Premier crew: the rise of celebrity wine-makers

It all started with Francis Ford Coppola. Now it seems you're no one without your own vineyard. Richard Ehrlich tastes the best of the celeb wines and asks, how long before J.Lo Merlot?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There's a saying in the trade that if you want to make a small fortune out of wine, you need to start out with a large fortune. Building a winery from scratch can cost millions. If you have to plant the vineyards, you won't get income from them for several years - and, to start with, the young vines won't produce fruit of sufficient quality to command high prices.

So, who'd want to be a vigneron? The eminent winemaker Kim Goldwater, who planted the first vineyards on New Zealand's Waiheke Island in 1978, answered that by saying: "Inside every gynaecologist there's a winemaker fighting to get out." He was commenting on the skyrocketing real estate prices on his island, where land was cheap when he bought it but now commands staggering sums. Professionals in other fields started piling in after seeing the quality (and prices) that Goldwater achieved. They wanted a hobby that would earn them some money and some fame.

Now a new breed of hobbyist has come into the wine trade. For them, fame is not a problem: they've got that already. Celebrity wine can probably be dated (if you don't count the winemaking exploits at the wedding at Cana) to the late 1970s. The trend has really taken off since the 1990s, with figures from sport and showbusiness pasting their labels on wines from the US, Australia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Sting, Sam Neill, Cliff Richard, and Gerard Depardieu are just a few of the show-biz figures to get into the business. Bob Dylan has his name on a red from Le Marche which sells for around $75 (£42) in the US. Even Vince Neil, of the heavy-metal band Mötley Crüe, has announced his intention to make wine. (I'd have pegged him as a tequila-slammer man, but that just shows how ignorant I am.) And then there's the sporting contingent, which in this case means golfing contingent. Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman all have wines.

What is it that draws these people to wine? Well, the money must have something to do with it. In a few of these cases, as far as I've been able to tell, the branching-out is a kind of licensing deal aimed largely at producing income. Fair enough, as long as the wine is good.

In some cases, however, I get the feeling that they do it because they like it. And the most shocking thing of all about celebrity wines, those I've tasted and those of which I've heard well-informed reports, is that they're all decent stuff. Acceptable at least, very good in some cases, and occasionally stupendous.

Niebaum-Coppola, the Napa Valley wine venture that started the celebrity wine phenomenon, is atypical in most ways. Director Francis Ford Coppola's grandparents, like many Italians, made wine at home for personal consumption. When the film director looked around for a place where he might follow suit, he happened upon the well-established Inglenook estate in the Napa valley where wine had been made since the 1880s.Coppola came upon the estate in 1975, when he was looking for a little country place to spend weekends with his family - and make a little wine.

As you'd expect from the man who has nearly ruined himself several times over making hopelessly extravagant pictures, the Coppola plan expanded greatly. Can you really imagine the man who directed Apocalypse Now (230 shooting days and $30m over budget) being content to make a few barrels of vino for himself and the missus? The Coppola range now includes not just his flagship Rubicon (overweight, overblown and overpriced) but a large set of commercial wines made from grapes grown well outside the boundaries of his own estate. He has even roped his daughter Sofia, herself a film director, into the act. Several wines bear her name, including a range sold in aluminium cans. If you want to try to learn more, look at www.sofiamini.com, the most useless and annoying website on earth.

Those who followed Coppola have done things differently, and generally on a much smaller scale. Their personal involvement with the product can range from "approval" to extensive hands-on wine-geekery, and those who lend nothing more than their names take on no financial risk by joining in the merriment. Of course, few will admit that their involvement amounts to tasting a few barrel samples, posing for a picture, and climbing back in the Lear jet with a nice cheque in one's briefcase. But this is clearly the limit of some celebs' involvement - as you can glean from reading between the lines on their websites or listening to the politely non-descriptive answers from their press spokesmen.

On the other hand, some of them are obviously passionate about wine. Gerard Depardieu is photographed pruning vines in one of his vineyards, and I think he really means it. The website for Sam Neill's New Zealand winery ( www.twopaddocks.com) makes it plain that Mr Neill is a wine geek. Greg Norman is the general manager of Greg Norman Estates.

I'm trying hard to be cynical about this whole business, and I'm having limited success. OK, it's clear that wine is a rich person's plaything in these instances - but if the wine is good, isn't it a better plaything than a fleet of Maseratis or an indoor ski jump? It's clear also that some celebs will endorse anything that's shoved their way - but again, if the wine is good and their name helps sell it, then who loses? Interestingly, the attachment of the famous name doesn't always guarantee greater sales. One retailer I spoke to said he wouldn't touch most of the name-branded show-biz or sporty wines because his customers would regard them as a gimmick. Diehard fans would feel differently, of course. You can order Vida Nova, Cliff Richard's wine, through some branches of the fan club. And if some of the world's golfers are converted from G&Ts to good Australian red by the outstanding Nick Faldo Shiraz 2001, then the world will be a slightly better place. You can get that particular wine for £9.05 from www.bibendum-wine.co.uk; winesbythecase.com; everywine.co.uk; and a small chain called Off the Vine.

In one sense, the celeb wine is just a new wrinkle in the same long-term trend that Kim Goldwater described: people with lots and lots of money sometimes like to spend some of it making wine. Where the riches formerly came from medicine, advertising or banking, now they sometimes come from the entertainment industry or professional sport. In another sense, it's something completely new: a convergence of two current mass obsessions, with prestigious consumables and famous people. And again: if the wine is good and the name helps it sell, where's the problem?

In the meantime, we are left waiting for the next wave of arrivistes. When will we get to taste J-Lo Merlot? When will there be a co-operative called Footballers' Wines? Who will invite me to the launch party for Big Brother House Red (which will undoubtedly be sold in Ann Summers as well as Oddbins)? I look forward to getting answers. If the quality is as good as the quality I've seen so far, I'll be as pleased as a golfer with a glass of Shiraz in one hand and a fat chequebook in the other.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: DIAMOND SERIES GREEN LABEL SYRAH 2001, £9.95

Promising on the nose, lots of spice and pleasantly earthy, woody notes. On the palate it's equally nice, with generous plum-and-berry flavours and a decent quantity of the spice you expect from this variety. But there isn't enough to it. When tasting it without knowing the price, I guessed at £8.99 - I wouldn't be happy paying that.

FRANCIS COPPOLA: ROSSO 2002, £7.50

This is a blend of vineyard areas and varieties - Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon. Adding up to a rough, rustic and pleasurable wine. The tannins are tough, but that's to be expected from this grape. At 13.5 per cent alcohol, it isn't at all forbidding by California standards. Better than the Syrah. Stockists: 01761 452 645

OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN: OLIVIA COONAWARRA CABERNET 2000

Newton-John has put her name to a basic range, Koala Blue (which includes bottled water among other things), but this is from the premium end of the range. Smells like proper Coonawarra Cab and follows through with ripe berry and chocolate flavours. The finish is good too. But the effect wears thin after a few sips: the overall impression is sweet, hollow and forgettable. There's more alcohol in here (13.5 per cent) than the flavours merit, and a little too much oak. I guessed £9.99, but even that's too much. £14.99, stockists: 020 8996 2085

GREG NORMAN: ESTATES LIMESTONE COAST SHIRAZ 2000

Typical of the South Australian approach to Shiraz. Take fruit from several different areas to get the kind of balance you're looking for, give it plenty of oak, and produce something with lots of fresh, ripe berry flavours; plus relatively subdued acidity, and very subdued tannins, to make for a fat juicy mouthful. It's a popular formula, producing neither subtlety nor elegance: this is solid, broad-beamed stuff. But it has a nice touch of typical spice, and it's certainly pleasant enough. If you like this style of Aussie wine, you'll like this very much. I guessed the price at £9.99. £7, stockists: 0131 661 6161

CLIFF RICHARD: VIDA NOVA 2004

Château Sir Cliff is a big wine, 14 per cent alcohol, as befits its origins in the Algarve (a hot area not known for producing wines of subtlety or finesse). The big alcohol is matched by big, hot flavours: baked fruits with sweetness and heat on the palate. They do the wine no favours. It bears the true flavour of its origins: a preponderance of the indigenous Aragonés with some Syrah (foreign asylum-seeker) and a touch of Trincadeira. But it's a bit too hot and sticky. I'd call this wine good rather than wonderful, and I guessed the price per bottle at £7.99. Around £8.50, stockists: 01442 289316

IAN BOTHAM: BOTHAM MERRILL WILLIS CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2001

Using fruit from two regions, Coonawarra and McLaren Vale, another wine that's a subtlety-free zone. Slight hint of eucalyptus on the nose, and a lot of sweetness on the palate. But the structure is all there, with generous oak just about avoiding excess and holding everything together in a nice silky jumble of ripe berry fruits. It's a matter of personal taste: if you like wines of this type then Messrs Botham etc have something attractive to offer. My price guess: £9 to £10. So at £9 it's OK. £9, stockists: 0800 505 555

SAM NEILL: TWO PADDOCKS 'THE LAST CHANCE' PINOT NOIR 2003

This is in a different league from the other wines. New Zealand's Central Otago district makes world-class Pinot Noir, and this is one of them. A pure expression of the grape's qualities, silky-smooth on the palate with a multitude of enticing berry flavours in addition to the sweet cherries that are a hallmark of this grape. Abundant, lip-smacking acidity keeps the flavours fresh, and ageing in French oak adds a smoky lustre. Drop-dead gorgeous, the best in this bunch by far. I guessed a price of £22. £14.75, stockists: 01451 870808

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