Apparently, wine pairs well with pop culture. If you like a particular TV show, movie, or band, odds are there’s a branded wine you can consume along with said media. And if your favorite media franchise doesn’t already have its own vino, be warned: It’s probably coming soon.
Most recently, branded wines from the folks behind Downton Abbey and Fifty Shades of Grey have been making waves. Both come from evil genius Ron Roy, the founder of Wines That Rock, which produces rock-band-themed wines. When I interviewed him, I couldn’t help but ask: Why would anyone buy wine just because their favorite band was pictured on the label?
“Why do you buy New York Knicks T-shirts?” Roy fired back. “Because you’re passionate about the team. We just happen to fall into the pop-culture box.” He has some experience with capitalizing on passionate fans, creating wines such as the well-received Rolling Stones “Forty Licks” Merlot, which has sold well enough to have multiple vintages released. It’s not such a far leap from music buffs to movie buffs, Roy decided. “We said, if we can do rock ’n’ roll, we can do all these other genres.”
Wines That Rock isn’t the only player in the novelty vineyard. Witness the rise of Duck Dynasty wine, and the limited-edition Star Trek wines that launched earlier this year from Vinport.* The Austin movie theater chainlet Alamo has even turned out film-themed vinos as tributes to The Princess Bride and The Silence of the Lambs (the latter included a nice Chianti, natch).
These themed wines aren’t without precedent: Restaurants have long partnered with wineries for private-labeled house wines. And, of course, slapping logos and trademarks on unrelated products is nothing new. “Millennials in particular grew up with branding, and they don't think anything of it,” says Kara Nielsen, a consumer strategist for CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insight. “They grew up with a cartoon character on their toothpaste. This is like Mickey Mouse-branded treats for the grown-up set.”
The reasoning behind these branded wines boils down to a simple fact that marketers figured out long ago: People buy products when they identify with (or aspire to be like) the spokesperson–or in this case, the TV show, band, or book. These are lifestyle brands. “You identify with the label, not what's in the bottle,” Nielsen told me. (Indeed, most of the pop-culture wines sampled for this piece don’t even have the varietals listed on the labels.) “The thought is, ‘I’m looking for a reflection of myself.’ If you identify with Downton Abbey, you'll want the wine. If you identify with Duck Dynasty, you'll want that wine.” (Although after Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson’s recent anti-gay comments, you may be a lot less inclined to identify with either—who wants to drink wine that pairs with homophobia?)
That said, what’s in the bottle has to be good in order to keep people coming back. So I conducted an informal taste test, scoring 13 bottles on a scale from 1 to 5, with five being the highest. Good news: None of them sucked. While I’m a diehard Downton Abbey fan, the wines I liked best (both red and white) were the Fifty Shades of Grey line, followed by Star Trek among the reds and Duck Dynasty among the whites, with Downton Abbey trailing a close third in both categories. AC/DC’s citrusy Sauvignon Blanc also scored well.
It’s encouraging to see that despite the potential for pure hype, most of the pop-culture wines on the market have been crafted with thought and care. However, a final note for marketers out there: We all have our limits. And when that inevitable Keeping Up With the Kardashians Moscato blend hits the shelves, I’m officially switching back to whiskey.
Fifty Shades of Grey “Red Satin,” 2010 ($18). Origin: Ukiah, Calif. I pop out the cork and lettering on the side commands: “You. Are. Mine.” I wrinkle my nose and throw away the cork. The wine itself has lots of rich raspberry and black cherry notes, an elongated finish, and balanced tannins. In short, it has finesse. I’d be happy sipping this at the bar, nibbling on handfuls of almonds. Score: 5
Star Trek “Mirror Mirror,” 2009 ($25). Origin: Sonoma, Calif. The eye-catching yellow and orange label features two Spocks staring each other down, and includes a suggestion that this has “the unique qualities of a Klingon blood wine.” The aromas are earthy and plummy, and it’s sweeter than expected, bursting with bright fruit. Pair with pork or beef and call it a night. Score: 4.5
Star Trek “The Trouble With Tribbles,” 2009 ($25). Origin: Sonoma, Calif. This red blend has a warm, earthy, jammy scent. At first sip it’s big and twangy, but softens into a juicy, meaty, chewy red, perfect for pairing with a steak. It’s substantial. No idea what grapes are in here but love the concept of “a vintage Chateau Picard.” Score: 4
Downton Abbey Claret, 2012 ($17). Origin: Bordeaux, France. Made from a blend of 70 percent Merlot, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5 percent Malbec, this prim and proper red has a restrained plumminess, with a touch of baker’s chocolate on the slightly drying finish. Allow it 30 minutes to open up—or decant the wine, as Mr. Carson would do. Score: 4
Duck Commander “Triple Threat” Red Blend, 2011 ($10). Origin: St. Helena, Calif. I’d assumed these would have a screw-cap opening, but nope, a proper cork closure, adorned with a duck at the top. This bold blend has a sweet and fruity aroma, like liquid jam. It drinks mighty easy—very sweet and juicy and downright plush. Save it for a dessert pairing. Score: 4
BB King’s Signature Collection Red Wine, 2010 ($14). Origin: Alpera, Spain. This blend of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah has an earthy aroma backed by a raspberry compote scent. It doesn’t quite deliver on the palate. It’s slightly tart, like unripe plums, though the finish is long and pleasingly jammy. Score: 3
Fifty Shades of Grey “White Silk,” 2012 ($18). Origin: Ukiah, Calif. Bold and perfumy, this smooth white offers rounded notes of honey, tropical fruit, and pears, with a moderately long finish. Pair with cheeses and double entendres. Score: 4.5
Duck Commander “Wood Duck” Chardonnay ($10). Origin: Napa, Calif. Nothing subtle here. If you’re one of those people who disapprove of “over-oaked Chards,” you won’t like this one. But I thought it was delicious, with its bold, creamy butterscotch notes, ripe apples and pears, and just enough acidity to keep things interesting. The green-and-yellow ducks on the label cleverly resemble camouflage. Score: 4.5
Downton Abbey Bordeaux Blanc, 2012 ($17). Origin: Bordeaux, France. Light, genteel, and fragrant with vanilla, ripe melon, and tropical fruit. On the palate, it’s gently effervescent, with a bit of Granny Smith green apple tartness and a crisp, citrusy finish. It’s almost too light—when chilled, it’s practically featherweight. Demure packaging includes a scolding from Mrs. Patmore on the back of the label: “You know the trouble with you lot? You are in love with the wrong people!” Score: 4
AC/DC “Hells Bells” Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($18). Origin: New Zealand. Sealed with a screw-cap top, which seems appropriately rock ’n’ roll. I’m not sure AC/DC would like this description, but they make a very pretty wine. Their savvy-b is fragrant with white flowers and tropical fruit, and it’s citrusy on the palate, with good acid levels and a slight effervescent quality. Score: 4
AC/DC “Thunder Struck” Chardonnay 2011 ($18). Origin: Australia. Golden and bright, this vino has light butterscotch aromatics and an assertively tart, lemony flavor, finishing with delicate notes of vanilla, pear, and white peach. Score: 3.5
BB King’s Signature Collection white wine. Origin: Alpera, Spain ($14). The bold, fruity aroma speaks of apples and ripe pears. On the palate, it veers more toward green apple tartness, with a touch of vanilla on the finish. Guitar illustration on the label. Score: 2.5
Duck Commander “Miss Priss” Pink Moscato ($10). Origin: St. Helena, Calif. Rosy and super-sweet, this may remind you of pink lemonade. Look for big fruit flavors–strawberry, peach, citrus, with vanilla on the finish. It goes down awfully easy, but was so sweet it had me wondering if sugar was added (it’s not). On the bright side, it would make a great sangria base. Score: 3
*Correction, Jan. 2, 2014: This article originally misstated that Vinport's Star Trek wines were launched for the 50th anniversary of the TV show. Star Trek first aired in 1966, and its 50th anniversary will be in 2016.