Normally you’d figure that any PGA Tour player accepting high-fives for scoring in the 90s must have had a sip of something strong. A group of current and former pros, though, have taken winemakers for playing partners and adopted the wine critics’ 100-point scale as a new measure of being on par.
The idea is simple enough: Golfers bring the fame, winemakers bring the expertise and together they alchemize the mix into a golden brand. Greg Norman has been at it for nearly two decades. More recently, Arnold Palmer, Mike Weir, Nick Faldo, John Daly, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Gary Player have all jumped in, the latter releasing his first bottling this spring.
On the whole, connoisseurs give high marks. Els’ and Norman’s have received the best scores in the wine press, and other projects like Mike Weir’s have had a warm reception as well.
“They liked my image and my ability to reach a certain audience,” says Greg Norman about Beringer Blass, now part of the Australian conglomerate Fosters Group. The company approached him in the 1990s. “I liked them because they had financial and marketing wherewithal. They had [an Australian] wine that wasn’t selling well in America, and they wanted to completely change the image, change the taste and rebrand it.”
The company introduced Norman to two in-house wine experts. They spent months tasting together, fine-tuning wines to Norman’s palate.
“Then,” Norman recalls, “we had to identify our market. We could go high-end, to the $100 bottle, where there are pretty good margins but low volume, or we could go to lower margins but higher volume.”
They chose to stay reasonably priced and have grown since their 1999 debut, recently introducing California appellations, and achieving sales in 2007 approaching 300,000 bottles.
If Norman wasn’t originally a wine expert, Ernie Els wasn’t even a wine drinker when he got involved in the business. At the time, Els’ favorite varietal was, um, beer. But his wife, Liesl, liked wine, and their friend Jean Engelbrecht, whom the couple had known since they were teenagers, happened to be one of South Africa’s most respected winemakers.
“They said, ‘Why don’t we open a winery together?'” says Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht gave Els an education in wine, and the first vintage of Ernie Els Wines was produced in 2000. The winery, located in South Africa’s Stellenbosch, sits on a high slope with views of the 72-hectare estate. There are plush sitting areas, a one-room museum showcasing Els’ achievements, a barrel room and a tasting bar looking out on the vineyards.
For Els, the winery was the first step in a Norman-like empire, with a golf-course design company, a real estate company, a clothing line and a golf-travel venture, the last one with Engelbrecht as a partner as well.
“Golfers haven’t succeeded [in other businesses] unless they were personally involved,” Engelbrecht says. “Ernie has done that, and his name has helped the whole South African category get attention from places that were ignoring us before.”
Mike Weir has likewise raised the profile of Canadian wine. The Ontario native opened Mike Weir Estate Winery in 2005 on the Niagara Peninsula and quickly started winning medals at Canada’s top wine competition, the Cuvée Awards, in 2006 and 2007. His Vidal Icewine, made from grapes harvested after the freeze, follows Ontario’s (and British Columbia’s) success at producing the sweet wine style pioneered in Germany.
Unlike these other business endeavors, however, Weir’s is not a quest for personal riches. Instead, all proceeds go to the Mike Weir Foundation, which benefits Canadian children’s charities.
Gary Player had real estate in mind when he started a wine venture. Led by his son, Marc, chief executive of Black Knight International, the company put together a consortium to acquire a well-known South African vineyard, the Boschendal Estate, in 2004. The primary aim was a golf-and-real- estate development, but Marc Player says making wine has become a way to honor his father’s career. The winery’s Major Championship Series collection will be bottled every year to commemorate Player’s 18 Major and Senior Major victories. The first vintage is a 2003 Stellenbosch Bordeaux-style blend released at the Masters in April. They will be available at wine stores and at select Gary Player golf courses.
“We’re looking to extend the brand to areas outside of our core business,” Marc Player said. “It’s not mass-market and it’s priced at the high end, so it all fits with our key customers–baby boomers who travel and drink wine. Wine fits well in terms of the grand strategy.”
For his South African venture, Retief Goosen linked up with winemaker Morné Jonker on South Africa’s Garden Route–250 miles from the Cape area where almost all of the country’s wines are now produced, on land that has quickly built a reputation for having the densest concentration of championship-caliber golf in Africa.
Jonker saw an opportunity to make wine in the country’s coldest growing region and create European- or Old World– styled wines.
“We’ll never make more than 5,000 cases. So with small volume, we’ll focus on high-quality wines that are priced at the higher end,” he says.
Last year, The Goose Winery launched its 2005 vintage, a Cabernet Sauvignon- Shiraz blend. The 2003 vintage was introduced to the U.S. market at the 2008 CA (nyse: CA – news – people ) Championship at the Doral Resort & Spa in March.
Retief promotes his wine on the pro circuit. “His branding makes a difference,” Jonker says. “He markets with resorts, such as Mission Hills in China. He’s an ambassador to Rolex, and we serve at their corporate functions around the world, including Carnoustie last year.”
With all this star power, does it matter that many of these wines are actually good? Sure, says sommelier and wine critic Natalie MacLean. “The wines are ultimately brand extensions for these marquee sportsmen, but in the end, they have to deliver on taste, and they do.”
“They have a legacy attached to them,” adds Mark Russo, a longtime wine writer and golf enthusiast who founded Angel’s Share, a food and wine events company in California. “If you’re truly a golf aficionado, you probably don’t care; it’s a nice souvenir, a great keepsake and may actually increase in value with an autograph. But for the true wine geek, it’s what ends up in the glass and not what’s on the label that counts. It can’t be just a pure business deal.”