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Wine labels losing manners

It's peppery and full of fight. The tannins have grip. The nose takes no prisoners. This shiraz is a bitch.

It says so on the label. Royal Bitch is the name of the wine, one of a teeming sisterhood of cabernets and chardonnays from a variety of producers with labels like Sassy Bitch, Jealous Bitch, Tasty Bitch and Sweet Bitch. They're reinforcements for a growing army of rude, budget-priced wines that have shoved their way into wine stores and supermarkets in the past few years -- most recently Happy Bitch, a Hudson Valley rose that made its debut last month.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, an agency of the Treasury Department, approves about 120,000 applications for wine labels every year. Most names are traditional, often genteel, especially at the lower price points. It's natural for a chardonnay or cabernet priced below $15 or even $10 to buff the image a bit. Woodbridge, Coastal Estates and Turning Leaf could be suburban subdivisions.

Then there are the others. Wines like the Ball Buster, a beefy shiraz-cabernet-merlot blend from the Barossa Valley in Australia. Or BigAss Red, from Milano Family Winery in California. Or Stench, an Australian sparkler from R Winery, the company that collaborated with the American importer Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate in 2004 to get the postfeminist ball rolling with a grenache named, simply, Bitch.

Like a slap across the face, Bitch grabbed the attention of a certain type of consumer, primarily young women en route to a bachelorette or divorce party, or looking for a special way to say, "I love you" on Mother's Day.

"They can buy it and say, 'Here, bitch, I bought you a present,"' said John F. Umbach, the owner of Joseph Victori Wines, which distributes Royal Bitch and Sweet Bitch.

Jealous Bitch

Chatham Imports sensed the appeal of an irreverent women's drink in 2005 when one of its distributors developed a promotional rum cocktail called Jealous Bitch and shopped it around, diffidently, to bars and nightclubs. The sales representatives were a little nervous about how the name might go over. But young women loved it, and the company developed a wine to match the name.

"The thing is, if you come out with a conservative label, it's hard to separate yourself from the herd on the shelf," Umbach said. "The competition is just brutal."

The competition is especially keen at the lower end of the market, where winemakers clamor for the attention of consumers looking for a drinkable chardonnay or cabernet for under $20.


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