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What’s in a name? Celebrity wine…

With more and more celebrities becoming involved in producing wines, Lucy Shaw asks whether smattering of star dust is enough to generate sales.

SEX SELLS. But then, so does celebrity. This March, the first 6,000 bottles of the inaugural vintage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Provence wine – Miraval Rosé 2012 – were snapped up within five hours of going on sale online. The news marked a turning point in the life of the celebrity wine. Formerly a curiosity and something to be sought out by super fans, the Jolie-Pitt effort and the resulting clamour to get hold of a bottle was more akin to the Chinese trying to buy up the Bordeaux first growths three years ago. Never before had there been such a fanfare of press attention and consumer interest in a celebrity wine. The fair price point of €15 a bottle helped. Jolie and Pitt decided against using their celebrity as an excuse to charge an extortionate price for their wine, unlike former NBA basketball star Yao Ming, who released the first vintage (2009) of his Yao Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve onto the market last year at £390 a bottle.

While celebrity vintners are nothing new – the likes of Sir Cliff Richard, Mick Hucknall and Dan Aykroyd have been making wine for years in the Algarve, Etna and Ontario respectively – in the last few years a slew of new celebrities have entered the club, with wine fast replacing perfume as the celebrity pet project of choice in order to reflect said star’s sophisticated lifestyle. From the aforementioned Brangelina and Yao Ming, to actress Drew Barrymore, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, rapper Lil Jon and footballer Lionel Messi, celebrities from all spheres are jumping on the wine bandwagon, though their level of involvement varies hugely, as does the quality of the resulting wines.

Lil Jon

At the top of the celebrity wine tree, there are a number of stars whose passion for wine runs deep, leading them to invest in their own vineyard projects and play a key role in the production of their wines, rather than simply splashing their names across the label. The first serious celebrity vintner to emerge on the scene was film director Francis Ford Coppola, who bought part of the famed Inglenook Estate in Rutherford, Napa Valley, in 1975. Having named his property Rubicon Estate, in 2011 Coppola won the rights to the Inglenook trademark and last year released the first vintage (2009) baring the Inglenook label since the estate was broken up in 1964. Proving that quality is at the top of Coppola’s agenda, in 2011 he poached Philippe Bascaules from Château Margaux and appointed him estate manager.


As a rule, the more serious a celebrity is about their wine, the less evidence of them you’ll find on their labels. For Coppola’s first vintage under the Inglenook name, the director chose to give a subtle modern twist to the Inglenook labels of the 1950s, enlisting a retired US mint artist to create the retro label featuring the façade of the estate on the front in the Old World style. “Coppola’s labels are iconic and have a huge shelf presence. He’s turned his wines into a massive brand,” believes Kevin Shaw, owner of drinks packaging design agency Stranger & Stranger. Similarly, at Two Paddocks estate in Central Otago, New Zealand born and based actor Sam Neill is fiercely passionate about Pinot Noir. So much so, that in 1993 he invested in a vineyard in Gibbston with the initial aim of making wine for his family and friends. His small project proved so fruitful that Neill has since bought two further sites and his Pinots, including a single vineyard expression, are now sold around the world, imported into the UK by Haynes, Hanson & Clark. “Sam Neill being the owner certainly gives some extra pizzazz to the label, but we don’t treat Two Paddocks as a ‘celebrity’ wine; it’s a top quality Central Otago estate that happens to be owned by a successful actor,” says HH&C’s director Jim Eustace.

Neill admits that he is keen to distance himself from the “celebrity winemaker” tag: “I find the idea of celebrity wine vaguely distasteful – we have never sold our wine using the celebrity hook,” says Neill, who doesn’t consider himself “by any measure” a celebrity. Like Coppola, Neill’s labels are subtle and simple, bearing no trace of the owner’s Hollywood roots. “With Inglenook and Two Paddocks you have to be in the know that they are owned by famous people, which makes it easier to sell the wine because you appeal to more people; the super fans will know about your wines and seek them out and non-fans will happen upon them as they do any wine,” says Abigail Pitcher of wine label design agency Barlow Doherty. For Neill, winemaking is a way of life rather than a brand-building opportunity, but he feels there is no harm in the new wave of celebrity vintners giving winemaking a go. “I see no reason why they should be less qualified to make wine than a banker or the owners of a private equity fund,” he says.


Striving to make a high quality Provençal rosé at the Coteaux Varois estate they bought in 2008 for a reported US$55m (£35m), wine lovers Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie teamed up with Marc Perrin, owner of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for help with the production of their Miraval rosé. “Brad and Angelina want to do more than just put their name on the label. They want to be proud of the wine from their property,” Perrin told reporters earlier this year. The only evidence of arguably the world’s most glamourous couple’s involvement in the wine is a simple “Mis en bouteille par Jolie-Pitt & Perrin” etched in white on the back of the bottle. The front label is a discreet black, white and gold disc that allows the salmon pink wine to be the star of the show rather than the stars behind it. Stranger & Stranger’s Shaw applauds Brangelina’s understated branding approach. “They eschewed Jolie-Pitt as a brand name and didn’t try to do anything other than a stylish and restrained design. Would the packaging have sold the wine in record time if their names weren’t attached to the brand? Of course not,” he says.

Unlike Angelina, American actress Drew Barrymore chose to give her name a starring role on her wine brand’s label. Born of a hook-up with US importer Wilson Daniels, last February, Barrymore made her wine debut with Barrymore 2011 Pinot Grigio made from grapes grown in the Veneto, Friuli and Alto Adige. Keen to target a switched-on young audience, the contemporary label, featuring a modern take on the Barrymore family crest, was designed by street artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” poster. While the actress has taken part in the obligatory photo shoot of her bathed in sunlight, smiling and caressing a row of northern Italian vines, Barrymore’s input into the wine was minimal. Instead, Wilson Daniels has cleverly leveraged Barrymore’s celebrity in order to shift bottles of the popular if often vapid grape variety Pinot Grigio to female consumers keen to buy into Barrymore’s glossy, sun-drenched lifestyle.

Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie

Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie’s wines seem to cater to a similar market. Launched last May, the four-strong range, including a Syrah, Cabernet, Viognier and recently launched red blend “Fergalicious”, is made at the 2.5 hectare Ferguson Crest estate in Santa Barbara, run by Fergie’s green-fingered father Pat. Of Scottish descent, Fergie’s labels, created by Boston-based designer Adam Larson, bear the Ferguson family crest featuring a boar’s head as a symbol of hospitality. Aware of the power of branding, Fergie is unafraid of using her celebrity status to flog her wines, with collector’s edition signed bottles of the Fergalicious blend selling at over four times the price of a regular bottle through the simple addition of a gift box and the singer’s scribble on the top of the bottle in gold pen. However, the songstress is keen to stress that her family-owned wine brand is more than mere marketing propaganda: “My father and I are involved in every step of the production process, from growing, picking and stomping the grapes to the label design. This is not a sponsorship or an endorsement, we’re very hands on,” she insists.

Dave Stewart and Mollydooker

And for celebrities who would rather dabble in wine than make the more lasting commitment of investing in a vineyard, there is always the option of a collaboration with a like-minded producer on a limited- edition run. One such duet came about last April when former Eurythmics star Dave Stewart teamed up with McLaren Vale estate Mollydooker on Ringmaster General Shiraz 2010, named after the title of Stewart’s latest album. Proving how the power of celebrity backing can help sell the same product for double the price, Stewart’s wine, a repackaged version of Mollydooker’s Carnival of Love Shiraz featuring a funky illustration of a top hat- wearing, guitar wielding Stewart, came out at £78 a bottle; a price his fans were more than willing to pay as each bottle came in a gift box that included the new album and a documentary on the making of it. “Collaborations of this kind work best when there’s a natural fit between the two parties – Mollydooker’s maverick owners are the perfect fit for Stewart, and the label design is great as a result,” believes Pitcher of Barlow Doherty.


Lil Jon’s wine

But while there are many success stories, celebrity wines don’t always succeed. A few years ago, diminutive dreadlocked rapper Lil Jon decided to move into wine, though admitted the idea “came from nowhere” and that he was “no expert”. The result was a Central Coast Chardonnay, Monterey Merlot and Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon made by California- based consultant winemaker Alison Crowe and branded under the name Little Jonathan Winery in a bid to distance the wines from the Atlanta-born rapper’s flamboyant stage persona. The navy blue labels, designed by Damion Hickman, were surprisingly understated given their flashy owner. “The challenge was to embody Lil Jon’s personality while trying to maintain a legitimacy to the brand,” Hickman said at the time. Sadly, that was back in 2008 and Lil Jon’s foray into wine appears to have gone in the same direction as his music career.

Proving fashion and subtlety don’t mix, perma-tanned, cigar smoking Italian designer Roberto Cavalli sashayed into the wine world in 2008 with Cavalli Selection, a collaboration with his son Tommaso, who manages family estate Tenuta degli Dei in Chianti. Top blend Cavalli Collection came housed in a black bottle baring an interlocking RC embossed in brass, which was sold with a pair of black goblets in a leopard print-lined gift box. But the fashionistas didn’t bite and the garish gift set is no longer on sale. Having failed to take the wine world by storm, Cavalli has since sidestepped into vodka, releasing a wheat-based version in a frosted bottle encircled by a serpent. Both Lil Jon and Roberto Cavalli are proof that celebrity status cannot guarantee success in the wine world. In fact, it is the brands whose wine designs keep their distance from their celebrity makers that are enjoying the most success in the mainstream market. While some estates can be given a boost by celebrity backing, for famous vintners looking to build credible wine brands, egos need to be left at the door and names off the label.

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