Celebrity Winemakers

Marilyn Merlot and Jailhouse Red aren’t high-end plonk, but they are among the better-known and widely consumed Marilyn and Elvis selections — celebrity wines with a hint of exploitation, a heavy aroma of kitsch and a nose for profit.

Celebrity wines are in, to judge by this growing list: Madonna, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Weir, Tommy Lasorda, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey, Lorraine Bracco, Larry Bird, Fess Parker, Francis Ford Coppola, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Gérard Depardieu, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, Sting, Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher, Paris Hilton, Cliff Richard, Steven Seagal, Sam Neill and Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil.

The Gretzky and the Aykroyd were among the top 10 bestselling wines of 2007, according to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, the largest single wine buyer in the world.

LCBO, which sells about 121 million cases of wine annually, figures that over 12 months it will sell 11,000 cases of the new Aykroyd wines, or more than $1.7 million worth. Ahead of the Booze Brother is The Great One’s grog with predicted sales of 18,000 cases or $2.7 million.

Spokesman Chris Layton says all new celebrity wines have been selling well and significantly better than new, non-celebrity brands. In 34 weeks, the two Aykroyd wines (Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot) have accounted for more than $1 million in sales. After 16 weeks, the two Gretzky wines (unoaked Chardonnay and Merlot) have done even better. The Weir wines are also big sellers, sold in Vintages with Greg Normans, Fess Parkers and Gérard Depardieus.

This new frontier is divided between celebs who wouldn’t know a Château Latour from a Château Laurier and genuine connoisseurs, like Els and Coppola, who guide the process from vine to bottle. Then there are the likes of Sopranos’ star Bracco. She doesn’t produce the wine but rather is a discerning importer of Tuscany tipple with more than a passing interest in what’s in the bottles emblazoned with her name.

Celebrity wines sell because most mainstream wine buyers are intimidated by the down-your-nose snobbery of sniffy people who have, or claim to have, greater knowledge than they do. Most purchase wine based solely on the label — hence the proliferation of celebrity endorsement and, incidentally, critters. Kangaroos, pigs, roosters, bears and monkeys have done wonders for wine sales. If it’s OK by Madonna, Mariah Carey or Wayne Gretzky or some other celebrity we admire, it’s OK by us.

“We live in a celebrity age and wine remains a mysterious product for many people,” says Ottawa wine writer Natalie MacLean. “We’re not confident enough to buy based on our own palates, so we get lured in by star power. And it’s kind of fun to give a golfing buddy a bottle of Greg Norman. It’s the same reason a lot of people buy Fat Bastard — it has a fun name.”

But, says MacLean, the wine must deliver. “Wine is one of the few products you can’t test or taste before you buy it,” she says. (MacLean, who writes a wine newsletter at www.nataliemaclean.com, tastes between 400 and 500 each month.)

“You can read the first chapter of a book, or try on a dress, but generally you can’t sample wine in store before you buy it. So it has to taste good or you’re not going to buy it twice.”

The average price Canadians pay for a bottle of wine is $10. So, except on special occasions, this puts out of reach the more serious celebrity wines like a Francis Ford Coppola at $30 or $40 a bottle.

At the lower end, competition is fierce, especially when merchants are fighting for space on the monopolistic shelves of the LCBO. “There are more than one million wine producers worldwide, and they have to get noticed somehow,” MacLean explains. “Using celebrities is as good a way as any, but people won’t be lured by star power if the wine doesn’t fall within their price range.”

The earliest known wine labels were found in Egypt. Carved in stone, they detailed who and how the wine was made, says Diane Dobry of New York’s Columbia University. Labels as we now know them appeared around 1860 when glue was developed that could adhere them to bottles. Information-only labels were more or less the norm until the 1980s when more and more common folk started to imbibe.

“Wine drinking became less of an elite practice,” says Dobry. “But the greater the mass wine drinkers were not as educated about wine. So making eye-catching labels was necessary so that wines could compete. That has increasingly brought them into the realm of pop culture, especially as wine drinking has becomes more popular with young people.”

Dobry has begun her own business importing Hungarian wine. For a year, she’s been trying to get Zsa Zsa Gabor to endorse one of the her sparkling wines. “She would be ideal.” So far, no response.

Celebrity wines are “the next new marketing oasis,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, host of The Thunder Show webcast.

“It’s a Holy Grail opportunity for celebrities to build their own personal brand. Unlike beer and liquor, wine is the brand of a higher lifestyle,” he says. “For a celebrity, the cost of entry is also very low. It’s very easy for a Larry Bird, Mariah Carey or Madonna to say ‘I like drinking it’ and they have instant credibility for millions of people.”

Vaynerchuk, who markets himself as a wine expert for the common Joe, draws about 60,000 viewers daily — many from Canada. He owns a wine store in New Jersey and is a regular on high-profile TV talk shows. Celebrities, he predicts, will be adorning even more of our wine bottles. “But many are business whores concerned about selling a million bottles and don’t care what’s inside.”

All that said, he warns that you shouldn’t judge a celebrity vintage by its label. “JayZee or whomever can have the gaudiest wine label out there, but if the wine rocks, it’s going to be a winner. For me, it’s going to be a fun journey trying all these.”

Vaynerchuk’s current favourite is Ernie Els’ South African wine. “He is making a small quantity of high quality stuff,” he says. “It’s not cheap — $30 to $70 — but he cares about the quality. He’s deeply into it.”

Watch for even more unlikely celebs to be renting out their images to sell plonk, says Vaynerchuk. “It’s going to get worse — or better, depending on how you look at it.”

Online video

Who has legs? Which one is rich? Who is robust and complex?

Find out as wine writer Natalie MacLean, right, evaluates a flight of celebrity wine.

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