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Celebrity winemakers: what's in the bottle?

Fans of "The Sopranos" or "Ghostbusters" might make an impulse purchase for a glass of Lorraine Bracco’s Italian reds or Dan Aykroyd’s Canadian dessert wines simply out of curiosity.

But when it comes to enjoying the fruits of any winemaker's labor -- whether or not it’s marketed with a celebrity endorsement, it’s what’s inside the bottle that counts.

Celebrities getting into the wine business isn't new, but in the last year it seems like the word got around that lending your name to select wine releases is the thing to do.

Last year the rock band AC/DC partnered with the Australian Warburn Estate to release a flight of epically named wines like: 'You Shook Me All Night Long Moscato' and 'Highway to Hell Cabernet Sauvignon.'  Bob Dylan and Grateful Dead Productions each came out with their respective limited edition vintage releases.  And soon, fans of Kiss and Queensryche will be able collect their favorite album covers on bottles.  There are also a host of sport figures turned wine makers, such as former NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Indeed, some celebrities are quick to slap their name on most anything with a bar code.  

"I think a lot of that celebrity stuff is garbage. Just a lot of extreme marketing. Some are just fine, but then just not that interesting and too expensive for how they taste because it's just about the name," said Dylan York, sommelier for the Manhattan-based wine shop New York Vintners.

Yet there are some well-known stars considered to be more serious about their creative ventures in vinticulture.  Rocker Dave Matthews owns the Charlottesville, Virginia-based, Blenheim Vineyard, Antonio Banderas bottles tempranillos from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain and Madonna collaborates with her father Silvio and has thrust Michigan wines on the map with Ciccone Vineyard and Winery.

“Celebrities serious about wine attach their name to a winery or vineyard because they enjoy wine and want to be part of wine culture,” says Bob Barry of Winebow, a national wine and spirits distributor. He currently sells New York Jets’ Uncorked, a limited release commemorative 2008 cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley, and previously worked with funnyman Dan Aykroyd’s Diamond Estates wines.

Perhaps the most well-known celebrity wine maker is the Hollywood director Francis Ford Coppola.  He says that his wine business was born out of the communal dinners he’d host while filming “The Godfather” movies. The epic repasts were said to be as legendary for the lucky guests as his films are for his fans.

“Winemaking and filmmaking are two great art forms that are very important in the development of California,” says Coppola, adding that the process of making wine is similar to making films," he said.  

He says both start with raw ingredients—in the case of wine, the land and the grapes, and in the case of film, the script and the actors’ performances. 

"The winemaker takes these raw materials and ferments and blends. He says yes to one batch, no to another. The director does the same thing: a series of yeses and nos, from casting and costuming to edits and sound mixes. In both cases you have to start with top notch raw materials—whether it’s the land or a script,” says Coppola

Another Hollywood veteran, Kyle Maclachlan (most known for his role in the TV shows "Twin Peaks" and "Sex in the City") is making strides in the world of fine wine. 

Maclachlan purchased his boutique winery in his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash., and named it Pursued by Bear. Maclachlan thoroughly immerses himself in the role of wine proprietor, using his celebrity to help access premium innovations in winemaking equipment.

“I’m very hands on when working with my winemakers,” says Maclachlan. Pursued by Bear (an homage to Shakespearean stage direction) is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah. He recently added a single-varietal syrah called Baby Bear.

“Everything from taste and experimenting with blends, to pounding the pavement talking about the wine and going into stores and restaurants,” he says.

While most stars emblazon their name across their bottles, Maclachlan lets his product breathe easy before adding his notoriety. “My intention was never to put my name on the bottle. I want it to stand on its own. I got into wine because I want to make something interesting for people to enjoy, and spend more time back home with my family.”

“Pursued by Bear works because Kyle collaborated with smaller, very experienced and adventurous winemakers,” says York.“Celebrities are better off making a small, limited production, and focusing on something unique. They should stay away from over-saturated Napa Valley and look for small wineries in a still un-chartered region like Washington. Their name on the bottle is not enough.”

Maclachlan says wine making is a lot of hard work --more than he thought. "The romance in walking the vineyard, tasting and choosing the labeling are the high points. Then there’s the selling it beyond giving to your friends. It’s like making a movie. You have to wait and see if people will respond and if it is to their liking. You have to prove yourself every year.”

The same goes for football and the wine the New York Jet's team got behind. Drinking the fruits of the New York Jets labor might not sound like the most sophisticated pairing for upscale wine lovers, but the Super Bowl -- one of America’s grandest events--gives plenty of reason to celebrate with a little high-priced culture, particularly when the epicurean demands of fans have risen to staggering levels.

Before the New York Jet's Uncorked, Winebow was hesitant to go sporty with their wine repertoire. But the artisanal elements brought by veteran winemaker Marco DiGiulio ultimately reassured Winebow that the partnership would create a winning team.

“The owners wanted to protect the Jets name, the NFL logo and image, but also felt they could create a high quality wine that the fans would appreciate,” says Barry. “These wines have great structure with smooth tannins -- perfect with a steak or burger.”

“They let the winemaker’s work speak and lend their financial support and entertainment value to get the word out there,” says Barry.

A sobering reality, however, is that celebrity wines likely won’t make the upper echelon of viticulture.

“These are drinkable wines that have their place in the market,” says Barry. “Ninety percent of wine is to be drunk within 24-48 hours of purchase. Few wines are to be saved. They’re like the George Foreman Grill -- if the product is quality, it’s going to do well and stick around.”

With a long list of wines to chose from, we selected four for a closer look.  They are: Aykroyd's cabernet sauvignon 2007, The Jets Uncorked cabernet sauvignon 2008, actor Kyle Maclachlan's Pursued by Bear, Columbia Valley cabernet sauvignon 2008 and Francis Ford Coppola’s Director’s Cut 2009 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. Check the slideshow for how they rated.