Alain Laliberte sorts through a sample of his collection of wine labels at his Etobicoke home. Laliberte has a collection of 160,000 labels from around the world. Chris Young/The Canadian Press
It would take more than four consecutive days to view every item in what just might be the world's largest wine-label collection.
Toronto resident Alain Laliberte owns about 160,000 wine labels, carefully stored in 123 shoeboxes. He has contacted the Guinness World Records because he is confident he has enough to break the current high of 16,349 labels.
His unique hobby led last weekend to him becoming the jury president at a wine-labels championship, organized as part of the International Wine Championship in Quebec City. Jurors selected an Ontario ice wine, Coldhearted Riesling 2007, as the winner among the 81 competitors from different countries.
Some wine producers put considerable artistic effort into designing labels and the championship aimed to recognize them.
"It's interesting that some people find an interest in these small pieces of paper," Laliberte says. "Some of them are pieces of art."
France's Baron Philippe de Rothschild was a pioneer in the area.
Starting in 1924, his famous Mouton Rothschild label was designed each year by a renowned artist and the annual tradition continues to this day, decades after his death. Miro, Chagall and Picasso created some of them. The cost of a bottle can run from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
Laliberte began as a sommelier.
'It's fascinating. It has allowed me to learn more about wine's culture, geography and history.'—Alain Laliberte
Originally from Quebec City, he studied at l'Institut du tourisme et de l'hotellerie du Quebec, the province's tourism and hotel-industry school. In 1995, he went to Bordeaux, France, for wine-tasting training.
Over time, the wine specialist wound up placing bottles in his oven to help peel off the labels. He eventually began writing to wine producers to ask them to send him labels.
But his collection really expanded a few years ago. One of his friends, an avid collector, died and he inherited 125,000 labels.
He has since contacted the Guinness World Records book. His record will only be registered, however, when he can state exactly how many labels he has.
Which he intends to do, once he has about 100-plus hours to spare. And he plans to do it properly.
"I could count 20,000 labels — that would be enough to break the record," he said, adding he wants to produce a meticulous tally.
He has already removed every duplicate he might have. He has also sorted the labels by country or by theme. They are now classified so that he can easily find any label within the stacks of shoeboxes stored throughout his Etobicoke apartment.
Of course, he hasn't managed to taste the contents of all 160,000 bottles. But with an average of 5,000 wines sampled per year, he's not that far off.
Among his treasured items are one-of-a-kind drafts from Chateau Rauzan-Segla, a Bordeaux wine. Those labels were never used so his labels are unique.
The oldest item in his collection comes from Germany and dates back to 1859.
Some of his labels refer to countries that no longer exist, like Yugoslavia. Others come from countries that few people associate with wine production, like Ethiopia or Egypt.
Some labels depict animals, flowers or sports. Some are pieces of art while others are downright ribald.
He has no plans to ever stop collecting. These days, Laliberte is looking for labels from Sweden.
"It's fascinating," he says. "It has allowed me to learn more about wine's culture, geography and history."
But good art can also make for good business.
A marketing professor at Delle Marche Polytechnic University argues that small changes in the bottle can have a big impact on sales.
In his article L'importanza dell'etichetta (The importance of the label) on his blog, Officinamarketing, Gabriele Micozzi says modifying the packaging can increase annual turnover by up to 169 per cent.
"It's marketing," Laliberte says. "A wine label doesn't tell you anything about the contents."
He agrees, however, that labels might hold sway over many consumers.
Another sommelier says it's obvious labels play an important role at the retail level.
"Companies, with their labels, position themselves on the market," says Martin Levebvre, a sommelier at the restaurant XO in Old Montreal.
"Traditional houses tend to be very conservative while new producers are making more eccentric labels for their first wines."
A label can also have an impact on what gets imported. Quebec's liquor board has refused to sell some Burgundies because their labels contained nudity.
One of the label names, "Montre Cul," carried a playful reference to the crude French word for buttocks. And so did the label art, bien sur.