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What makes celebrities jump into winemaking?

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Published : 2017-02-17 17:52
Updated : 2017-02-17 17:52

There is a saying among the people who take grapes and turn them into our favorite beverage, and it goes like this: To make a small fortune in the wine industry, you have to start with a large one.

Although I’ve never invested (or lost) a penny in a winemaking operation, I trust that the saying is true more often than it’s not. Which is fine -- we’re talking about poetry here, not finance. Making money is not the main priority. That’s easy for me to say, since I have no skin in the game. But really, there are a lot of easier ways to make money. No one, aside from a character in an absurd comedy yet to be green-lighted (or even written), would come to a point in life when he says, “Well, I’m down to my last option -- opening a winery.”

A dozen years ago, I wrote a magazine story about wineries with celebrity ties, and it was a challenge to round up a critical mass of big names. Some of the celebrity connections were tenuous. Aside from the actual celebrities, there were people who were famous but not exactly A-listers, or not famous but blood-related to a celebrity -- or had made a lot of money in a glamorous first career. When I did a follow-up story a few years later, it was even tougher to connect the dots. I would have settled for a winery owner who had gone to high school with Bill Murray’s aunt. Today, with the abundance of celebrity-interest wineries, I could break my stories down by category: movies, TV, rock music, pop music, football (American and otherwise), auto racing, golf, etc.

(파일명 와인 MCT 2 병이 잔뜩 있는 사진) A bottling equipment machine at Door Peninsula Winery in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, prepares bottles of Red Christmas Wine, a blend of light cherry wine and white grape wine. / MCT

Angelina and Brad. David and Victoria Beckham. Francis Ford Coppola. Antonio Banderas. Greg Norman. Wayne Gretzky. Fergie. Sting. Ditka. Dozens more.

Floating a winery takes a lot of money, so it’s no wonder that celebrities and other famous people are writing some of those checks. The two more intriguing questions are, why are they writing them to wineries, and why are they, for the most part, the most visible of famous people _ the actors, musicians and athletes of the world?

The writer Stephen King is famous and clearly richer than most Hollywood celebrities, and as far as I know, he doesn’t hold any financial interest in a winery. Same with theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking -- famous and presumably in possession of a significant amount of disposable income. What is it about the collective less-visible-famous that is not interested in being part of a winery? Or more to the point, what is it about the horde of visible celebrities that is?

My theory is that wine and wineries have taken on an image of glamour and cool. Wineries, despite in many cases being a manufacturing plant connected to a farm, offer a certain cachet that wasn’t so clear to people in the 1990s. Back then, the wine world was much more insular, and not long before that, the wine world had a reputation for being stuffy and aloof. Celebrities used to be more insular, too, and now the only thing that stands between us and them and a meaningful connection is an @ sign. #sarcasm.

Many of us expect to eat and drink well these days. We don’t take it for granted, but we do expect it. We claim our spot at that elevated table with no apology, and the lifestyle becomes more natural to us all the time. We continue to refine our knowledge and our tastes. Think about your relationship to food and wine even a year ago, or five years ago. In 2011 you could not have picked kale out of a lineup. Now it’s old hat to you. Someday you might be growing your own and inviting friends over to try it. If you were a celebrity who earned millions of dollars every few months, your kale patch could be a winery.

I’m sure that every celebrity who has invested in a winery loves wine. But they must love other products in the food and beverage industry too. Pork is delicious. Why not invest in a hog farm? Or a bakery? What does it say about wine when increasingly more people want their famous names attached to it or, at the very least, unlimited access to it?

It is because wine is poetry and not finance, and with each passing hour, whether you can see it happening or not, wine gets sexier. So, of course, the cool kids want to own wineries! Celebrities are about image, and youth, and style, and buzz -- and finally wine aligns in some ways with those categories (while also maintaining its grand traditions, just like Hollywood).

When you own a winery, you can take part in developing the goods. You can sit through tastings and opine about how the final product might take shape. If you are a smart celebrity, you will offer your opinions and then defer to your winemaker every time. She doesn’t tell you how to act or putt, and you don’t need to tell her how to make wine. In less-crucial matters, you can have a hand in designing the label and picking the color of the foil cap. You can come up with catchy slogans and decide what kind of nonwine merchandise to sell. It’s like being the CEO of Fun with a constantly renewable excuse to call in a catering company for a working lunch with wine.

I don’t begrudge any celebrity who lends his or her name to a winery. I’ve tried a fair amount of their wines, and many of them are really good. Some are great. A fat checkbook comes in handy when it’s time to secure first-rate land, an excellent winemaking facility or the services of some immensely talented people. There’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, even if it eats up a chunk of your millions, because if you are a celebrity and your hobby is winery-owning, sometimes the media mentions your name yet again -- only this time it’s because you own a winery. And when that happens, you can just imagine people all across the country raising their eyebrows and going, “Oh, cool.”

By Michael Austin
Chicago Tribune