For a wine writer naturally given to skepticism, the growing prevalence of celebrity winemakers would truly seem to be a gift from Bacchus himself. True, J-Lo hasn't yet entered the wine business, but the vineyards are crawling with celebrities nowadays. Sofia Coppola, Sting, Olivia Newton John, Ernie Els, Lleyton Hewitt, Bob Dylan, former Bond girl Carole Bouquet (what a name for a winemaker!), and Emeril Lagasse are among the bold-faced names who have recently started hawking their own wines or associated themselves with existing wineries.
Sadly, the desire to lampoon these folks must be resisted—it wouldn't be fair. For one thing, most celebrities putting out wines under their own names seem to be doing it for the right reason: They are interested in making good wines. And it's not as though using a well-known name to sell cabernets and chardonnays is some new and insidious marketing device. For more than a decade now, the wine world has been in thrall to another kind of celebrity—the celebrity winemaker. Consultants like Michel Rolland, Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, and Riccardo Cotarella have been enlisted by scores of ambitious estate owners who recognize that putting their grapes in these high-priced hands usually guarantees stellar reviews from the wine numerologists and robust sales.
Without question, the dean of celebrity winemakers is Francis Ford Coppola, though "celebrity winemaker" is the last label he'd ever want and the last one that should ever be applied to him. A wine buff from his childhood days on Long Island, Coppola jumped into the wine business in 1975, using his earnings from the first Godfather to purchase most of Napa Valley's legendary Inglenook estate. He has been one of the seminal figures in the valley's rise to international acclaim, and though the Niebaum-Coppola wines have been overshadowed in recent years by all the hoopla surrounding the so-called "cult cabernets," they still command a dedicated following.
Coppola recently teamed up with his daughter to release Sofia Blanc de Blancs, a sparkling wine that comes in a can and is apparently meant more for club-goers than oenophiles. Given her family's winemaking prowess and Sofia Coppola's hipster credentials, a brand of bubbly would certainly seem to be a good promotional tool for the young filmmaker. Clearly, though, wine is not an appropriate product for every celeb. A Paris Hilton merlot? It could make for a saucy tasting note, but the wine would probably be a tough sell.
Two years ago, the Australian cricketer Shane Warne rolled out his own line of wines. Warne is known to be a hard-partying fellow, and his foray into more genteel booze was greeted with a certain skepticism—skepticism he did nothing to dampen. "It took me a while to understand what chardonnay is and what red wine is," he confessed to the Sydney Morning Herald. "I didn't even know, for example, what made a red and a white different—understanding the way the pips and the skins in grapes make the flavour and colour in red." He is, however, one hell of a spin bowler.
For this tasting, I focused on serious celebrity wines—wines made by famous figures who know what chardonnay is, who know that red wine is, well, red, and who take more than a passing interest in the juice that bears their name. In addition to several Niebaum-Coppola bottlings, the tasting included wines from golfing greats Ernie Els and Greg Norman, who own vineyards in South Africa and Australia, respectively; from the French actor Gerard Depardieu, who co-produces both a Condrieu and a Saint Joseph with the excellent Northern Rhone winemaker Alain Paret; and from Emeril Lagasse.
Dead celebrities are getting into the wine business, as well, and I also tried a few Elvis Presley and Jerry Garcia wines. I was particularly keen to taste the Garcia portfolio—there is a merlot, a chardonnay, and a cabernet—and not just because it has won some praise. I had a friend in college who was a devoted Deadhead and an equally dedicated pothead, and while blissfully toking away one afternoon, he shared a fantasy: that Jerry Garcia, upon his death, would be laid to rest in a large piece of rolling paper, covered in marijuana, and smoked by his many adoring fans. Alas, Jerry was not entombed in a joint, but hopefully my long-lost friend is finding some transubstantiated pleasure in the late musician's wines.
Niebaum-Coppola Cabernet Franc 2002, $44
I love the smell of Niebaum in the morning—this Niebaum at least. It has aromas of cranberries, blackberries, licorice, and dried leaves, with a pungent earthiness, as well. The fruit has a delicious sweet-and-sour taste, and the structure is excellent. One of the better Cab Francs being made on these shores.
Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon 2001, $100
A Bordeaux blend that—for a few minutes, at least, with its bouquet of fresh currants and pencil shavings does a nice impression of a good Medoc. But those aromas are soon pushed aside by the oak, which also dominates in the mouth, giving the wine a slightly cloying taste. It is a pity, because there is a very good wine lurking beneath the wood.
Ernie Els 2001,$80
Quite oaky on the nose—Els drove this one a little far into the trees. In the mouth, tobacco, plum, and blackberry flavors. Lands a bit short on the finish, but is easygoing and pleasant all the same. The wine does, however, carry a hefty price tag, and if it's a choice, better to spend the money on a new five-iron.
Greg Norman Limestone Coast Shiraz Cabernet 2001,$16
Just as the name says, a blend of shiraz and cabernet. Pepper and raw meat aromas. Tart and ungenerous in the mouth, and brutally tannic—like trying to eat your way through a sand trap.
Greg Norman Limestone Coast Shiraz 2002, $16
This is more like it. Black pepper, sweet cherries, and roasted meat flavors. Nicely restrained on the palate (particularly welcome in an Australian syrah), with good balance. A solid par.
Lys de Volan Condrieu 2003,$40
A viognier co-produced by Alain Paret and Gerard Depardieu. Ripe apricot aromas leap out of the glass. White truffle, almond, mineral, and spicy vanilla notes, as well. A pleasantly round and fleshy wine, with a nice bitter edge to the finish. A textbook Condrieu, and an excellent one.
Emeril's Classics Chardonnay 2003, $10
Smells like a typical California chardonnay, all buttery and tropical. Arrives in the mouth a little too sweet, then turns brutally acidic.
Emeril's Classics Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, $10
Surprisingly light in color and with a very herbal bouquet, which didn't augur well. Sure enough, the fruit was underripe, a problem compounded by the bracing tannins.
Elvis Blue Suede Chardonnay 2001, Jailhouse Red Merlot 2002, Blue Christmas Cabernet 2002, $10 for the chardonnay and the merlot, $17 for the cabernet
The thin, medicinal Jailhouse Red Merlot is bad enough to start a jailhouse riot. The cabernet is better, but not good. The chardonnay is too sweet, but that's not an uncommon problem in discount California chardonnays.
J. Garcia Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, $17
Smells mainly of blueberry sauce, with a hint of smokiness. A medium-bodied wine, with ripe, mellow fruit and modest, somewhat dry tannins. The wine could use a bit more concentration and harmony, but I've had a lot worse for a lot more from California.