Celebs with a Foot in the Vat (September 6, 2005)
There is an old joke in the wine industry, so old that its "best before" date has long past; but I'll repeat for those who may not have heard it: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Answer: start with a large one.
This home truth, it seems, has not penetrated the sensibilities of the world's celebrities who have either bought vanity wineries (like vanity plates) or have attached their names to wine labels.
Time was when celebrities were content to drink the most expensive wines on the list and then trash hotel rooms. Now they're actually buying vineyards and making wine. Well, they're probably not the ones who make the wine, but they take the credit for it. Or blame, as the case may be.
The list of A-list celebs who want to get their feet in the vat, metaphorically speaking, seems to be growing every year.
The first and one of the most dedicated superstar winemakers is Francis Ford Coppola, who purchased the historic Napa Valley winery Inglenook in 1975 and renamed it Niebaum-Coppola after the original owner of the property. Among his portfolio is one of California's cult wines, Rubicon. His daughter Sofia, who directed Lost In Translation, has gotten into the act with her own sparkling wine in pop cans (she should stick to movie making). Francis' son Roman also has his own wine, a Syrah.
The French film star Gérard Depardieu not only owns a chateau in the Loire Valley (since 1982) and Château Gadet in the Médoc, as well as 5.5 acres of vineyard in the Languedoc, but has also invested in a winery near lake Balaton in Hungary. His best wine is Ma Vérité de Gerard Depardieu Early Maturity from the Haut-Médoc.
Another long-time actor-winemaker is Fess Parker, of TV's Davy Crockett fame, who has a spread (excuse me), a winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara. His best wine is "The Big Easy" Syrah.
Then there is Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers, who owns Remick Ridge Vineyards in the Sonoma Valley. "Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers," explains Tom, "but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Moe Vineyards." Remick Ridge makes a terrific Merlot at least his winemaker (who is a celebrity in his own right, Dick Arrowood) does.
Central Otago, New Zealand, is a long way from Omagh in Northern Ireland, where Sam Neill (The Piano, Jurassic Park) was born. But since 1993 he has owned 5 acres of Pinot Noir grapes in the South Island, where his Two Paddocks label Pinot Noirs have been gathering some good reviews (I've not had the pleasure of tasting them, or otherwise).
Mario Andretti, now that he's retired from the auto circuit, has his own winery. In 1994 when Andretti quit racing after nearly four decades, a commemorative wine was produced in his honour. He was so taken by the idea that he decided to get into the business for real. With a partner he purchased 42 acres of Napa Valley and now produces five Napa wines under his own name and also under the Montona label.
The concept of calling wines after celebrities began in 1985 when a California company called Nova Wines brought out Marilyn Merlot. If you peel back the label, Marilyn Monroe also peels to the classic nude calendar shot. Her estate still receives a dollar a bottle. Down under, Olivia Newton-John is not quite as up front. She brought out her own cuddly Koala Blue label in 1983, a Shiraz and a Chardonnay. But she's not as successful at the game as her Australian competitor Greg Norman, whose wines, thanks to Beringer Blass, who make them, are getting better and better. The labels bear the famous shark logo, which is not a wine pairing suggestion. The Yarra Valley Chardonnay and the Reserve Shiraz are very distinguished wines. Matching Norman stroke for stroke is South African golfer Ernie Els, who got into the wine business through his friend Jean Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht's family owns the top flight estate of Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch. The Ernie Els bottling is a Bordeaux-style blend.
Celebrity chef Emeril Legasse kicked it up a notch when he brought out his Emeril's Classics, a white and a red table wine made to his specifications by Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino. Haven't tasted these, but at least they should be food friendly.
British pop legend Sir Cliff Richard planted an vineyard on his property in the Algarve and now has a winery called Adega do Cantor (The Cellar of the Singer) outside the town of Albufeira on Portugal's south coast. Sting has vineyards in Tuscany and Simply Red lead singer Mick Hucknall has vineyard holdings on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily.
The late Raymond Burr's name lives on as a wine label in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma, as does The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia as J. Garcia Wine, also in Sonoma.
And lest you think that Canadian celebrities are immune to the "Bitten-by-a-grape syndrome," I'm here to tell you that actress Sonja Smits and her husband TV filmmaker husband Seaton Mclean have an interest in a new winery in Prince Edward County called Closson Chase, where stellar winemaker Deborah Paskus has been making some rocking Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And Canada's most famous left-hander, golfer Mike Weir, has his own label Mike Weir Estate Winery. Two wines are offered initially Chardonnay 2001 and Cabernet Merlot 2002, both 100 per cent Ontario-grown fruit. The wines were made at Creekside Estate Winery in Jordan Station. Proceeds from the sale of these wines will go to The Mike Weir Foundation, a charity for children.