Celebrities sure seem to love their wine, so much so that a bunch of them are getting into the winemaking business. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie announced in February that they've teamed up with a French winemaker on a rosé, while Guy Fieri revealed in January that he's going to open a tasting room at his new Sonoma County vineyard. But what makes a celebrity jump into the wine business? That's one of the questions that writers Nick Wise and Linda Sunshine explore in Celebrity Vineyards, available this week from Welcome Books. The book profiles 16 different celebrity-owned wineries, from Dan Aykroyd's Niagara vineyard to Mario Andretti's enterprise in Napa. In the following interview, the duo discusses how involved celebrities actually are with their wines — and whether those wines are any good.
In the introduction, it seems you were a little skeptical that celebrities really had anything to do with their vineyards. Is that fair to say?
NW: Yeah. I noticed that there was a trend of celebrities that were entering the wine arena as a second profession, and a lot of them would just kind of slap a label with their name on it and have someone like Beringer produce their wine for them. We really wanted to find people that were actually involved in some way with making the wine and putting their influence into the style of wine that they were making. So we decided to settle on a few that really were quite involved with it. All of [the celebrities in the book] are involved with the process of winemaking, whether it be in the vineyard, whether it be the blending, whether it be the final style of the wine, to sourcing the vineyards that they liked to whatever. Whatever aspect of the wine production they were most interested in.
How did you narrow it down and find out which celebrities are involved?
NW: That was kind of hard. We did a lot of research, for a start. Spoke and interviewed with the vineyard managers who were making the wines for them and seeing how much input they actually had in making the wine. But you only really could tell once you visit the winery and taste the wine and talk with the winemakers. We did a lot of talking with the winemakers and really grilled them on how much the celebrity was involved coming to the vineyard. If they wanted to make a Pinot Noir, if they wanted to make a Cabernet, why they wanted to do that and so on.
Why were you particularly interested in the hands-on celebrities?
We were really interested in this idea of someone who is very successful in their chosen career who decides to take on winemaking.
LS: We were really interested in this idea of someone who is very successful in their chosen career who decides to take on winemaking, which is a pretty all-encompassing thing to do. It involves a lot of different technologies and sciences: chemistry and viticulture and horticulture. It's a pretty large thing to take upon yourself and we were really curious as to why they would want to do something like that.
NW: Some people wanted to just make wine so they could drink the wine with their friends. Some wanted to live in Napa. There were various different reasons for each one. But, as Linda said, it is very technical. It involves everything from farming to chemistry to taste. That's why we found people like racing car drivers, they're sitting in their cars and they're like, "How much horsepower have I got? How much fuel injection is going in? I need to know the actual numbers." We found that those people become involved more involved than the other celebrities who were not that technical. Those celebrity winemakers happened to be the most successful out of all of the ones that we were interviewing.
What else do you mean by technical types? Who are you referring to?
NW: We're referring to the sort of people like musicians like B.R. Cohn who was also very involved with the technical aspects of how [a] record sounds. We found out that filmmakers were very interesting. We did Robert Kamen, a screenplay writer who has to be very detailed and very technical in the way that he writes things. It went on from there. Even actors, such as Raymond Burr, you have to learn your lines and you have to basically be very involved in the technical aspects of where you stand and what you do and how the camera's working.
[Photo: Welcome Books]
Charlie Palmer is also one of your celebrity winemakers. Tell me about his operation.
NW: His is actually one of the more interesting ones because Charlie is making wines with another winemaker out here, Clay Mauritson. And Charlie actually went into making wine as an activity that he could introduce his family to and join with his kids in actually making the wine. They did pressing together while his kids were young. He found it a really great way to bond with his family at that time.
He also just concentrates on making Pinot Noirs. He has a great love for Pinot Noir. He doesn't make steakhouse type of wines, he sticks with Pinot Noir because he has a very elegant style to his cuisine. And the wines are meant to go with his cuisine. They're served in his restaurant and they're very suited to his type of style of making food. He has an event every year called Pigs and Pinot, which Pinot Noir goes fantastically well with pork as it cuts through the fat.
And you wrote, too, that you were surprised that more chefs aren't in the wine trade. Why do you think they should be?
There are chefs around the world ... who do develop their palates and they want something that is suited to go with the cuisine that they serve.
So did you spend time with Mario Batali as well?
NW: He's going to actually be in the next book. We're having a second volume come out. At first it was actually hard to get these celebrities to sometimes agree to do this because they were very skeptical about what we were going to say about their wines and their winemaking. But, in fact, they were happy after they learned that we were very interested in how they actually were involved with the winemaking process themselves.
LS: When Nick got this idea three years ago, there weren't that many celebrity winemakers. Now in the three years that we've done it and certainly the past two years, more and more people are getting involved in it. So we're finding it's really a trend that's happening.
NW: It's a real explosion.
LS: And it's interesting. Like Drew Barrymore does this Pinot Grigio, and Fergie does a wine that she calls Fergalicious. So it has become a branding thing almost. We're up in Napa now. We're doing publicity for the book and research for the next book, and we went over to Mumm in Napa and we discovered that Carlos Santana is making a sparkling wine up here. The first vintage that he made completely sold out because it's all donated to this charity which helps kids and music. We tasted the wine yesterday. It was fantastic. We really liked it a lot. And he's very involved. He actually did the blending.
NW: Sparkling wine can go from brut or extra brut or extra extra brut. The connotation of that would normally mean that it would be drier than the brut, but in fact it means it actually has more of what they call a dosage. When you make champagne, the final thing that you add is the sugar. So it's either bone-dry or it has a touch of residual sugar, which he actually wanted because he enjoyed drinking the wine by itself rather than having it with food. So adding a little bit of residual sugar just makes it easier to drink. He was very involved with that dosage process and exactly how much sugar he wanted to be added. He also was very interested in vineyard management and what grapes he was going to be offered. Mumm really did a good job of providing him with what he was looking for.
I know you weren't going around to review the wines at these wineries, but how were the wines? What's the state of celebrity wine today?
NW: We found that the more the celebrity winemaker was involved, the better the wine was because they paid more attention to detail. They just didn't hand it over to a winemaker who would make their own style of wine. They actually had an input on the creation of their own product and what they liked to drink and what they wanted to express to the public. It was surprised how good most of the wines were. I would say probably out of all of them 95 percent of them were good to excellent. Lewis Cellars [Ed.: from race car driver Randy Lewis] is phenomenal wine and one of the best from Napa, full stop. So it went from being good to just phenomenal.
Celebrity Vineyards is hosting a book release party in New York City on April 24 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available on Gilt City and include a copy of the book, wine tastings and food from Charlie Palmer.