When you see a bottle of Chateau Tumbleweed in the wine aisle, you might do a double-take. Whoa! you think. Those people have no heads!
Well, not no heads. Their crania have been replaced with a scraggly bunch of tumbleweed, drawn in intricate pen-and-ink. It's creepy and funny at the same time, and you have to wonder where such a surreal idea came from.
"We started to develop these wines as people, as family members," says Kris Pothier, co-owner of Chateau Tumbleweed and the artist behind its eccentric labels. "We came up with images that feel like the wines feel. It's fun to come up with fresh content all the time. This is a pretty competitive industry, and you want to create something that everyone is talking about."
The winery is a small business based in Cottonwood. Pothier started Chateau Tumbleweed in 2011 with her husband, Joe Bechard, and fellow couple Kim Koistinen and Jeff Hendricks. In the half-decade since, their unlikely startup has become something of a local legend. The Arizona wine industry is still pretty modest, despite its own Wine Growers Association. Chateau Tumbleweed has gained some attention as a startup run by Gen Xers, and the labels have caught extra attention.
"The four of us riff really well together," says Pothier. "That's what makes our business really tight. We sit together and drink wine and come up with these funny names. I used to make silly line drawings of things Joe said when he was drunk. Suddenly, we were making wine, and we needed to come up with a label."
Now 42, Pothier hails from the Northwest and has a lively bohemian personality to match. After growing up in Seattle, Pothier and Bechard lived in Eugene, Oregon, where they enjoyed the college town's rich and offbeat culture.
"We used to have this group of friends to party with," she recalls. "I would go to bookstores, sit at a typewriter. Eugene was such a different life. I lived for five years with an artist, and he taught me how to draw. He had an old-school method. He was very underground, unexposed to normal life."
This unconventional creativity stuck with her, even when Pothier and Bechard moved to Arizona. Pothier worked briefly in the film industry, then shifted her attention to Chateau Tumbleweed, but the desire to compose drawings by hand has never waned. Here was a chance to put that talent to good use, by creating labels that look like they come out of high-concept comic books.
The drawings may looks simple and free, but they're actually the result of an elaborate digital process.
"[First] I draw them, then reduce them to basically cookie-cutters so we can put them into Photoshop," Pothier explains by e-mail. "Jeff [Hendricks] takes control of the process from there, then I come back in to decide on colors. Then the image goes into [Adobe] Illustrator for the background and font. Also, our labels are super nerdy on the back, so Joe collects all of the pertinent info and passes it to Jeff. Then we edit a billion times and send to the federal government for approval, then they go to the Paragon label company for printing."
While many of their labels are merely descriptive, several have distinct characters, such as "Cousin Id," "Will E. Cox," "Lil Frankie," and "Earth Cuckoo." Each portrait incorporates the same tumbleweed image, usually replacing the figure's face, although the tumbleweed is often just a presence: Rolling View Vineyard shows an elephant balancing on the tumbleweed just like a circus ball. The figures are drawn without heads, and only two different tumbleweed drawings are used; one or the other is digitally inserted into the composition.
Given the growing popularity of the images, it's easy to imagine a gallery show of those original drawings. But the quartet is kept busy crafting and bottling their stock, and they're not sure exactly what to do with the artwork.
"There's just a huge folder [of sketches] in my drawing area," Pothier says. "We talk about making coloring books. They are really neat on their own. But they're headless, so they're kind of weird."
Follow Pothier on Instagram @chateautumbleweed to learn more about the wine and to see more labels.
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