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