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?
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.
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.’
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.’
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