Are celebrity wine-makers destroying an ancient art?

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have had great success with their French rose-- Miraval.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have had great success with their French rose-- Miraval.

The wave of celebrities who dabble in winemaking, led by the likes of Trudy and Sting, Angelina and Brad, is turning tidal. 

Summer brought the launch of Drew Barrymore’s signature rosé and Roger Daltry’s champagne (it marks The Who Hits 50 tour). Others who’ve attached their known names to wine releases this year are Twin Peaks’ Kyle MacLachlan, “Dip it Low” singer Christina Milian, and Grammy-winning Zac Brown, who debuted two “serious” red wines, proving that not all country crooners stick with whiskey and beer. And then there’s Tituss Burgess, the gay bard of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, out with a new wine, who may be the first person to free-associate lyrics of an ode to Peeno Noir and his…well, you know.

Now comes a photo-heavy book aimed at catching the wave: “California Celebrity Vineyards,” in which Nick Wise and Linda Sunshine profile sixteen notables who want to not just drink wine but put their name on the label. They range from race car drivers (Mario Andretti and Randy Lewis) to golfers (Jack Nicklaus and Luke Donald) to departed television actors of yesteryear (Fess Parker and Raymond Burr) to silver screen figures (Frances Ford Coppola and Kurt Russell).

Vineyards aren’t, and can’t be, celebrities; they are vine-covered plots of earth, and they all look pretty much alike. Yet the grapes that come from them, once they become wine, vary as widely in personality as the celebs who are the actual subject of this book.

“California Celebrity Vineyards” raises intriguing questions about how we vino buffs should relate to celebrity-tagged wines. Are any of them actually really good? Do they deliver value for the dollar? How involved with the winemaking should we expect celebrities to be? (Quick answer: Mostly, not very!) If you’re inclined to give the back of your hand to the whole business of celebrity wine, you’ll probably agree with veteran California winemaker Stuart Smith, who says, “My first thought is that celebrities getting into wine is God’s way of telling them that they have too much money.”

But Smith, co-owner with his brother of Smith Madrone winery high on Spring Mountain, had a second, more charitable thought: “We have people like Francis Ford Coppola who is a serious person about wine, who respects the industry, respects location, and gives homage to vintners of the past. Also the Disney family, which came here to the Napa Valley in the 1970’s. They and Frances were here before wine was a beverage of choice in America. I say, from the bottom of my heart, I welcome celebrities like them.”

Growing grapes and making them into really good wine is a rigorous, chancy, easily messed up, year-around calling. In winter, the vines need to be skillfully pruned—finger numbing work that most celebs will leave to hired hands. In summer, nasty bugs and mildew, even hail, are a never receding threat. At harvest, sudden rain can bloat the grapes. Harvesting in yucky weather can be a bitch. “I did it once, and it was brutal,” says Lorena Ascencios, sales director at Astor Wines & Spirits. Even beautiful fruit can be messed up by wrong decisions in the winery. Earlier this summer, when George Duboeuf, dean of Beaujolais winemakers, was in town to conduct a tasting, he was asked about the excellent 2015 vintage, currently being held in tanks. The octogenarian looked worried. “I’m not sure which will be the right moment to bottle [it],” he admitted.

So, after bottling more than 70 vintages, Duboeuf still isn’t sure how to get it right? Let that be fair warning to celebs who come waltzing into the wine game.

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