Celebrity wines

The rich and fa­mous who make the leap into the world of wine are driven by pas­sion, am­bi­tion or plain old busi­ness acu­men, says Nick Wise. But how about the wines: can you taste the star­dust?

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

From movie leg­ends and di­rec­tors to rac­ing driv­ers and pop stars, what is it that at­tracts the rich and fa­mous to the world of wine? Nick Wise has spo­ken to the stars

THE SUD­DEN EMER­GENCE of the celebrity wine­maker phe­nom­e­non a few years ago gave me the in­spi­ra­tion I needed to write my first book about wine. Was it even pos­si­ble for ac­tors, mu­si­cians or sports­peo­ple to do any­thing more than lend their names and charisma to a pre-ex­ist­ing wine? Might some of them be in­volved in the wine­mak­ing process it­self? And why did they choose wine­mak­ing as an aux­il­iary ca­reer any­way?

Might the ap­peal of wine­mak­ing today be that it is a se­duc­tive ac­tiv­ity to the out­sider, be­cause it is one of the last real crafts that al­lows us to cre­ate some­thing from the earth and to con­trol all as­pects of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process? From earth to ta­ble, the wine­maker plants, grows, picks, crushes, fer­ments, ma­tures and pack­ages the fruit of the vine in a uniquely in­di­vid­ual process.

Like wine, the no­tion of ‘celebrity’ also has a long history. From An­cient Greece through the Ro­man Em­pire and up to the present day, there have al­ways been ac­tors, sports­men and other suc­cess­ful peo­ple who were cel­e­brated be­cause of what they had achieved. In the 20th cen­tury, though, the rapid ex­pan­sion of the movies, TV and then dig­i­tal me­dia was to cre­ate a new kind of global fame. Celebri­ties might now in­clude peo­ple who sim­ply be­came fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous.

Per­haps one of the first high-pro­file ex­am­ples of wine­mak­ing be­ing taken up by some­one fa­mous for do­ing some­thing else was that of Thomas Jef­fer­son. Third Pres­i­dent of The United States, prin­ci­pal au­thor of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence, founder of the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, in­ven­tor, his­to­rian, ar­chi­tect, philoso­pher, plan­ta­tion owner and nat­u­ral­ist, Jef­fer­son some­how also found time to try to repli­cate the vine­yards of Europe on his Vir­ginia plan­ta­tion, Mon­ti­cello.

Jef­fer­son’s love of French wine, cui­sine and cul­ture blos­somed on a tour of the south of France. He be­came a wine ex­pert and, re­turn­ing to Amer­ica, he was ap­pointed ‘wine con­sul­tant’ by the Se­nate, se­lect­ing the fine wines for special White House oc­ca­sions and still dream­ing of cre­at­ing his own vine­yards. ‘We could,’ he de­clared, ‘make as great a va­ri­ety of wines as are made in Europe: not ex­actly the same kinds, but doubt­less as good.’

Jef­fer­son’s viti­cul­tural ex­per­i­ments ul­ti­mately failed to live up to his high am­bi­tions. In ret­ro­spect, his achieve­ment as an ex­per­i­menter was con­sid­er­able but his wines failed to meet his own high stan­dards, mainly be­cause the suc­cess­ful cul­ti­va­tion of Vi­tis vinifera in hot, hu­mid con­di­tions was un­ten­able prior to the de­vel­op­ment of mod­ern pes­ti­cides. He died long be­fore Amer­ica be­came one of the world’s most im­por­tant ar­eas in viti­cul­ture.

Fam­ily busi­ness

The celebrity pioneers of wine­mak­ing’s re­cent past were led by movie di­rec­tor Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, whose The God­fa­ther tril­ogy brought him world­wide fame and associated him for­ever with the Italian-Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive. Cop­pola feels film-mak­ing and wine­mak­ing have much in com­mon. Per­haps the de­mands of his most am­bi­tious movies pre­pared him well for the wine­mak­ing busi­ness. After the tri­umph of the first The God­fa­ther movie he bought prop­erty in north Cal­i­for­nia’s wine coun­try. In 1975, fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of The God­fa­ther 2, Cop­pola bought the In­glenook Estate in Ruther­ford, con­sist­ing of a Vic­to­rian château of un­cer­tain ar­chi­tec­tural style, and 631ha of sur­round­ing land that orig­i­nally be­longed to the Fin­nish ad­ven­turer and wine con­nois­seur Gus­tave Niebaum (d. 1908). This was re­dubbed the Niebaum-Cop­pola Estate Win­ery – a re­fresh­ingly rare ex­am­ple of a di­rec­tor be­ing will­ing to share a credit.

Cop­pola aimed high when he re­cruited the leg­endary An­dré Tche­listch­eff to be­come his wine­maker in the late 1970s. Tche­listch­eff

‘Per­haps the de­mands of Cop­pola’s most am­bi­tious movies pre­pared him well for the wine­mak­ing busi­ness’

stayed with the Niebaum-Cop­pola Estate un­til 1990 while the Cop­po­las grad­u­ally re­united the orig­i­nal vine­yards, re­turn­ing wine­mak­ing op­er­a­tions to the château. In the sum­mer of 2008, Cop­pola tried to re­cap­ture for­mer wine­mak­ing glo­ries with the help of renowned wine con­sul­tant Stéphane Derenon­court, then 2011 saw the ar­rival of Philippe Bas­caules, for­merly estate di­rec­tor at Château Mar­gaux, as gen­eral man­ager at In­glenook. Fol­low­ing his re­turn as man­ag­ing di­rec­tor to the Bordeaux first growth in March 2017, Bas­caules will also con­tinue as di­rec­tor of wine­mak­ing for In­glenook. The estate it­self was re­named Ru­bi­con Estate from 2006 to 2011, re­vert­ing to the orig­i­nal name, In­glenook, in 2011.

Cop­pola be­lieves that both wine­mak­ing and film-mak­ing are quintessen­tially Cal­i­for­nian in na­ture, be­cause both ‘start with raw in­gre­di­ents – in the case of wine, the land and the grapes, and in the case of film, the script and the ac­tors’ per­for­mances’. The wine­maker takes the raw ma­te­ri­als, fer­ment­ing, blend­ing and thus cre­at­ing some­thing new. The film di­rec­tor does the same thing, mak­ing a se­ries of de­ci­sions about cast­ing, cos­tum­ing and sound mix­ing.

‘In both cases,’ Cop­pola says, ‘you have to start with top-notch raw ma­te­ri­als – whether it’s the land or the script.’

Today In­glenook con­cen­trates ex­clu­sively on estate-grown wines: the Cask Caber­net, Blan­caneaux white blend, Edizione Pen­nino Zin­fan­del, RC Re­serve Syrah and, of course, the fa­mous Ru­bi­con it­self.

In the fast lane

Mario An­dretti, the re­tired Italian-born Amer­i­can for­mer rac­ing driver knew ex­actly why he be­came a wine­maker. He wanted to be able to have friends and fam­ily at his ta­ble to en­joy wines evoca­tive of his na­tive Italy. The re­gion in which he was born (Mon­tona, Is­tria, in what was then still the King­dom of Italy) in

1940 is now in Croa­tia, and so the Italy of his youth was lost to him by both the pas­sage of time and geopo­lit­i­cal up­heaval.

Grow­ing up in the US and be­com­ing a leg­endary For­mula 1 driver, An­dretti did not ful­fil his wine­mak­ing am­bi­tions un­til 1994, when he teamed up with Joseph E An­tonini, pres­i­dent, chair­man and CEO of Kmart. In the heart of the Oak Knoll ap­pel­la­tion in Napa Val­ley they found a 17ha vine­yard, and when they took on lo­cal wine­maker Bob Pepi he was able to sat­isfy An­dretti’s per­sonal pref­er­ence for wines made from the Italian San­giovese grape. An­dretti re­calls: ‘What (Pepi) liked most about our site was the vine­yard, and the pos­si­bil­ity of grow­ing Mer­lot and Chardon­nay, as well as lim­ited quan­ti­ties of San­giovese, Pinot Noir and Sau­vi­gnon Blanc.’

The part­ner­ship be­gan by chance in 1995 after a col­league of Pepi’s sug­gested that he take a look at a new ven­ture in town started by a fa­mous Italian rac­ing driver. Rumour had it that An­dretti was plant­ing mostly Italian va­ri­eties, which piqued Pepi’s in­ter­est. They met and hit it off and the vine­yard is re­ally Pepi’s baby, which he tends with a farmer’s in­tu­ition and dili­gence. In fact, although the dream of the win­ery was An­dretti’s, he freely ad­mits that he has lit­tle per­sonal in­volve­ment and that Pepi is the hands-on ex­pert. The

val­ley-floor vine­yards were never go­ing to yield su­per-cult Cal­i­for­nia Cab wine. Their style was go­ing to be bright, clean, juicy and – most im­por­tantly – drink­able with food.

The An­dretti Win­ery now pro­duces some 10,000 cases of wine a year and the port­fo­lio is di­vided into four lev­els of qual­ity, the high­est be­ing the Mon­tona Re­serve se­ries.

An­other rac­ing driver, Italian Jarno Trulli, was known for his strate­gic skills on the race­track, fre­quently hold­ing off lines of faster cars with his de­fen­sive driv­ing. He now owns Podere Cas­torani in Alanno, Abruzzo, Italy. Did his tal­ent for ‘hur­ry­ing slowly’ prompt his wine­mak­ing am­bi­tion? Prob­a­bly not, be­cause he al­ready came from a wine­mak­ing fam­ily, so when his fa­ther ca­su­ally asked him one day if he had any in­ter­est in restart­ing his grand­fa­ther’s busi­ness, he agreed. ‘Not for busi­ness rea­sons,’ he ex­plains, ‘but be­cause of the tra­di­tion, the pas­sion of my fam­ily, pas­sion for what my grand­fa­ther used to do.’

With his busi­ness man­ager Lu­cio Cavuto and wine­maker An­gelo Molisani, Trulli is con­stantly de­vel­op­ing the win­ery. The estate now owns nearly 35ha of vines and rents a fur­ther 100ha all planted with Mal­va­sia, Mon­tepul­ciano and Treb­biano grapes. By all ac­counts Trulli is very in­volved in the wines, pro­mot­ing them en­er­get­i­cally through­out the US and Canada. Molisani says of Trulli and Cavuto: ‘It’s as if they are con­stantly up­grad­ing and fine-tun­ing a For­mula 1 car.’

Magic touch

The Dis­ney name is part of Cal­i­for­nia’s history. Walt’s widow Lil­lian, her daugh­ter Diane and son-in-law Ron Miller founded Napa Val­ley’s Sil­ver­ado Vine­yards in 1981. Sil­ver­ado is one of the most im­pres­sive of all the es­tates I have toured, well-funded and a se­ri­ous Napa Val­ley pro­ducer of wines on an in­ter­na­tional scale. Walt’s heirs’ project had be­gun in the pre­vi­ous decade when the Miller fam­ily tried to buy a vine­yard prop­erty as in­vest­ment, rather than as a wine­mak­ing en­ter­prise. They ended up ac­quir­ing two prop­er­ties and sub­se­quently more vine­yards in Napa across five plots of land. ‘It was beau­ti­ful land, and it was land that was work­ing,’ says Diane Miller of their first vine­yards, pur­chased in the 1970s.

Ini­tially Diane and Ron sold their grapes to some of Napa’s best vint­ners, who made award-win­ning wines from them year after year. Fi­nally, they de­cided to make wine them­selves. Their win­ery’s name, Sil­ver­ado, came from the aban­doned min­ing town at the top of the Napa Val­ley where Robert Louis Steven­son had once stayed, prompt­ing him to liken ‘the be­gin­ning of vine plant­ing’ to ‘the be­gin­ning of min­ing for pre­cious me­tals: the wine­grower also “prospects”.’

Not ex­actly hands-on, the Dis­ney/Miller prospec­tors shrewdly ap­pointed Russell Weis estate man­ager. He ac­knowl­edges that with re­sources like theirs there is al­most no limit to what can be ac­com­plished. ‘We not only have a

fam­ily that is push­ing us philo­soph­i­cally,’ he says, ‘but we also have the means to go where we want to go and take some risks as we look for the ul­ti­mate in wine qual­ity. They set the tone for the feel and style they want to achieve. We get to­gether twice a year with the whole fam­ily to see where we are.’

Per­sonal mo­ti­va­tions

Not all celebrity wine­mak­ers have such a her­itage to mo­ti­vate them. Singer Ed Sheeran, sud­denly rich beyond his wildest dreams after a rel­a­tively brief mu­sic ca­reer, has had to think of worth­while ways to spend his money. One of them was to buy an Italian villa with a vine­yard in the cen­tral Italian re­gion of Um­bria. ‘The mo­ment I saw (the vine­yard), I knew I had to buy that place,’ he says. It is early days yet, but Sheeran’s gen­er­ally un­af­fected ap­proach to life and fame may very well see him tak­ing to hands-on wine­mak­ing.

One of the seem­ingly less likely show­biz re­cruits to wine­mak­ing is rap­per Jay Z, who now has a ma­jor in­ter­est in the Ar­mand de Brignac Cham­pagne brand pro­duced by Cat­tier, hav­ing upped his ex­ist­ing share in it in 2014. Orig­i­nally a devo­tee of a dif­fer­ent deluxe cu­vée, he took of­fence at com­ments re­ported to have been made (and since re­futed) by the pro­ducer. In true rap­per style, Jay Z is seen in his 2006 Show Me What You Got video

‘We have the means to go where we want to go and take some risks as we look for the ul­ti­mate in wine qual­ity’ Russell Weis, Sil­ver­ado

Above from left: The

God­fa­ther di­rec­tor Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, Robert Du­vall, Mar­lon Brando on set in 1972

Left: Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola at In­glenook Above: Philippe Bas­caules, In­glenook di­rec­tor of wine­mak­ing

Above: Mario An­dretti at the An­dretti Win­ery

Above: Jarno Trulli dur­ing pre-sea­son F1 test­ing at Barcelona in Fe­bru­ary 2008

Above: the Dis­ney fam­ily’s Sil­ver­ado Vine­yards estate in Napa Val­ley

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