Celebs venture into wine industry

By Michelle Locke

LOS GATOS, Calif. – As a graceful Olympian, Peggy Fleming thrilled with her elegance on the ice. But these days, the gold-medal skater is making her mark in the world of wine.

And she’s not the only celebrity staking a second career in the vineyards. From golfer Greg Norman to rocker Mick Fleetwood to domestic doyenne Martha Stewart, the trend of VIP-turned-vintner is growing.

“It certainly seems to be picking up pace,” says Richard Hurst, a senior vice president for The Nielsen Company.

Star-power sells; Nielsen figures based on 2007 grocery store sales show celebrity wines were up nearly 19 percent from the year before, representing nearly 1 percent, or almost $42 million, of total wine sales in the United States.

It makes sense, says Hurst. With hundreds of bottles dazzling the eye, buyers often rely on recommendations, whether that’s from a friend, your local merchant – or maybe a trusted celebrity.

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“People are looking for that hook to hang on to because otherwise how do you choose between multiple chardonnays and multiple pinot grigios?” he asks.

A well-known name can be read as a signal of quality, in a market where people are looking for signals, agrees Robert Smiley, director of wine industry programs at the University of California, Davis, school of management. “Wine is a product that most of us know very little about that we buy a lot”

Just how much celebrities are involved in their namesake wines varies.

For Fleming, who with her husband Greg Jenkins owns the Fleming-Jenkins Vineyards & Winery, making wine is a serious endeavor.

The couple planted a vineyard in 1999 at their ridge top property in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Soon they were selling their grapes and Jenkins, who’d retired from his first career as a dermatologist, got interested in winemaking, taking courses at UC Davis.

“We got more and more curious,” says Fleming. “It just grabs you.”

Their wine labels whisper rather than blare Fleming’s fame, carrying the name Fleming-Jenkins with a delicate swoop of silver symbolizing the ice skating move known as a crossover.

“We wanted it to be clean and crisp-looking and simple,” says Fleming. “We didn’t want it to be all about me, because I’m not the winemaker, Greg is. But together we do the blends and together we select how we want it to turn out.”

They produced their first wines with the 2003 vintage and later created a rose (ro-ZAY) to raise funds for research into breast cancer, a disease Fleming has successfully battled.

A rich Napa Valley cabernet blend that goes for $50 a bottle is called Choreography, another nod to Fleming’s career.

Although stars from just about every field have ventured into viticulture, the sports connection has been especially strong, ranging from golfers – Ernie Els has a winery and Arnold Palmer is collaborating with Luna Vineyards in the Napa Valley – to race car drivers, Mario Andretti founded Andretti Winery in 1996.

The arts have also fielded a number of vintners, Francis Ford Coppola has been directing wine for a quarter of a century – he bought his Napa Valley property in 1975 – winning critical as well as popular acclaim.

One factor behind the success of celebrity wines, says Hurst, is increasing wine appreciation on the part of the Millennials, who have grown up in a celebrity soaked culture.

What’s in a name? A few dollar signs, apparently.

The Nielsen research showed consumers were paying an average of $8.50 per bottle for celebrity wine, but just $5.75 per bottle of regular wine.

West Coast markets were particularly receptive. A Nielsen analysis of grocery store sales in 52 U.S. markets showed consumers in Phoenix bought 68 percent more celebrity wine than table wine compared with the national share. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas and San Diego also showed above-average sales.

Still, says Jenkins, having a famous name on the label may help sell the first bottle, but not the second.

“It does help some brand awareness and visibility with Peggy’s name on the label,” he says. “But it’s really the quality of the wine inside the bottle that’s going to lead to repeat sales.”