What do the Victorian actress Lillie Langtry, British pop idol Cliff Richard; the actor Fred MacMurray, Formula One champion Mario Andretti, golfer Greg Norman, American football star Joe Montana, Jurassic Park actor Sam Neil, director Francis Ford Coppola and Mick Hucknall of UK pop group Simply Red all have in common?
If you replied, “they all have their own wine brands”, you can award yourself half a point. The correct answer is that they all launched those brands before the turn of the century. Indeed Lillie Langtry, one of the biggest stars of her day, and mistress to British royalty, opened what is now known as the Guenoc winery in California in 1888.
There is nothing really new about celebrity wine; I remember writing about it in a newspaper column more than 20 years ago. Yes, recent months have seen an apparent torrent of launches, with names like Cara Delevingne, Idris Elba, Kylie Minogue, Post Malone, Sarah Jessica Parker and Drake all lining up to present their efforts to the world, but they are following a well-worn track.
Over the years, some celebrities have got into the wine business for the same reason as wealthy gynaecologists, lawyers and hedge funders: because they liked the idea of having their own vineyard and could afford to buy one. Four centuries ago, in the 18th century, France saw what the historian Rod Phillips called a ‘burst of vine planting’ by ‘wealthier proprietors’, including ‘noble magistrates’ who ‘had the means to purchase land and to experiment with grape varieties’’. Lillie Langtry was apparently very interested in her vineyards too, as she was in her numerous lovers and her racehorses.
Others have happily accepted large amounts of money in order to have their names associated with a widely advertised product. Orson Welles promoted Pedro Domecq sherry and Paul Masson California wine, while the great British actor James Mason appeared in advertisements for Gallo’s Thunderbird (though I admit that this may be stretching the definition of ‘wine’) and the Chinese martial arts star Jackie Chan, then the most popular movie actor in the world, put his name to a Lindeman’s Reserve Shiraz in the late 1990s.
Although that effort was not a success Chan apparently enjoys his wine; in 1999, he dropped A$167,000 ($121,106) on bottles of Penfolds Grange, Hill of Grace and Wolf Blass Black Label in a Canberra liquor store. Others who seem to enjoy wine include singers Hucknall, Sting and Cliff Richard, cricketer Ian Botham, and the TV chat show host Graham Norton. Whether Kylie Minogue and her compatriots Grease star Olivia Newton John and cricketer Shane Warne are classed as oenophiles is another matter.
There seem to be several intertwined questions here. Why has the number of celebrity wine exploded? How good are the wines? Should we care how involved these individuals are in the bottles that bear their names? And, lastly, is this trend something that should be celebrated or lamented?
I’d attribute much of the recent celebrification of wine to two factors: Malcolm Gladwell’s famous ‘tipping point’ and Instagram. When enough members of any group do something, others will quite naturally say ‘why not me?’. But until now leveraging one’s fame took time and money. When Greg Norman launched his brand in 1996, he needed to take advantage of every bit of public relations he could. Today, all Idris Elba has to do if he wants to let people know about his Champagne is post a message to his 4.7m Instagram followers. Sarah Jessica Parker has 6.2m, Post Malone has 22.6m. These are big numbers, but not quite as big as champagnepapi, aka the Canadian rapper Drake, who has just under 72m. And, as his name suggests, a fizz of his own.
Kylie Minogue has ‘only’ two million Instagram followers but the loyalty she commands among a gay audience in the UK and Australia, in particular, is prodigious. Like Sir Ian Botham, she has also benefitted from the efforts of Paul Schaafsma, former CEO of both McGuigan in the UK and Accolade, who managed to secure supermarket shelf space for the wines even before they were launched.
I’m not really bothered about how good the wines are, any more than I care about the quality of this year’s Christmas movie or the latest chick lit novel. They’re not targeted at me. I was much more impressed by the Botham wines than the Kylie red or white, but I could see why her fans might be happy to drink them.
How much does it matter whether the celebrities get any vineyard soil on their boots? About as much as whether Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry spend their days and night blending the perfumes bearing their names. Or whether Andre Agassi penned his autobiography ‘Open’, or JFK wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’. (They didn’t. Lovers of trivia may appreciate learning that the tennis star’s book was the work of Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, while the real author of US president’s volume was Ted Sorenson, who also came up with “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.)
In an ideal world, maybe people wouldn’t be more inclined to buy a wine because of its connection with a famous person. And they wouldn’t be more likely to purchase a ticket to watch a play with a TV star in it, or to buy a magazine with that star’s face on the cover. But in that same ideal world, they would not have voted for some of the current crop of political leaders.
Wine sales are falling, especially among younger potential buyers. If Drake, Kylie and Idris can do anything to slow or reverse that trend, I’ll raise a glass to them. Though possibly not one that’s full of their wine.