Popping the Cork on the Celebrity Wine Conundrum

Is celebrity wine actually any good? Celebrities owning vineyards is not a new phenomenon. The practice has been around since ancient Greek and Roman times, when prominent philosophers and politicians owned vineyards for personal use. Famous winemakers included Virgil and Pliny the Elder. Therefore it is no surprise that today’s superstars, such as the Beckhams, the Jolie-Pitts, Fergie and Johnny Depp own vineyards. Incidentally, the latter had his arm tattoo changed from “Winona Forever” to “Wino Forever.”

Celebrity winemakers generally fall into three categories, the first being the celebrity family with a long history of winemaking, such as American director Francis Ford Coppola’s Rubicon Estate Winery from Napa Valley. Then there’s the celebrity wine enthusiast who enters the wine industry to do something they truly enjoy; for example, Maynard James Keenan of Tool’s Caduceus Cellars from Camp Verde, Arizona, and race-car driver Randy Lewis’ Lewis Cellars from Napa Valley. And sometimes, it’s because they just can, as in the case of actress Drew Barrymore’s Barrymore pinot grigio from Trivento, Italy, and rapper Lil Jon’s Little Jonathan Winery from the Central Coast. In the Jolie-Pitt case, sometimes the vineyard just comes with the castle.

I would argue that the first two categories are comprised of celebrities who are truly dedicated to the craft of winemaking and to producing quality wines. The third category is filled with average-at-best wines based on purchased grapes, big money and fame.

Recently, new celebrity wine proprietor Charles Woodson showcased his Calistoga, California-based winery, TwentyFour by Charles Woodson (TwentyFourWines.com), with a six-course wine-pairing dinner by chefs Massimiliano Campanari and Marc Marrone at Lavo Restaurant in the Palazzo. Woodson played football for the University of Michigan, where he became the only defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy. He was later drafted by the Oakland Raiders, which has its training camp in Napa Valley.

“I would drive up and down Highway 29 by myself in search of better food and wine. I was so sick of the repetitive chicken dinners at training camp. I wanted to participate in the ritual of wine and learn how to create it,” Woodson says of his early wine adventures.

A recent NFL ruling bars active players from endorsing alcohol. Woodson’s involvement in TwentyFour is minimal, probably out of caution.

Woodson produces two wines, a sauvignon blanc and a cabernet sauvignon. Tasting the young cab’s progression through the 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009 vintages told a story of a proprietor and a winemaker (in this case, Gustavo A. Gonzalez) still discovering their red style. The sauvignon blanc is half stainless-steel fermented and half oak, which rounds out the acidity, producing a well-balanced, aromatic white wine.

The food and wine parings were safe plays. The best pairing was the 2007 cabernet sauvignon with moscardini (little octopuses) in a peppery tomato broth. The spices stood out from the wine’s high tannins, giving the dish a lengthy finish. The “Rabbit Extravaganza” (rabbit four ways) was, sadly, a fumble. The tannic, full-bodied 2008 cabernet sauvignon overpowered the delicate white meat. Far more successful was the sauvignon blanc served with seared scallops and the 2009 cabernet sauvignon with a porterhouse steak.

Woodson is clearly dedicated to quality; his are among the few celebrity wines with balance and harmony. Like all wine, celebrity juice can be good, bad and ugly. But it definitely holds a place in the industry, because celebrity draws awareness to the world of wine.

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