The Rise (and Fall?) of Celebrity Wine

We live in the age of Celebrity.  People are celebrated for their achievements in sports, politics and the arts.  Some people are even celebrated for their lack of achievement — famous for being famous, as the saying goes.  I won’t name names, but you know what I mean. Celebrities are everyone — in the news, on TV and all around us through ads and product endorsements.

People Magazine’s Wine

Lil Jon

Lil Jon, Celebrity Winemaker

So we shouldn’t be surprised that there are celebrity wines, too.  Some wines simply use a celebrity name as a marketing tool.  I think the Martha Stewart label falls into this category (the wine is made by Gallo). Other celebrity wines are more than just marketing projects (although having a famous name doesn’t hurt).  The Fess Parker and Francis Ford Coppola wines come to mind here.

Celebrity wines are hot, or at least that’s what the indicators say.  People magazine features an article on celebrity wines in their November 10, 2008 issue.  People asked Gary Vaynerchuck, a celebrity wine critic, to rate the wines of four celebrity wine makers.  Hip-hop artist Lil Jon’s Little Jonathan Winery Chardonnay ($15.99) scored a solid 89 points.  Sopranos star Lorraine Bracco’s Italian-made Pinot Grigio ($11.99) earned an 86+ rating.  Mötley Crüe rocker Vince Neil’s $9 Petite Sirah is an 88-point good buy, Gary says.  And the $20 Victory Rosé from Olympic figure skater Peggy Fleming’s winery, Fleming-Jenkins, received 87 points. (Fleming donates $2 to breast cancer research for each bottle of this pink wine she sells — a use of celebrity clout that is difficult to criticize.)

The Nielsen Report

Maybe you aren’t entirely comfortable taking wine recommendations (or wine market analysis) from the pages of People magazine. If so, then a study released by The Nielsen Company (market research experts) might interest you.

The Nielsen data, which do not reflect the impact of the current economic crisis, indicate that grocery store sales of celebrity wine grew by nearly 19 percent in 2007, albeit from a low base (the celebrity wine category is still a small market segment — less than one percent).

The average price of the celebrity wines, $8.50, is higher than the supermarket average of $5.75, according to Nielsen. Unsurprisingly, the Nielsen report focuses on marketing and distribution (not the quality of the wines themselves) as the key factors driving sales growth.

“Several factors are fueling the growth of celebrity wines,” said Hurst.  “First, existing brands are expanding and gaining new distribution through new line extensions.  Second, more celebrities have launched their own brands in the past year or have had suppliers launch products under their names.   As these brands have proven themselves, they’ve gained distribution in other retail outlets, which has further stimulated growth.   And third, savvy marketers leverage the ‘celebrity’ benefit into expanded marketing programs via in-store vehicles, outdoor events and traditional and online media.”

Celebrity Wine Myths

Like the “critter wines” that they superficially resemble, celebrity wines are associated with a number of myths that should be briefly considered.

Myth #1: Celebrity wines are an American phenomenon. Alas, no.  One of the most famous celebrity winemakers is the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who now owns vineyards in Bordeaux, Languedoc, Spain, Morocco and Argentina in partnership with wine tycoon Bernard Magrez. Ernie Els, the South African golfer, has a line of wines from his home country, following the example set by Australian Greg Norman. New Zealand actor Sam Neil has an estate in Central Otago.

Myth #2: Celebrity wines are bad wines. No again, although I admit I haven’t tried very many of them.  The studies I have found suggest that celebrity wines are just like wines generally, you can find examples that are good, bad and maybe even a few that are ugly (hey — good, bad, ugly — that would make a great name for a line of Clint Eastwood wines!).  Because celebrities have an incentive to protect their personal “brands,” I suspect they try to avoid associating their names with really foul products. At least some of the celebrity winemakers take a real personal interest in their products, which is likely to make a difference in quality.

Some celebrity wines are excellent, which is easy to understand. Celebrity is a powerful force in today’s world and celebrity winemakers can often leverage their fame through connections and associations that contribute to wine quality.  You know what I mean — privileged access to quality grapes, personal advice from talented professionals, and so forth.  Football hero Drew Bledsoe is opening a winery called Doubleback in Wallla Walla, his hometown. I think he is bound to make good wine because so many wine professionals have taken an interest in it.  Wine people, even prominent ones, are only human and like to be associated with heroes and to participate in their projects. The wine can’t help but benefit form this attention.

Myth #3: Celebrity wines are bad for the wine business. Celebrity brands draw attention away from “real wine,” this argument goes, and only cheapen and commodify the idea of wine.  There is obviously some truth to this, especially if we consider multi-product lifestyle brands that have expanded to include a wine component in their portfolios– Martha Stewart, for example, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin empire. It seems to me that these associations diminish wine as a distinct product by reducing it to “just another” Martha S or Virgin label.

But most celebrity wines that I’ve seen don’t fit this mold and create a different kind of celebrity association.  These products may benefit the wine market by attracting new customers and encouraging wine drinkers to try new types of wine.  They also probably distort the market a bit, making it marginally more difficult for non-celebrity wines to get distribution in some market segments.  On balance, the influence of celebrities is probably positive since they draw public attention to wine.  Even the readers of People now know a little more about wine thanks to the Lil Jon piece.

The Future of Celebrity Wine

Prediction is difficult, economists like to say, especially about the future.  But I’ll hazard a guess about the future of celebrity wine.  As a category of wines I think celebrity wine will remain a small but vital niche.  Wine is part of society, so why should wine be excluded from the celebrity effect?

Some celebrity wines will thrive, but I don’t think it will be because of a famous name.  In the long run I believe that the quality of the wine is what matters.  I cite Fess Parker as evidence in this regard.  The wines are very good and speak for themselves.  The Fess Parker name and Davey Crockett association hardly matters after you’ve pulled the cork.

But most celebrity wines will rise and fall in sync with the notorious name on the label. Celebrity itself tends to be fleeting and I suspect that most celebrity wines will be here today and gone tomorrow, replaced by someone and something new. Fame’s famous quarter hour passes quickly these days as the media moves on to tomorrow’s headline and a new People profile appears.

[Note: Special thanks to Emily Gordon for bringing the People article to my attention.]

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2 responses

  1. Thanks for the kind comments about our winery and our wines. I am on the winemaking team at Fess Parker Winery and our sister label, Epiphany Cellars. We are very proud of the quality of the wines we produce and are happy to put them up against any ‘non-celebrity’ wine.

    We are also proud of our namesake and the vision he had to put the winery together. The winery will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary next year, and Fess and his children, Eli and Ashley (along with Ashley’s husband, Tim Snider, our President), will be around often to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The next generation have helped take the winery to a new level quality-wise.

    Thanks again!

    Cheers!

  2. i’m almost fifty and i barely remember Fess Parker the actor. I think the ‘resort wine’ business has probably done more for him than Davey C. ever did. Thirty years from now Lil Jon and the others may well be completely forgotten – unless they make really good wine…

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