Hubert Burda Media

Grape Expectations

Take home a drop of Sting, some Francis Ford Coppola and even Mariah Carey. Lauren Tan does some name-dropping in this golden age of celebrity “oenophilia”

Grape Expectations

Five hours. That's all it took for 6,000 bottles of Miraval Rosé 2012 to sell out in March. A wine that hails from the heart of Provence, near the village of Correns, the rosé is the first release by Hollywood's golden couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Brangelina aren't the only celebrities with a wine label. Cliff Richard, Drew Barrymore, Yao Ming, Ernie Els, Antonio Bandaras, Francis Ford Coppola, Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, Zhao Wei and even rapper Lil Jon have one too. David Beckham reportedly gave wife Victoria a vineyard in California's Napa Valley when she turned 34 in 2008, while former Brat Packer Emilio Estevez and his journalist wife Sonja Magdevski dug up the grass of their Spanish-style Malibu home, planted vines and started boutique wine endeavour Casa Dumetz in 2004.
While the trend of celebrities owning vineyards is no recent phenomenon — back in Roman times, philosophers, playwrights, politicians and generals often owned one for personal use — it is increasingly possible to throw a stone at any film or sports gala and hit a star with a wine business these days. (In fact, in the last few months alone, this writer has met a banker, restaurateur, interior designer, fashion titan and tyre maker, all with wine ambitions, so this particular dream isn't exactly celebrity-specific either.)
Some, like Estevez, do it to battle creative burnout. “I write a lot of dialogue out there,” says the writer-director of films such as Bobby and The Way of his Pinot Noir-planted garden in a New York Times article. “I'd [prune] a row and then go back inside to write and then [head] back outside,” he says. “It was a wonderful exchange.” What's applaud-worthy is that Estevez, as Casa Dumetz's assistant winemaker (Magdevski is the designated winemaker), doesn't seem to trade on his fame to market his handcrafted blends. No where on the brand's website is there even an “Estevez” mentioned; only one instance of a rather ambiguous “Emilio” in Magdevski's foreword.
There is, of course, a difference between interest and passion, business and pleasure. Ask our regular wine columnist Ned Goodwin, one of only five Masters of Wine in Asia, and he'll talk of a divide between celebrity vintners with a genuine love for wine and “endeavour to promote conviviality and joy through their wines”, and those who stick their names on entry-level to mid-market wines “of middling quality and sell them based on the cult of celebrity, rather than any involvement or inherent love of wine and that for which it stands for”.
In the case of Brangelina, it has emerged that they do partake in back-breaking grape-picking, but leave the actual winemaking to their partners, the Perrin family, owners of the famed Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, who have been enlisted to produce and market Miraval's three wines — a white, rosé and red. Miraval's connection to the arts and celebrities is a long one. Its previous owner was well-known jazz pianist and composer Jacques Loussier who outfitted the chateau with a recording studio where the likes of Pink Floyd, Sade, The Cranberries, The Gypsy Kings and Sting came to record music. Sting and his wife Trudie, incidentally, are owners of Il Palagio, a 351-hectare Italian estate overlooking the Tuscan hills which produces olive oil and honey in addition to wine.
“What draws celebrities to the wine business is that wine is a great brand and an easy way to slap their name on something and sell it, a la perfume,” WineLibrary.com's Gary Vaynerchuk told the Daily Beast. While he wasn't specific in his critique, one might imagine he refers to the likes of Mariah Carey, whose bubbly Angel Hint of Pink by MC is made by progressive champagne brand Angel, which sells unique bottles at up to US$250,000.
At the opposite end of the wine divide stands Sam Neill of The Tudors and Jurassic Park fame, who both Goodwin and Singapore-based oenologist and wine educator Edwin Soon single out for his abundant passion. Soon further declares Neill's Two Paddock wines from New Zealand's picturesque Central Otago region as “very good”. So good, in fact, that actor Liam Neeson buys them by the cases.
Like Estevez, Neill's wine pursuits seem to have transcended from mere hobby to soul-enriching endeavour. “At the end of the day, I wanted to do something entirely different from what I normally do and this is as different from acting as I can think of,” says Neill during a recent stopover (on his way back from his Irish film set to New Zealand for the birth of a grandchild). “I've always loved farming and all that stuff,” he adds.
Though a descendant of wine merchants, Neill's love affair with the drink only blossomed when, in 1979, the great James Mason, star of iconic films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, North by Northwest, and Julius Caesar, took him out for a meal in Montreux, Switzerland. The bottle Mason opened was a Gevrey-Chambertin, a great Burgundy Pinot Noir. “I said to James: ‘What wine is this?'” Neill regales. “And his words were as follows: ‘This, my boy, is Burgundy and don't ever forget it.'
“I've never forgotten that, and that's why I got into Pinot Noir and eventually decided to plant some,” he continues. Two Paddocks, the name he christened his wines, was a deliberate choice. “I wanted the most humble name I could think of. And what we had was two little paddocks with three sheep between them before we planted the grapes,” he says. “Now, I'm always asked why not give up film and make wine. But, one, I love my day job and have no intention of retiring. And two, there is only one person at Two Paddocks who never gets paid, and that's me.”
“Some stars do it because of the love for wine,” Soon states. Gerard Depardieu, the French actor who has taken up residence in Russia, is another fine example, he tells us. For decades, Depardieu had made wines — first in France's Nuits-St-Georges, then Condrieu and then at Chateau de Tigné in Anjou — without so much as thinking to put his name on a label, that is, until he paired up with wine magnate Bernard Magrez (owner of Bordeaux's Chateaux Pape Clément and La Tour Carnet) in 2001. The two are joint owners in La Clé du Terroir, which owns estates in Argentina, Bordeaux, Italy, Algeria and Morocco.
Speaking to Decanter's Guy Woodward in 2009, Depardieu claimed he felt more comfortable in the field than on a Hollywood film set. “I'd rather work with winemakers than film directors. They don't talk as much,” he said.
One film director, though, whose name is as synonymous with wine as it is with The Godfather franchise is Francis Ford Coppola, whose Italian-immigrant grandparents made wine in the basement of their New York apartment building.
In 1975, while looking for a small cottage in Napa Valley to use as a weekend family retreat and to make a little homemade wine, Coppola found what turned out to be the Niebaum Mansion in Rutherford, on the famed Inglenook estate. Three years later, he made his first vintage of Rubicon wine, and in 1995 purchased the remainder of Inglenook estate and began restoring it to its historic dimensions.
Believing that wineries could double up as what he calls “a park of pleasure”, Coppola next debuted the nearby Francis Ford Coppola Winery in 2010. Designed by long-time friend and Academy Award-winning production designer Dean Tavoula (whom Coppolo met on the set of The Godfather), the new winery drew inspiration from Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens and other modern family-oriented parks, and houses tasting bars (to sample the more than 40 wines produced onsite), restaurants, a swimming pool, movie gallery, performing arts pavilion and a park with game tables and bocce courts.
“As Inglenook began to emerge more as a kind of upscale place, I felt bad about the families that used to go there,” Coppola told The Globe and Mail. “I built [the Francis Ford Coppola Winery] as a place they could go.”
Actress and new mum Drew Barrymore would agree that wine and family go together. When releasing her new Barrymore Pinot Grigio last year, she said the white, made from grapes grown in Italy's Triveneto area, was created to honour her family. As such, the label showcases a family crest (based on the sign at her family's estate in California) and was designed by Studio Number One, the agency famed for creating Barack Obama's “Hope” poster in the 2008 US presidential elections.
“Wine is all about the journey, the discovery of new places and new varieties. I'm excited about sharing this Pinot Grigio with my friends and family and other wine lovers,” Barrymore, a fan of crisp, fruity white wines, says.
The Chinese equivalent of Barrymore, actress Zhao Wei (who so happens to also be a Singapore Permanent Resident), has also jumped on the wine bandwagon. An enthusiast, she created quite a stir when she snapped up the sleepy Chateau Monlot in Bordeaux in 2011, pledging to maintain yet improve the winery's status quo. Her first coup came when she managed to coax Jean-Claude Berrouet, ex-technical director at Chateau Petrus, out of retirement to join the winery as an advisor. More recently, Zhao was initiated into the Jurade of Saint Emilion — a brotherhood of wine dating back to 1199AD — after having been invited to join by current councillors of the group.
On the slew of celebrity-backed wine, Soon sums up: “The wine has to stand on its own — in tastings, wines are always tasted blind so judges are not influenced by labels and prices. That said, the link with celebs might appeal to some wine-drinkers who would like to take a bottle to a party that has a talking point.”
It also gives those of us who are everyday drinkers an opportunity to get closer to these otherwise-distant stars. Just imagine popping a bottle of Il Palagio Sister Moon and rolling a sip of its velvety Sangiovese-Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon on your tongue, while Sting's jazz-influenced Sister Moon plays in the background. Trust us, by the end of the bottle, you'll feel a pleasant dizziness that'll put a smile on your face.