With the striking exception of my uber-hip Jordache jeans in fifth grade, I've never been a label whore. If the clothes fit around my growing girth, I buy them, no matter if an alligator, moose or dog has marked the territory. It's an over-rational, unemotional approach to clothing, but no one smirks — at least not to my face.
Celebrity-labeled wines are a different animal, though. To stand out among the crowded wine terrain, the juice better exceed the quality of the Martha Stewart towels that disintegrated after three washes. And why would the rich and famous invade these hallowed boundaries? I understand when celebrated chefs launch food products, but NASCAR drivers and wine? Vanity is winning that race, and the growing list of celebrities proves the continued appeal — Martha Stewart, Lorraine Bracco, Mario Andretti and Richard Childress have been added to the older list of Francis Ford Coppola, Fred MacMurray and Fess Parker. Then there's Paul Newman, whose grinning mug for years has adorned a line of natural products benefiting charity. But is there an appetite for wines sold simply on celebrity?
No wine geek enjoys seeing her favorite beverage sent to the commercial killing farm. I cringe when a mega-company buys a favorite winery, fearing a slaughter of quality. And celebrity wines raise the same issues. The vast majority are generic and mass produced, appealing to the TMZ generation. But some actually don't suck. People enjoy Coppola's wines, although I find them inconsistent. Sonoma's MacMurray Ranch — named after actor Fred MacMurray, the Dad in My Three Sons reruns — has some tasty, albeit overpriced, pinot noirs. I can't criticize North Carolina's Childress Vineyards too much, since their wines are decent and out of the national spotlight (but in the heartland of NASCAR). And in the late-'90s, Andretti drove into Napa Valley, making an extended pit stop in that ego-laden vineland, but his juice is worth drinking.
Then along came the new guys (and gals). Lorraine Bracco, the shrink on The Sopranos, personally showed up at a local tasting, hyping her new Italian line, Bracco Wines. It's righteous to have the balls to peddle her wares to the unwashed masses. I respect that. But her bottles barely topped boring, and although she confesses a "love affair" with wine, a few of my inquiries revealed she's scarcely acquainted with her lover.
Her lack of knowledge proves my point about celebrity wines: Love or vanity do not merit your name on a label.
Besides being a bloated cash cow for his charities, why would Paul Newman enter the wine market? Bigger tax write-off? Ostentation? He reportedly began traveling the vinous path years ago, but it wasn't "feasible at the time," which sounds like consumers weren't ready to drop coin. I realize it borders on blasphemy to criticize Newman, who has raised over $200 million dollars since 1982, but attaching his name to another average wine seems unfair to the thousands of cash-strapped, authentic wine producers competing for the same mouths.
I close with the poster child for shameless product prostitution: Martha Stewart. Post-prison boredom has driven her to the bottle. Her partner in criminal wine? A small, boutique winery some might know — E&J Gallo. $16 a bottle. But that won't dissuade her millions of female fans. If she packaged up her used prison sex toys in a pretty box, some schmuck would buy them. The wines are in limited release (Atlanta is one of six test markets), but I'm not rushing to Publix to taste the fruit of selling out.
Newman's Own 2006 Chardonnay California Soft and approachable, with ripe peaches, earthy vanilla, tangy lime and a slight sweetness. Sw = 3. $16. 3 stars
Coppola 2006 Rosso California Earthy black cherry, leather-tinged blackberry, with some bittersweet chocolate. Strange medicinal finish. Sw = 1. $11. 2.5 stars
Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.