Adam Lechmere, editor of decanter.com, asks whether a celebrity name is enough to guarantee a wine’s success.
Cliff’s got one, as has Greg, Nick, Gérard, Sam, Diego, and Ian, and Ernie…Throw a brick at any Oscar ceremony or sports awards gala and you’re certain to hit a star who owns a wine label. The cult of celebrity is spreading at an astonishing rate through the wine world: the list above (Cliff Richard, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Gérard Depardieu, Sam Neill, Diego Maradona, Ian Botham, Ernie Els) – is a mere fraction of the celebs worldwide who have an interest in wine.
There is, of course, a difference between ‘interest’ and passion. The former is ambiguous: cynics will say there are some rich listers who add wine labels to their business empires to expand their brand – or to write off the expense on their tax bill. Passion is something different.
Faldo, for example, does not make any high-flown claims. The champion golfer has just signed a ten-year deal with Australian wine company Wingara to produce the ‘Faldo’ range, two whites and a red made by top winemaker Wayne Stehbens. He doesn’t pretend this is anything but mutual brand building. Wingara needs a better profile in the UK and the US. Faldo wants a new element in his burgeoning busines empire.
‘We’ll start with this and then maybe even go into spirits. We have a couple of Russian franchises – maybe there will be a vodka,’ he told Decanter. As a note on his website says, ‘The commercial possibilities of the Faldo brand are almost limitless.’
Then there’s evergreen crooner Cliff Richard. Wine journalists chuckled when he released his first wine, Vida Nova, a couple of years ago. But it got good reviews, Richard bought more land, built a state-of-the-art winery – and suddenly no one’s laughing any more.
There is no doubt some of these wines are very successful. BMW – cricketer Ian ‘Beefy’ Botham’s joint venture with team-mate Bob Willis and Aussie winemaker Geoff Merrill – does good trade on tesco.com. Vida Nova flew off the shelves at Tesco (which sold 3,000 bottles in a single day), and Waitrose, Sainsburys and just about anywhere else. Who is buying it?
‘Fans,’ says Waitrose’s Nathalie Winder. ‘They buy it by the case. I shouldn’t think many of them even know it’s Portuguese.’
Wine writer Malcolm Gluck suggests there’s something ‘deeply psychological’ going on. ‘Wine is magical because you absorb it, and we have many absorption metaphors for true love.’ So Cliff’s fans are somehow transubstantiating his wine.
There is obviously a curiosity factor, even for people who don’t want to absorb the celeb in question. A wine with Diego Maradona’s name on it is going stand out. Surely the professionals are just as curious – doesn’t a celebrity wine stand a better chance of getting shelf space?
‘Not at all,’ Tesco’s Helen McGinn says. ‘You have to take the celebrity out of the equation. No customer is going to buy a second bottle if they don’t think the wine is good enough.’
In fact, the celebrity market is getting so saturated it might even do the wine a disservice to have your name on the label. ‘Personally I think the public will start getting cynical,’ says veteran Waitrose buyer Nick Room, who is in charge of Vida Nova.
Jancis Robinson MW is in the same camp. She respects Depardieu (who owns several vineyards in the South of France and Morocco) and actor Sam Neill (a large property in Otago, New Zealand) as ‘truly, madly, deeply into wine’.
‘But there’s a vast difference between names which are used by the brand owner (ie the winery) to sell a wine – most of the golfers – and those celebrities who genuinely are fascinated by the subject.’
The vital difference is where you put your name: front label or back? Few serious celebity labellers name the wine after themselves, for obvious reasons.
Those that do have to work very hard to prove themselves. As Gérard Bertrand, rugby international turned Languedoc wine producer, said in another context, ‘the winemaker should never be in front of the wine. It has to speak for itself.’