Many stars trying to shine in the wine world

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2012 - 2:51 PM

Celebrities, current and fading, are increasingly delving into owning wineries.

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The Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Calif., has built itself as a destination.

Photo: Mike Siegel, MCT

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Like the rest of us, celebrities enjoy wine. The hip-hop star Drake helped fuel the continuing rise of moscato by rapping about it. Actor Johnny Depp has a tattoo that reads "Wino forever" (although it should be noted that it originally read "Winona forever" back when he and Winona Ryder were an item).

Some luminaries, especially recently, have been going a step further by opening their own wineries, or lending their name to wines for branding purposes. AC/DC "Highway to Hell" Cabernet, anyone?

In recent weeks, Antonio Banderas launched Anta Banderas, and Drew Barrymore (a recovering addict, no less) announced the May release of something the world had not been clamoring for, a spendy pinot grigio.

They join country singer Miranda Lambert (whose line includes "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Kerosene"), NASCAR star Jeff Gordon, tenor Andrea Bocelli, politician Nancy Pelosi and "Real Housewife" Ramona Singer as entrants in the winery world.

But the biggest contingents in this cross-branding exercise seem to be rock musicians (Boz Scaggs, Dave Matthews, Queensryche's Geoff Tate) and golfers (Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Mike Weir), aiming squarely at the partying and country-club audiences, respectively.

One golfer, David Frost, has a fairly avid local following for his South African wines, thanks in part to tastings he has hosted at Blaine's Tournament Players Club while there for a seniors tournament.

"Two years ago he hosted a wine event, and then he won the tournament," said Corey Burstad, owner of nearby Tournament Liquors. "That didn't hurt sales."

Still, Burstad said, it's "a tough market" for celebrity-affiliated wines. Consumers often are skeptical, wondering if a luminary's name might mean more focus on the label than the actual product. On the other hand, Marilyn Merlot, which has nothing to do with the late starlet, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

A few years ago, my better half and I were staying next door to the Raymond Burr Vineyards. When we drove past the sign that read "tasting room, featuring Raymond Burr memorabilia," she said, "I don't think I want to be looking at Ironside's wheelchair when I'm sipping cabernet."

Burr was part of the first wave of Hollywood types who started wineries decades ago, along with Fess Parker (whose Central California vineyards abut the late Michael Jackson's Neverland property) and Francis Ford Coppola.

Those pedigrees create sales approximating zero, Burstad said. "A lot of people don't even know who ["Godfather" director] Coppola is, which is sad. They just know it as a brand," he said. "Fess Parker [TV's "Daniel Boone" in the 1960s], they have no clue."

The Fess Parker wines, observers say, went downhill during the years when the actor's son was winemaker but have improved in recent years. Lesson: Even if a name might sell the first bottle, the wine has to deliver if there's going to be a follow-up purchase.

Actor Dan Aykroyd recognized that, so he's in the room when the blends for his eponymous chardonnay and cabernet come together. "It's like working on a script," he said. "You do the first draft, then you revise it, then you punch it up, then you polish it."

More than a name

Burstad pointed out that many celebrities "are getting better at instead of just putting their name behind it, getting more involved. [Ex- NFL star] Drew Bledsoe has put a lot into his [Double Back] label."

So has Kix Brooks of the retired country duo Brooks & Dunn. When I visited with Brooks last autumn at his winery southeast of Nashville -- full disclosure: I have known him since we were cadets at Sewanee (Tenn.) Military Academy -- his passion for the product was clear and direct.

A major reason he partnered with winemaker Kip Summers was the latter's "great relationships with growers in Napa and Washington," Brooks said. That's where they get the grapes that go into Arrington Vineyards' delicious syrah, riesling and KB409, maybe the best $50 cab made east of the Rockies (with Napa grapes).

The surest sign that this is not a vanity project: KB409 is the only Arrington product (available at www.arington vineyards.com) that has anything resembling Brooks' name on the front or back label. It is, after all, what's inside the bottle that counts.

  • WINE OF THE WEEK

    DAVID FROST SIGNATURE SERIES CHENIN BLANC 2011

    The experience: Here we have one of those clean and simple yet lively pleasures that prompt dreams of patio season. There are tropical-fruit and citrus elements, and just enough minerality to provide a refreshing mouth feel and finish.

    The setting: Delicious on its own, or as what we call a "cooking wine" (to be sipped while preparing a meal), this South African white also should rock with lighter chicken and seafood dishes, or virtually anything called "spa food."

    The back story: This is not the British journalist and Nixon interviewer David Frost, but a South African golfer.

    The tab: $12, available at Byerly's, Big Discount Liquor, MGM Forest Lake, On The Rocks, Zipps, Wine Thief.

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