Celebrities Who Own Wineries: The Ego Has Landed

Disclaimer:  What follows are the bitter ramblings of a winery-owner, Hollywood hambone, Heisman-Trophy-winner, rock-star wannabe.  They are to be taken with a grain of salt—whatever that means.

And not only ‘taken with a grain of salt’—a lot of these cherished folk axioms make no sense.  To wit.: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.’  (…In which case, there is no sense in having your cake, since it’s sole worth is if you can eat it).  Viz.: ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat.’  (Yeah?  I can’t think of any, nor a particular reason why someone without Asian ancestry would try to come up with one.)

On the other hand, some seasoned saws are very apropos, especially to this column.  i.e.: ‘Those who can, do.  Those who can’t, teach.  Those who can’t do or teach become wine writers.  Those who can’t do, teach or write but still have shitloads of disposable income buy wineries.’

Separation of  L.A. and AVA,  (First Amendment , U.S. Constitution, proposed (but never enacted) 4 July, 1776)

California has offered more to this fine, Allah-fearing nation that we can ever give back, but it all can be distilled down to two paradigms: Napa Valley and Scarlett Johansson.

But it’s like Venezuela: They’ve given us oil and pabellon criollo, but I wouldn’t want to mix the two in a bowl and have it for supper.

Likewise, Hollywood and barrel wood. That idiotic, billion-dollar Band-Aid—the concrete wall that President Bush wanted to build on our southeast border—would be of more use stretching from San Luis Obispo County (just above La La Land) to Lake Havesu City, Nevada.  Forget about keeping illegal immigrants out—we need them to pick our merlot for twelve cents an hour.  Our primary duty as drink-sodden patriots should be keeping celebrities out of wine country.

Why?  Well, if you have to ask, let’s just say it’s like the legal loophole that allows Kevin Bacon to play professional guitar.

Fair to say, however, with the price of a single acre of prime Napa grapeland well into six figures, the only people who can even consider jumping into fermentation vessels these days are those with many dollars in offshore accounts.  And like it or not, this includes such wealthy wankers as Tommy Smothers, Barbara Streisand, Wayne Gretzky, Mariah Carey and Olivia Newton-Synonym-For-Outhouse, who may or may not be using start-up graperies as a tax write-off via the massive losses that generally dog the first few vintages.

Additionally, there’s the caché factor, wherein a winery uses a celebrity’s name as a marketing tool.  Seriously, could you find a better example of this than Martha ‘Jailbait’ Stewart’s E.J. Gallo partnership?  As if the diva ex-con doesn’t have her silly name stamped on enough crap, she enters the wine game with Martha Stewart Vintages, the drinking of which is punishment more cruel and unusual than watching vintage episodes of Martha Stewart Living.

(Regarding Whatever, Martha! , the FLN comedy series that relies upon those very clips, Martha said,  “Contrary to popular opinion, I do have a sense of humor…”—which if true would have compelled her to round out her portfolio of cabernet, chardonnay and merlot with ‘pruno’, the wine you learn to make in prison using fruit cocktail juice and bread yeast).

Celebrity-owned wineries are no new phenomenon, of course.  And some of them have yielded wonderful results—Fess Parker Vineyards, the Fred Mac Murray Ranch and Rubicon Estate Winery (owned by Francis Ford Coppola) have all won applause and awards for spectacular, highly-decorated, imminently-collectable wines. Profitable?  Put it this way:  Coppola claims to have made scads more from his wines than he ever did from his films.

I am afraid that these are the exceptions.  Much as I like Carlos Santana, it’s as a shredder, not a vintner.  Nor as a perfumist (Santana Cologne and Perfume), or a cobbler (Carlos By Carlos—Women’s Shoes) or a restaurateur (Maria Maria restaurants)—truly, this dude has become the Martha Stewart of Latin fusion.  Last straw was Santana DMX, a middle-of-the-road sparkler released in partnership with Mumm’s winemaker Ludovic Dervin; it appears that the extent of input that Carlos had into the actual commodity was to taste a bunch of blends and say, ‘Okay, I like this one.’  I’m relieved to report, without the slightest fear of being called out for an atrocious pun, that after a single pressing Santana DMX fizzled out.

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“It’s a bodacious, cheeky little wine, filled to the brim with the spicy essence of sexy, slippery snakiness,” alliterates the former Mr. Tawny Kitaen, Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale about Whitesnake Zinfandel, 2010.  “I recommend it to compliment any and all grown-up friskiness and hot-tub jollies…”

Coincidentally, Dave, I recommend throwing the world’s collection of Whitesnake CDs into that same hot-tub, only this time filled with your stupid wine.  Now they’re ‘Deep Purple’, too, ah-ha-ha-ha-ha.  In 2005, VH1 voted Whitesnake the 85th Greatest Hard Rock Band of All Time, and I have to say, when my son’s team came in 85th place in the South Oakland Soccer League, my first impulse was not to post it to Wikipedia.  But, to each his own, Dave, and if you think ‘snakiness’ is a plus in a wine descriptor, cool—that’s your each or possibly your own—but moi, if I want my wine to taste like snake, I pick up a carafe of Chinese shéjiue–the wine with the Mangshan pit viper floating in the bottle.  Say, there’s a marketing hook for you (overdue, granted, since you haven’t had a chart-topper since the 80’s): Pack each bottle with a California King Snake.  They’re albino, as befits your band name, and frankly, without it, an erudite glass of vintage red hardly seems the appropriate sup for an evening of screechy, head-banging power ballads.

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Jonathan Mortimer Smith, Esq.

Gary Vaynerchuck has been referred to as ‘a celebrity wine critic’, but it’s not clear if that means he’s the celebrity or that he critiques celebrity wines.  Either way, he came in 40th place in Decanter’s list of influential wine people, which is better than Coverdale’s 85th place, but still sort of twinkling at the periphery of wine relevance.  I mean, when my daughter’s gymnastic team came in 40th place at the… oh, never mind, I already used that joke.  In any case, Belarusian Vaynerchuck gave Little Jonathan Chardonnay, 2006—the winery owned by rapper L’il Jon—a kick-rump 89 points.  Now, at first pass, a dreadlocked homie from an Atlanta hood best known for Get Crunk, Who U Wit: Da Album, may not seem the sort of chap that can produce wines on a level of, say, a 1990 Chateau Meyney Bordeaux or a 1996 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon, but both of these wines are 89 pointers as well, and it is what it is.  And there’s also a chance that some of this L’il Jon gangsta/playa persona is more a product of management than of reality—in fact, L’il Jon’s birth name is distinctly lacking in ground-level street cred: Jonathan Mortimer Smith makes him sound more like a blue-blooded pharmaceutical heir from New Canaan, Connecticut than a thug.  Alex Henderson of allmusic.com does not believe that L’il Jon has a gangsta life-agenda, but rather ‘is conveying serious sociopolitical messages’.  I know, swallow the throw-up and don’t breathe in anybody’s face for a while.  You be the judge, though: When his ’06 Chardonnay took a silver medal in the 2009 L.A. Wine and Spirits Competition, the former Celebrity Apprentice—who followed up Get Crunk with We Still Crunk!!, Kings of Crunk and Crunk Juice—tweeted the following sociopolitical manifesto to his Twitter site:

“For all yall sukkas that were hating on my wine, check this out!!  We winning awards!!!  Get U Some!” 

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We’ve watched Dan Ackroyd’s maturation trajectory from a wild ‘n’ crazy Cajzli to a bass-smoothie-making T.V. pitchman to the reserved and less self-destructive Blues Brother.  And as you’ll recall from that comedy classic, the Brothers’ taste in wine was pretty straightforward: It was the A-Train to Night Train or no train at all. As he aged and bloated and grew sort of unfunny, Ackroyd took on roles befitting a middle-aged Tinsel Town laird, holding his own against luminaries like Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Tandy—especially in his Academy Award-nominated portrayal of Boolie in Driving Miss Daisy (Nuts).  Along the way, his appreciation for decent wine increased proportionately.  Having experienced plenty of gutter wines in his home town of Ottawa, he became enamored of the world-class whites being produced in Niagara, Ontario, and invested in Diamond Estates Wines & Spirits, saying,  “I could see the value of putting my name on wines because people up here, in Canada especially, trust the Ackroyd name as someone that’s honest who will give them a great experience for a good price.”

"I can pronounce, but not spell, 'sommelier'."

And his offerings are all that.  With Diamond, he produces four VQA award-winning wines as well as an ultra-premium ice wine, and his 2008 joint venture with Sonoma’s DeLoach resulted in the superb Dan Ackroyd Discovery Series.  These wines slip down the gullet with elegance and style; what sticks in the craw is Ackroyd’s marketing self-portrayal as a simple Ottowan farm-boy bumpkin by using such label slogans as ‘Made from 100% Snob Free Grapes’ and ‘We can’t pronounce Sommelier either’.  By his insistence in claiming non-pretentiousness, he actually becomes that much more pretentious—we assume that anyone who is fluent in French and casually drops names like Château Trotanoy,  Château d’Yquem and mocha dacquoise in the course of interviews can probably pronounce ‘sommelier’.  Eh?

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Emilio's backyard

Like Elwood was to Jake, Emilio Estevez is to Charlie Sheen: No apparent death wish.  Rather, the eldest son of Martin Sheen has a wine wish, which’s he’s realizing in his urban vineyard in Malibu; he farms a single acre in partnership with Casa Dumetz and his winemaker wife Sonja Magdevski —80% is pinot noir, which sells out immediately.  The larger blocks of Casa Dumetz vines come from the Tierra Alta Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley where it’s warm enough for Rhône rhôck-stars like viognier, syrah and grenache. Emilio and Sonja also produce a sparkling syrah (champagne is not just for Breakfast Club anymore) and a syrah rosé which Wine Enthusiast Magazine creams all over.   There’s some of each available at pricing ranging between $25 to $35 a bottle.  Winning!!

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We lusted after her in Goodfellas and bled with her in Medicine Man; then, when she hit the wall looks-wise, we admired her in The Sopranos.  Now we’ll raise a glass of  Montepulciano d’Abruzzo from Bracco Wine—one of nine regional Italian DOCs hand-picked by the Brooklyn-born Lorraine Bracco—to toast her interest in becoming yet another celebrity wine huckster.  When asked by Wine Spectator about her background in wine, Bracco replied: “I lived in France for ten years…”, which is a bit like saying “I’ve seen Swan Lake a bunch of times, therefore I’m qualified to play oboe in a symphony.”  But I’ll go all Malfi and withhold judgment.  I can, however, judge Bracco Wine’s Barolo, Amarone Classico, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Montepulciano, pinot grigio, Brunello Di Montalcino, primitivo and recently, Rosato—or at least, because they are highly allocated and I am evidently not allocatable, report that reviews have been molto favorevole (that’s ‘good’). As is the Italian style, these are wines that need to be enjoyed at the dinner table, which is too bad, because the best place for a Malfi wine—obviously—is on the couch.

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What’s the deal with 80’s hair-metal bands and wine labels anyway?  Now it’s Mötley Crüe’s one-octave vocalist Vince Neil and his Vince Vineyards.  Vince affirms a long-standing love of high-end wine, rivaled only by his love of high-end narcotics and high-end hookers, and created the brand in conjunction with Russ Dale and vintner Harry Parducci.

Upon release of his ’03 Napa Cabernet and ’03 Sonoma Chardonnay, Neil said, “I have enjoyed great wine for most of my life and wanted to create something that others could appreciate.”

You have the right to remain silent--and by God, how we wish you would.

You go, frontman!  Unfortunately, there’s reason to suppose that ‘others’ are not so enamored with Neil’s weakness for wine—and it also speaks to the TTB’s weird rules concerning who can and who can’t get a wine label approved.  In 1984, a totally shit-faced Neil opted to take the logical step of driving to the liquor store to get even shit-faceter.  Along for the joy-ride was Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle Dingley.  Alas, they never made it.  Neil hit an oncoming car, killing Dingley and leaving the occupants of the other vehicle with permanent brain damage.  For this silly lapse in judgment, the high-pitched screecher served fifteen nearly interminable days in jail, and lest you think that such a cruel and inhumane sentence must surely have rehabilitated him, consider that Vince ‘Can’t Change Me’ Neil was arrested in 2007 for DUI, again in 2010 for DUI, and in 2011, for assaulting his girlfriend while completely blotto.  On the plus side, Mötley Crüe dedicated an album to Dingley, which probably goes a long way to making everything hunky-dory with the drummer’s next-of-kin.

As responsible consumers, of course, we should keep an entire cluster-galaxy between us and Neil’s label, but as it turned out, 2003 was the only vintage of Vince Wine ever released.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that he dropped the project to focus on something much more gnarly and near to the hearts of metalheads: His own brand of tequila.

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What could be further removed from the genteel world of double decanting and carbonic maceration than three-chord grindcore heavy metal?  Football, that’s what.  Figure that last year the annual NFL advertising spend by Anheuser-Busch, representing such brands as Busch, Bud, Labatt, and Beck’s, topped $82 million, followed closely by Miller/Coors at $62 million.  And further figure that the wine industry/football expenditure was, in the final pecuniary analysis,  a grand total of nothing.  In fact, in 2009, wine ads overall declined by 22% during Superbowl week.  It seems evident that gridirons and keggers are having a brass-bound, infrangible love affair—one that our Lady-on-the-Lees will never bust up.  Still , you never know—malolactic minx that she is…  and the following pigskin pros, even those without necks, are nonetheless up to their necks in the wine game:

Phallic? Get out--this is Mike Friggin Ditka.

“I’ve drank every kind of wine there is,” says past-participle-challenged Mike Ditka, retired NFL tight end and former coach of the Bears and the Saints.  “If I had a penny for every glass of wine I’ve had in my life, I’d be a millionaire.”  Hard to fathom that last one since Ditka has a net worth of over $44 million, but we’ll leave it alone and focus instead on Mike Ditka Wines.  In partnership with Mendocino Wine Company, he produces four varietals (cabernet, chardonnay, merlot and pinot grigio) and a flagship blend called Kick Ass Red, showing that the Hall of Famer has the same respect for the art of winemaking that he does for  biographer Jeff Pearlman, about whom Ditka said, “If I saw him, I’d spit on him.”   Fair warning, Jeff: If Ditka drinks as much cab as he claims he does, you can look out for some purple spit.

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Meanwhile, back in Walla Walla, former Patriot QB Drew Bledsoe could not have found a better partner than Chris and Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellars with whom to make wine. Bledsoe grew up a mere 400 yards from the Leonetti vineyards, and the impression I get is that he is the real deal, fascinated with every aspect of winemaking ‘from dirt to bottle’.  His label, Double Back Wine, produced 900 cases of cabernet sauvignon in the premiere 2008 vintage; it was of exceptional quality and it sold out quickly.

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I tried to score an interview with former University of Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson to talk about his Napa Valley winery and the release of his flagship wine TwentyFour, about which Woodson says, “It’s a wine of giving back and paying forward.”

But no luck, so I didn’t get a chance to challenge the ruling on the field by asking him how, at $150 a bottle, he figures he’s ‘giving’ back anything.  Selling back is more like it.  And the only paying forward will be the bank note you’ll need in order to afford the wine.  That said, I did try it, and it’s a hella red; its rich, chocolaty nose charges forward with multiple layers of sweet tannins,  a firm juicy fruit backbone and a mocha finish that goes well into overtime.

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Bo and Cathy in 2006

As long as I’m on a U of M roll, I must mention Cathy Schembechler’s paean to her husband Bo, who is to Michigan football folklore what Paul Bunyan is to the tall tales of Michigan lumbermen: mythos.  Bo Schembechler Wines is a series of limited-edition bottlings showcased by Ann Arbor-based Studer Enterprises.  There’s a blended white and a merlot; both are perfectly drinkable, of course, but they are marketed more as a collector’s item for fans of the late, fiery ‘coach’s coach’ whose final speech, made the day before he died, was to extort Michigan players to remember ‘the team, the team, the team!’

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Now, after all that puerile, occasionally mean-spirited expostulation, this may come as a shock, but in the category of superstars who have wineries but probably shouldn’t, I am giving Madonna and Madonna Wine a total Get Out Of Jail Free card.

Why?  Three reasons.  One, she’s from Michigan, the wine’s from Michigan and I’m from Michigan.  Two, I dig her father, vintner Tony Ciccone, who I happen to love hear preach—especially about wine.  And third, this is my column and I will do whatever the fork I want with it, even if, like ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’, it makes no sense.

Papa Tony with his bottles

Tony’s limited-edition Madonna series, featuring his kid on the label, is but one of many interesting wines  from his vineyards, including an edgy dolcetto—the only example of that varietal to emerge from Michigan’s beautiful Leelanau Peninsula.  I’m not really sure if Madonna herself now has a stake in Ciccone Vineyards,  but I believe she stepped up to the plate when the winery—like most businesses in hinterlands of Northern Michigan—needed an infusion of support.

After all, what good is it being a pop diva if you can’t help out Pop?

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