by Brooke Gowen
Before long, the question we may find ourselves asking will be: Which celebrity is not, in some way, shape or form, involved in the wine business? From athletes to musicians to famous directors to movie stars, it seems a new celebrity jumps on the wine bandwagon every week.
There are the well-known veteran celebrity winemakers, such as famed director Francis Ford Coppola, the golf great Greg Norman and French actor Gerard Depardieu, who not only owns a chateau in the Loire Valley and Chateau Gadet in the Médoc, as well as a vineyard in the Languedoc, but has also invested in a winery near Lake Balaton in Hungary. These guys are definitely not new to this business; Coppola has been involved for over three decades. By now, the aforementioned are most likely more comfortable bearing the title of winemaker than of celebrity, undoubtedly being more concerned about what’s in the bottle than what’s on it.
On the other hand, there are the celebrities who are quickly lending their monikers to other people’s products. Madonna, the pop diva seemingly obsessed with reincarnation, recently launched a limited edition series of wine bottles, which sell for about $25-$40, through the California-based company, Celebrity Cellars. Her label is graced with pictures of herself from her new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor. Although this line is sold strictly over the Internet, a spokesman for the company said that the first edition is rapidly beginning to sell out, as fans generally buy one bottle to drink and one bottle to save. In addition, the first edition of the Rolling Stones label, emblazoned with the band’s famous tongue and lips logo, has already sold out in the United States. This line sells from about $25 for the Classic Tongue Un-wine to $100 for a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon.
There are also celebrities who have posthumously become huge icons in our culture, such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. Scott Cahill, CEO of Signature Wines, the company who owns and markets Graceland Cellars, says, “In a recent poll, 71 million U.S. adults identified themselves as Elvis fans.” Except for Elvis Blue Christmas Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for approximately $20, the other varietals sell for about $12 per bottle.
A Labor of Love
Other celebrities with a story put their names and images on wines because they have plenty of money and the opportunity to take their passion for wine to another level. Mötley Crue’s lead singer, Vince Neil, started Vince Vineyards as a result of his longtime love of good wine. His line includes a Vince Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (sugg. retail $15) and a Vince Sonoma County Chardonnay (sugg. retail $15), both of which are sold online as well as distributed in 12 states across the country.
Russ Dale, president of Vince Vineyards, as well as founder of Pearl Vodka and Emerald Vodka, acknowledges that one might initially be skeptical of someone like Neil, the founding member of a heavy metal rock band, entering into the wine business. “The press portrays Vince as a hard-partying type of guy; however, his lifestyle has changed dramatically over the years. He has a genuine passion for and interest in good food and wine. As much as his touring schedule allows, he is very present and involved in this venture.”
As an added testament to Neil’s devotion, Dale says that a popular entertainment group is doing a performance-type reality show on Vince Vineyards with Neil as host, called “Corked,” to be aired this fall. Both Neil and winemaker Harry Parducci, Jr. will select staff based on successfully completed tasks with hopes of landing full-time positions at Vince Vineyards.
Auto racing icon Mario Andretti, born and reared in Italy, established Andretti Winery in Napa Valley after spending many years traveling and sipping the best. Olympic skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming and husband Greg Jenkins haphazardly planted a small, backyard vineyard on their property in 1998 in the Santa Clara valley to replace some ugly scrub brush growing near their home. Now, that landscaping makeover has blossomed into Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery and a full-time job for both Fleming and Jenkins. As of now, these wines, whose prices range from $17 for a 2005 San Francisco Bay Syrah Rosé to $40 for a 2003 Livermore Valley Syrah, are only available directly from the winery, but they are planning to expand distribution into the retail marketplace soon.
Greg Jenkins, MD, winemaker and co-owner, Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery, comments: “Peggy and I are hands-on with the winery seven days a week, and it is not a ‘celebrity hobby’ sort of undertaking. The true test of our success will be what is inside the bottle, not the names on the outside. Some might buy the first bottle of wine because of the celebrity name, but I want them to become a repeat customer because they love it.”
Another celebrity entering into the business is Lorraine Bracco with Bracco Wines. While no stranger to the Italian way of life, Bracco plays Dr. Jennifer Melfi on HBO’s hit series, The Sopranos. After living in France for ten years as a model and extensive travel throughout Europe, Bracco fell in love with the European way of life - food and wine becoming one of her biggest passions. She plans on gradually gaining national distribution for her line, of which there are eight varietals ranging from $12.99 SRP for a 2004 Pinot Grigio from delle Venezie to $64.99 for a 2000 Brunello di Montalcino.
Paul Davis, president of Maison Jomere, Ltd., the importer of Bracco's wines, says: “Lorraine and I are very cognizant of the press because of her name, however, I am very confident and proud of these wines; they are outstanding. The production for Bracco wines is very small and limited; we can’t possibly be in it for the money.” Davis also notes that Bracco is extremely involved at every level. “She chooses and approves every single bottle.”
But Are They Good?
Indisputably, celebrity-linked wines are becoming a much bigger niche business and keeping up with the new arrivals proves a task in itself. However, what is important is determining whether investing in these wines is worth it for you. Initially, a celebrity label may sell the product, but what is crucial is whether what's in the bottle pleases your palette.
Over time, Greg Norman Estates wines have attracted some loyal followers, and not just because he is known as the Great White Shark. “The name on the label may get someone to try the wine, but it’s the quality in the bottle that keeps them coming back for more,” says Erica Odden, associate brand manager for Greg Norman Estates. "Greg is passionate about wine and making sure his quality standards are met in every bottle.”
Fred Rosen, owner of Sam’s Wines and Spirits in Chicago, says that the wines of Greg Norman Estates always sell out in his store. “Greg Norman’s wines are some of our customers’ favorite wines.” The reason seemed clear. "His wines are very palatable at a great price.” Regarding the wines of Francis Ford Coppola Winery and Rubicon Estate, the estate in Rutherford that was until recently named Niebaum-Coppola, Rosen adds: “Coppola’s name has a good, strong reputation with people from his work in the film industry. These are not people who are simply in it for the money; it’s a labor of love.”
Larry LaScola, general manager for the New Jersey Bottle King Group, a retail store in New Jersey, provides similar testimony. “I don’t even consider wines like Coppola and Greg Norman as celebrity wines anymore; the label does not say ‘celebrity.’ These wines sell very well in our stores based on merit alone, and there are repeat buyers because the wine is good. My wife only knows who Norman is because of his wines!”
JJ James, the VP of sales and marketing at 21st Amendment, an Indianapolis-based purveyor of fine wines and spirits, agrees with Rosen and LaScola about the success of Coppola wines. “Celebrity wines do sell very well in our stores,” says James. “The most popular are the Coppola wines and then probably Marilyn Merlot.”
Everybody Loves Marilyn
There probably isn’t a celebrity today, living or not, that commands as big a following as Marilyn Monroe. The flagship brand of Marilyn Wines is Marilyn Merlot (SRP $26), which is released each June 1st, Marilyn’s birthday. This June 2006 marks the 20th released vintage. Other wines in the collection are Marilyn Cabernet (SRP $38); Norma Jeane, a young Merlot (SRP $11); and the Velvet Collection (SRP $52).
John Gillespie, representative for Marilyn Wines, says, “Most people who buy these wines buy a bottle to drink and a bottle to collect, though some also buy a bottle to give as a gift.”
Speaking of Marilyn Wines, Fred Rosen believes they do well in his store because of the quality. How does he know? “Our wine staff tastes every single wine before it comes in the store. We wouldn’t sell a wine like Greg Norman or Marilyn Merlot unless we have tasted it ourselves and know it’s good enough for our customers.”
LaScola believes that Marilyn Wines have experienced success simply because “it is a cult thing.” He doesn’t think people really drink them. “People buy them as a gift or as a collector’s item because of the label and the label alone.” However, LaScola is quick to note that there has to be more than a great label keep you coming back for more.
Simply a Gimmick?
Rosen remarks that the “collector” wines - which others call “gimmick” wines - of Graceland Cellars and the like have not done as well in his store. Why? “People are leery of buying these wines to drink because they are more about the label than the product. People don’t know for certain if these wines are any good.” Cahill disagrees. He acknowledges that, to some wine consumers, the “fun”-themed, branded wines aren’t seen as serious wines but “we focus on wine quality for consumers looking for a fun bottle of quality wine. We have actually won awards at several wine competitions.”
The Label Isn’t Everything
The general consensus appears that, while the label itself may garner initial buzz and attention, this does not assure a quality wine. Celebrity wines will continue to sell if what’s in the bottle is actually up to par with your standards.
Regarding the celebrity name behind Vince Vineyards, Russ Dale explains: “Vince’s name on the bottle does get us out of the gate; however, there is a real passion there as well.” He adds that Parducci, the winemaker, makes wines that connoisseurs would like.
Jenkins, of Fleming Jenkins Vineyard & Winery, comments: “We hope that our celebrity friends who get into the wine business do it with a real passion for making quality wine. We hope this doesn’t turn into a ‘celebrity endorsement’ situation, since that will collectively diminish the reputation of all of us.”
Paul Davis, importer of Bracco Wines, shares a similar concern. He remarks candidly: “The celebrity wine business is going to die on the vine, because if the juice isn’t a good value, there won’t be any repeat buys. The quality must be in the bottle.”
Other Celebrity Brands
Wine is not the only beverage alcohol that celebrities are getting involved with. A few notables are:
Rocafella Records’ Armadale Vodka
In the spring of 2002, Rocafella Records introduced Armadale Vodka, a Scottish-based spirit, to the world. Rocafella Records, home of rapper (and company CEO) Jay-Z, who is also creator of Rocawear and Rocafilms, launched Armadale (SRP $42) in the U.S. They solicited a formal endorsement deal from Belvedere that made them primary endorsers of the brand, and opted to create, package, produce, and market their own product. This is only the beginning of the Rocafella Records’ crossover into the spirits industry - the team intends on developing and offering a full premium liquor selection in the future.
Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo
Rock legend Sammy Hagar owns award-winning premium tequila brand, Cabo Wabo, which was created in 1998 when he embarked on a search for 100% Blue Agave Tequila to be served in his Cabo Wabo Cantina. Hagar considers himself not only a world famous rock star, but also a tequila aficionado, wine expert, gourmet chef and restaurateur. He owns two Cabo Wabo Cantinas; one in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and one in South Lake Tahoe. Cabo Wabo tequila is 100% Weber blue agave; the line includes a Blanco (SRP $44.99), a Reposado (SRP $49.99) and an Anejo (SRP $54.99).
Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River
Inspired by and made for music legend Willie Nelson, Old Whiskey River Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (SRP $32) and Old Whiskey River Bourbon Cream were named after his 1978 hit song, Old Whiskey River. With a tagline like, “Try a one of a kind” and awards won at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, it’s no wonder that the brand has done so well.
Donald Trump’s Trump Vodka
Oh yes, you heard it right, with an expected launch date of spring 2006, Donald Trump is now lending his name to a vodka. Being heralded as “Trump: The World’s Finest Super-Premium Vodka,” the Donald himself remarked: “Trump Super Premium Vodka is a big idea. By the summer of ‘06, I expect the most called for cocktail in America to be the ‘T & T’ or the ‘Trump & Tonic.” If you’re a believer in all things Donald, it may just be time to start thinking about purchasing a bottle of Trump Vodka.
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