Mike Weir, Dan Aykroyd, Bob Izumi and, now, Wayne Gretzky. Each has his own wine label and three of them will soon have their own wineries. What is it about celebrities? What entices them to lend their names and images to wines rather than to more conventional lines of clothing or male fragrances?
This is not just a Canadian phenomenon. If you look around the world, you see a growing numbers of film stars, singers, sportsmen, chefs and porn stars (!) whose names now adorn labels. Here is just a short list off the top of my head: Francis Ford Coppola, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Gérard Depardieu, Olivia Newton-John, Sir Cliff Richard, Sam Neill, Bob Dylan, Sting, Emeril Lagasse, Lleyton Hewitt, former Bond girl Carole Bouquet (perfect for a vintner), Madonna, Lorraine Bracco of The Sopranos, Mario Andretti, adult-movie star Savanna Samson … the mind reels.
Then there are the famous dead people whose names have been licensed to sell wines and whose estates benefit from the proceeds — Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead (indeed).
We are seeing a new wave of entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes in unrelated fields investing millions in winery buildings that could make the cover of Architectural Digest. These winemaker-come-latelies see fermenting grape juice as a second career and are seduced by the lifestyle — even if they may be living proof of the time-honoured conundrum: How do you make a small fortune from the wine industry? Answer: You start with a large one.
At least we are acquiring some interesting-looking real estate from these investors that draws people down to wine country. I’m thinking of Mission Hill and Burrowing Owl in the Okanagan and contemporary new wineries in Ontario such as Flat Rock, Tawse, Stratus and Fielding. (Unfortunately, it looks as if Frank Gehry’s lemon-meringue-pie design for Le Clos Jordanne’s facility will never be built now that Constellation has taken over Vincor.)
But what effect are these wines with celebrity names having on the consuming public? In our mania for film stars and rock idols, are we prepared to buy a bottle of Wayne Gretzky Chardonnay just because it has No. 99’s name on it? We may do so once, out of curiosity, but if what’s inside the bottle doesn’t cut the mustard then we will experience a sense of letdown. If the celeb appeal is going to work, the wine has to be palatable for the price.
This tabloid approach to wine, I sense, does have its benefits in the long run. Any ruse to get the public to actually buy a bottle of wine rather than a bottle of beer has got to be, in the words of Maratha Stewart, a good thing. Although I’m surprised that Martha has not yet brought out her own wine. And can you imagine what would happen if Oprah got into the act? Yellow Tail move over. No more wine lakes.
If novice wine drinkers are brought to the table because they are fans of Gretzky or want to fish like Bob Izumi or chip like Mike Weir, that’s fine by me. They will get a taste for wine and will want to explore their palate preferences.
From the producers’ point of view, of course, celebrity names help distinguish a Chardonnay or a red blend from the rest of the pack. In the future, I predict that we will see other wineries who, eschewing the celebrity route, will use fantasy names to individualize their Chardonnay or whatever without recourse to such empty phrases as “Winemaker’s Select” or “Proprietor’s Reserve.” Flat Rock has already done it with their Rusty Shed Chardonnay.
In the celebrity stakes, who’s next to get their own brand? I’d put my money on Don Cherry. Makes sense: after all, his nickname is Grapes.
This column was originally published in the October 2007 issue of Tidings. Please visit TonyAspler.com for more.