MagazinesStyle

Cellars of fame: How celebrities are getting in on the wine act

Leading celebrities, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, are adding prestige to winemaking, writes Sasha Parker

 

Cynics would call it a publicity stunt purely for the marketing of a business, raking in billions in profit from sales across the globe. Nonetheless, it seems to be a logical move as pairing celebrities and fine wine adds even greater glamour and sophistication to a vintage. Take for instance the Perrin winemaking family, who appear to have pulled off a coup by teaming up with Hollywood power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to release their Miraval rosé this month.

So the question is do celebrities have a passion for the grape, or is it merely advancing the wine market, achieving maximum exposure and, ultimately, big profits? Celebrity owned and/or branded wines, sparkling wines and Champagnes can command a much better selling price in the shops as appetites for the famous increase.

Pitt and Jolie are just one example of an increasing number of the famous few who are waking up to the potential of not just putting their brand to a bottle, but owning the winery. Vineyards around the world are being snapped up by the likes of Sir Cliff Richard, Antonio Banderas and Dan Aykroyd, as they decide to venture into the world of wine. While some stars seem unlikely candidates to enter this realm, most celebrities do feel obliged to produce a good quality wine in an effort to protect their own brand.

There are some wines that simply use a celebrity as a marketing tool, such as the Zilzie brand, which used Australian cricketer Shane Warne to promote its wines, or E&J Gallo Winery, which recruited Martha Stewart in an effort to become household names, and reap considerable growth and profit through celebrity marketing. There are also celebrities who have built up their vineyards and businesses from scratch, have a true passion and working knowledge of their properties, and often grow genuinely excellent products.

Nevertheless, as the sales of celebrity-labelled wines continue to increase, these vintages on average cost 30 per cent more per bottle. The name - if you have one - is definitely worth mentioning.

Some A-listers have been quietly walking the vines, bottling and selling the grapes of their own vineyards for decades. Actor Gérard Depardieu and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola have been in the business for more than 30 years. Although their ventures have respectively cost them millions, and with varied rewards, they have created thriving businesses.

Already an oenophile, Coppola originally intended to find a summer home in Napa Valley, where he could produce wine for friends and family. Instead, he purchased one of the best-situated vineyards in the area, Inglenook, a 670-hectare property with a fascinating timeline of winemaking and vintners.

"I was amazed that a big company like Seagrams, or the established winemakers like [Robert] Mondavi, didn't buy that property," Coppola recalls. "That they let a filmmaker come in and take a jewel of Napa Valley was a miracle."

Over the past 40 years, Coppola has spent more than US$45 million on making Inglenook the world-famous winery it is today, producing some of the best-known wines, all bearing the Coppola name. Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola Cabernet Franc 2002 is described by American wine columnist Michael Steinberger as "having aromas of cranberries, blackberries, licorice, and dried leaves, with a pungent earthiness, as well. The fruit has a delicious sweet-and-sour taste, and the structure is excellent."

Widely recognised for his contribution to wine, Coppola has created a complete experience for visitors to his winery, allowing for public tasting, tours and even dining in the Rustic restaurant. Coppola says his goal in the wine business is "to perfect the Rubicon". He adds: "We know we have the earth and the fruit to make the ultimate wine of its kind."

Depardieu is as successful and passionate about his wines. He even describes himself as a vigneron (winemaker) on his French passport. Having bought his first vineyard in 1979, in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Depardieu now owns vineyards around the world, from France and Spain, to Italy and Argentina, making his wine business quite lucrative. His Confiance wine is described in Langton's magazine's survey of celebrity-related vintages as "the best of the bunch, with the fruit coming from Depardieu's own Blaye vineyard." The 2002 vintage "was a really lovely wine, with ginger snap, rhubarb/plum fruits with a rich succulent palate [scoring 92/100 points]," the magazine says.

"The rest of these show business wines, mostly quite chunky or contrived, were adequate to good."

In 2001, Depardieu teamed up with fellow winemaker Bernard Magrez to create and release over a dozen wines under the Depardieu name. Viewing his wine business as a genuine passion, Depardieu says: "Wine has a soul. It's about friendship and sharing simple pleasures. I can be happy on this earth with very little, but I like to have a lot in my glass."

Financially, there would have been rewards - Depardieu's 13th-century Château de Tigné, in Anjou, produces over 350,000 bottles, while Coppola stacks more than 750,000 - but such production has its pitfalls. Owning and creating a working vineyard to sell your wine is no easy feat, with per-hectare production costs in Italy ranging from between €7,000 to €10,000 (HK$73,660 to HK$105,230).

Given the luxurious allure of scenic French or Italian wine regions, a vineyard investment is fast becoming a retired businessman's dream.

While such ventures have clearly been beneficial investments for Depardieu and Coppola, not all celebrities buy into vineyard ownership from a business perspective.

Footballer David Beckham learned to appreciate high-calibre wines in Spain, while he played for Real Madrid and, in 2008, bought a Californian vineyard as a birthday present for his wife, Victoria. This smart move enabled designer Victoria Beckham to create her own wine, and occasionally bottle it for family and friends, and to the high specifications she grew to love from Spanish wines.

Owning a vineyard might seem idyllic, but it could also cost millions of dollars. There are now options for more cautious investors to support, volunteer, or simply adopt a vine, however.

Although nowhere near as involving as owning a vineyard, the investment does give you the satisfaction of having your name on bottles of wine from land on which you own vines. Adopting vines also allows you to create your own vineyard experience, and really find out all that its work entails.

Some vineyards also offer shares, which give investors a sense of ownership without the large financial risk. These investments are not always well-documented, and it would be best to seek advice from a professional adviser, but such options could give you a start in the business.

There are many reasons why anyone buys a vineyard: for investment and profit, for self-gratification, or simply to live the dream. Whatever the motivation, vineyards are hard work, however, as they require research, planning, and a good financial structure. More importantly, vineyards need to be taken seriously. Nonetheless, they can be so rewarding.

 

LIQUID ASSET
If you're thirsting for your very own winery, you'd better move fast.

Debra Meiburg, award-winning expert and the first to receive the master of wine certification in Asia, says that wealthy oenophiles aren't letting these investment opportunities wither on the vine.

"About five years ago, I suggested to my wine-loving Hong Kong friends that we should form a consortium to establish a 'first growth' winery in China - and they scoffed," she recalls.

"A few years later, I received bi-weekly meeting requests and proposals to advise on vineyard and winery development in China."

Despite the growing interest in having a wine to call one's own, vineyard investment is not an easy business venture.

Production is affected by weather, infestation and disease.

Chinese investors are also looking abroad, and the latest trend is to own vineyards in Bordeaux, France.

"My last count was 37 wineries," Meiburg says.

Bottom line? Get in there, get it right, and you may just harvest the rewards.

As Meiburg says: "Wines that are the first to establish their reputation for high quality in China will be unassailable for decades."

Jacqueline Tsang

 

 

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or