Racy Label Can’t Obscure a Great Wine

Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah, 2015
14.7 percent alcohol content
Central Coast, California, $13.99

When it comes to wine labels, I’m pretty conservative.

I’m attracted to the clean, straightforward look, labels with clear type sporting a crest or a drawing of the chateau. I tend to avoid wines selling themselves with cute names, overweight circus animals and sadly portrayed dogs and cats, labels that, in my experience, often mask an inferior product.

However, I broke from my conviction and bought Cycles Gladiator, a wine recently arrived on the New England market with eye-catching artwork taken from a 19th-century poster featuring a liberated, naked maiden with flowing red hair flying on a bicycle.

My confidence in the bottle’s contents was raised by seeing Adam LaZarre’s signature on the label. He’s one of California’s best, the kind of winemaker who lends his name and skills only to finely made wines.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah is a very good wine with complex flavors and aromas of blueberries and black fruit, which LaZarre describes in fanciful tasting notes as “lush and sweet layers of flavor that wrap around your tongue. Melting tannins that leave the impression of milk chocolate coat the mouth; blueberry motor oil that will stain your soul.”

I’m not sure about the motor oil, but the wine has a smooth taste and finish and it’s great for sipping with appetizers and such cheeses as Gorgonzola, Stilton and Manchego. It also goes well with grilled meat and rich winter soups.

Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah is made from 100 percent of the grape variety grown in vineyards in the Livermore Valley near San Francisco Bay. LaZarre oversees the entire process, from the vineyard to making the wine and aging it in oak for 13 months before bottling.

LaZarre made his reputation at Hahn Estates, where he was vice president of winemaking. While there, he co-founded the Rex Goliath brand, which won top awards, before he and the Hahns sold it for $30 million, according to published articles.

In 2005, LaZarre started Cycles Gladiator with the Hahn family. The goal was to produce wines connected to the land. The Cycles Gladiator brand was a success, and it didn’t hurt that LaZarre chose the provocative poster for the label.

It also didn’t hurt the marketing when in 2009, Alabama banned the label. The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which approved the sale of Fat Bastard wines, felt the image on Cycles Gladiator was a violation of the law, which prohibits “displaying a person posed in an immoral or sensuous manner,” the Associated Press reported.

Immediately after the ruling, Hahn launched very successful nationwide “Banned in Alabama” and “Taste What They Can’t in Alabama” store display campaigns, and never shed a tear over the annual 500 cases that had been sold in the Heart of Dixie, a company spokesman told the AP.

The wine label is based on an 1895 poster that promoted Cycles Gladiator, a Paris bicycle company that flourished during the Belle Epoque golden age of cycling. The posters, designed by printer G. Massias, were inspired by the momentum of the women’s suffrage movement, which embraced bicycles as vehicles of emancipation and self-reliance, the Cycles Gladiator wine website says.

“I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood,” Susan B. Anthony said.

I like to think the poster and the wine label capture the spirit that swept the women’s movement through the 1920s and that is being rekindled today.

There are believed to be only four of the original posters in existence, but there are plenty of copies to be found online and elsewhere.

LaZarre and the Hahns split after the corporate marketers wanted to overproduce Cycles Gladiator. The winemaker sold his interest, and the wine subsequently declined until 2013 when entrepreneur Dennis Carroll acquired the brand and resurrected it under the Wine Hooligans artisan group. LaZarre, who is part of the group, has restored the brand to its award-winning position.

“It’s one thing to sell $300 bottles of wine to a few people. I love to produce really great wines that taste two or three times the price and to know on any given night, someone somewhere is enjoying my wine,” LaZarre said on the company’s website.

Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah and the four other exceptional varietal wines under the label are widely available, and I found all of them recently for $11.99. They all live up to LaZarre’s philosophy and taste like they are worth two or three times the price.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

One Comment

  1. Your article about Cycles Gladiator Petite Sirah was enjoyable reading. I like knowing about the business aspect, the buying and selling of wineries, the rise, the decline, and then the rise again due to good management of a product.

    It’s OK to disparage Alabama, but don’t spread that defamation to the whole South. We are pretty knowledgeable about wines in Atlanta.

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