' and will ask if it's a gift. When people are shopping for a gift bottle, they're very in tune with the label."

Nesheim mentioned Middle Sister as a popular gift wine at his store, "because so many people have middle sisters."

There is, however, a limit to these jaunty logos, at least financially. "Cutesy should be under $25," Gurstel said.

A generational 'gotcha'

Often, women are only half the target for looky labels. Some of them are geared generationally, as a family non-feud in California shows.

Peachy Canyon, a Central Coast winery owned by Doug and Nancy Beckett, uses a tasteful watercolor of the owner's olive grove and home on its label. When sons Jake and Josh (he still makes the Peachy Canyon wines) started their own label, Chronic, they opted for skeletons and devils. That prompted the winsome Abrahamson to conduct an experiment at a family gathering.

"The Chronic label is clearly designed to go after the under-30 crowd," he said. "When I showed it to my family, everyone over 40 hated it, and my 25-year-old nieces said, 'Sure, I'd buy that.'" Later I brought out the wine in glasses and didn't tell anyone what it was. The grandparents said, 'Wow, this is really good,' and I told them, 'Wait a minute, earlier you said you'd never buy it.'"

Most labels, though, are intended to have mass rather than niche appeal. And there's no telling what will catch on. At first glance, for example, Ridge's type-block presentation labels might look boring, but it has become iconic.

When asked which ones "sell themselves," none of the local retailers named the same wine. Gurstel cited the spring flower-laden Balnea Verdejo ("gorgeous"), Abrahamson the flame-infused Garnacha del Fuego ("which I hated at first") and Nesheim an array that included Cooper-Hill ("just a simple label with multicolored stripes that people gravitate toward"), Valley of the Moon ("cool, dark") and the Gascon Malbec ("a great Old World feel").

Gascon actually is in Argentina but its logo clearly is intended to evoke Europe's rich wine tradition. Ironically, wineries in France's Cahors region have started to put "Malbec" on their labels to tap into the continuing popularity of that varietal's Argentinian renditions.

That's part of a slow but steady movement in Europe to move away from the timeworn practice of putting a woodcut image of the chateau and the name of the region (not the grape) front and center.

While, as Nesheim noted, "people still don't know what's in a Bordeaux," Italian and Spanish wineries in particular "are going for demystification and breaking down barriers," Abrahamson said.

But old schoolers will always have Germany, with what Abrahamson called "Wow, I don't know any of that" labels laden with multisyllabic words. Author Kingsley Amis once wrote that "A German wine label is one of the things life's too short for, a daunting testimony to that peculiar nation's love of detail and organization."

In truth, though, these labels tell consumers more about the wine than their counterparts from anywhere else -- if you speak German.

Most of them have pretty pictures, too.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643