In focus: Celebrity collaborations in Aussie wine

Celebrity wine collaborations provide a golden opportunity to attract new consumers to the wine category, but, in order to succeed, there has to be a genuine purpose behind the partnership, finds Lucy Shaw.

Everyone is at it. From Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who, despite separating in 2016, continue to make wine together with Marc Perrin at Château Miraval in Provence, to Jurassic Park star Sam Neill in New Zealand, whose Central Otago Pinots sell for £45 a pop, celebrity wines are no longer a gimmick and deserve to be taken seriously. Their pulling power was demonstrated in July when the entire run of a limited-edition charity wine released by American rock band Pearl Jam to help tackle homelessness in their home city of Seattle sold out within 15 minutes of the news being announced.

It was a similar story for Pitt and Jolie when they released the first 6,000 bottles of their debut 2012 vintage of Miraval Rosé in March 2013 via the Perrin family website. Having gone on sale at 9am, by 2pm all 6,000 bottles had been snapped up at the wallet-friendly price of €15 (£13.60) a bottle; a price the couple could have comfortably doubled and still sold out of, should they have wanted to. The rise of celebrity wine collaborations in Australia is proving a popular way to introduce a new audience to the wine category, one that might otherwise be sipping beer or downing Tequila shots.

Early to the Australian celebrity wine party was cricketer Shane Warne, as well known for his controversial antics off the pitch as his skill on it. In 2002, Warne partnered with Zilzie Wines, a 30,000-tonne operation near Mildura in northwest Victoria, on the Shane Warne Collection. The range was formed of just two wines made from Victoria fruit: a Chardonnay and a red blend made from Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot. At the time of the launch, Warne was candid about his lack of wine knowledge, telling the Sydney Morning Herald: “It took me a while to understand what Chardonnay is and what red wine is. I didn’t even know what made a red and a white different.”

Former cricketer Sir Ian Botham launched a three-tier range of Australian wines this year

The paper described the Chardonnay as “resinous and a little alcoholic”, but was a little kinder about the red, which it found to be “textural and leafy, with some good tannin grip”. Proving a celebrity name is not enough to ensure success, Warne’s wines failed to bowl people over, and the brand ceased production after just one vintage.

Heavy involvement Another cricketer to have entered the wine game is Sir Ian Botham, though in stark contrast to Warne, ‘Beefy’ Botham couldn’t be more serious about wine, and is heavily involved in the blending process in his three-tier range, which recently launched in the UK amid much fanfare at Lord’s Cricket Ground.

As he told db in our exclusive interview in August, Botham is keen not to be called a ‘celebrity winemaker’, as he believes it implies he’s simply stuck his name on an existing product rather than made the wine himself.

As it happens, Botham became so involved with the production process that he ended up dictating the composition of certain blends, adding an increasing amount of fruit from Margaret River to his entry-level Chardonnay the way a chef might season his dishes with salt, taking the blend, which retails at £8, from 10% Margaret River fruit to 30% – meaning the final consumer gets a lot of bang for their buck. The Botham collection is the brainchild of former Accolade CEO Paul Schaafsma, who put his cunning plan to the former cricketer over breakfast in Sydney two years ago.

Botham’s top tier Chardonnay

Botham wanted in on the project, so long as he had final sign-off on the wines, something Schaafsma admits he “should have taken more seriously” at the time. In a similar story to the All-Rounder Chardonnay, Botham insisted on including 30% Coonawarra fruit in the final blend of his entry-level Cabernet. Developed and sold through Schaafsma’s distribution company, Benchmark Drinks, Schaafsma believes the Botham range will attract consumers who are often left baffled by the bewildering level of choice confronting them in supermarket wine aisles.

“Most UK shoppers will never meet a winemaker in their lives. When they go to buy wine, they’re looking for a cue that makes them feel comfortable and gives them confidence in the bottle they’re buying. A creek, hill or ridge they’ve never heard of doesn’t necessarily convey that,” says Schaafsma. “It’s easy to be cynical about celebrity wines but there’s definitely a place for them, as consumers are looking for brands they can trust, but it’s important that the wine inside the bottle is compelling and represents value for money, otherwise we’re misleading the consumer.”

Schaafsma believes the success of a celebrity wine depends on the star behind it and their intentions for the brand. “Ian is in it for the long haul, and wants to spend the next 20 years making wine. His passion for the project adds authenticity and gravitas to the wines,” says Schaafsma, who has a 50% stake in the Botham brand, and plans to sell it all over the world. “We’re partners for life on it.”

But does the end consumer really care whether the star whose name is on the label actually made the wine or not? Schaafsma thinks so. “When I think of Brangelina’s rosé I picture them drinking it on a terrace in Provence, even though they’re no longer together. People buy wine for emotive reasons and want to feel that the celebrity has been involved in making it,” he says.

Schaafsma’s collaboration is savvy, as he of all people knows how hard it is to create a successful wine brand from scratch in the UK, and with the Botham range he’s able to capitalise on Beefy’s revered reputation from the get-go. Celebrity wines Schaafsma is no stranger to celebrity wines, having recently worked with New Zealand producer Invivo to launch a Graham Norton wine range in the UK, which is the fastest-growing New Zealand wine brand in Britain.

He also helped engineer Hardys’ sponsorship of the England cricket team when he was at Accolade; a multi-million-pound consumer campaign that came complete with a series of tongue-in-cheek adverts that playfully questioned the capabilities of the England squad. The adverts, which continue to run ahead of the Ashes in England next year, have added nearly 50p to the average bottle price of Hardys in the UK. In May, Hardys injected a further £1 million into a new ad campaign, called The Rules According to Hardys, focusing on cricket’s quirky rules and how Brits interpret them. David White, Accolade’s marketing director, says: “We have consistently invested in Hardys sponsorship of the England cricket team over the past few years, and have established our credentials as a long-term supporter of English cricket.”

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