Feel depressed about the US presidential election? Need a stiff glass of something to steel yourself against the carnival of bigotry unfolding in the Republican ranks? Well, why not indulge in a large glass of Trump? I’m afraid it’s true: Donald Trump is a winemaker. Down in Virginia there is a 200 acre winery that bears his name, turning out passable sparkling wines and less passable white and reds that are served to the privileged few on the campaign trail.
Trump wines are a microcosm of his career. The estate was established by Patricia Kluge almost 20 years ago, and like most passionate winemakers she spent a fortune on it and promptly hit financial difficulties. With an eye for a bargain the teetotal Trump bought it up for a song, and then proceeded to market its (frankly rather ordinary) output with extraordinary claims. Now on the campaign trail he claims he owns the winery outright (he doesn’t, he gave it to his son years ago) and that it’s the largest vineyard on the East Coast (it isn’t, not even close). These days, the State of Virginia is producing some really rather decent wines, but the Trump estate rates no more than a mention in despatches.
None of this matters to the man with the extraordinary hairdo, of course; he merely basks in the fact that he’s gone one better than Thomas Jefferson, his rather more illustrious political antecedent and a renowned oenophile.
Trump is only one of a thundering herd of celebrities – A, B, C and Z lists alike – that have taken a plunge into the world of wine: Dan Ackroyd, David Beckham, Sting, Sir Cliff Richard, Joe Montana and Johnny Depp are just a few of them.
The results are a very mixed barrel indeed, as a few tastings have shown. A few of them have shown considerable nous, a decent palate and even a pair of green fingers to produce some really rather special wines. Most of the rest are best avoided, unless you don’t mind paying a premium for the anecdote.
Celebrity winemakers fall into three categories. First there are the endorsers, who lend their name to a bottle in return for royalties and lots of bottles delivered to their dressing rooms. Then there are the hobbyists, who have decided to turn their hand to making a bit of vino – often from that unused field next to their sunsplashed villa near the Med. Finally, there are the serious craftsmen, some of whom start as hobbyists, but then get drawn into the all-consuming art and science of wine-making until it becomes almost as important as the jobs that made them famous.
Let’s start with the endorsers, since they are the easiest to understand. Imagine if a nice man phones you one day, asks if he can put your name on a bottle and in return he’ll pay you 50p for every one sold. Sure, where do I sign?
Wine drinkers like having the name of someone famous on their bottle. Sitting in front of me is a glass of “Graham Norton’s own Sauvignon Blanc” (Majestic, £8.99). Norton likes to serve his guests a drop of Sauvignon Blanc on his chat show, so the enterprising folk at Invivo Wines in New Zealand asked him to create his own blend. He is now “chief winemaker” and describes his creation as “tropical fruit… a bit of zing… cheers to that.”
In truth it is a very ordinary New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that weighs in at about £2 a bottle over the odds thanks to Norton’s imprimatur on the bottle. To his credit, though, he’s giving the proceeds to The Dog’s Trust, so as he says, cheers to that.
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Milton Sandford Wines, the independent merchant in Berkshire, has signed up both Britain’s record wicket-taker Jimmy Anderson and the nation’s most garlanded golfer Sir Nick Faldo. These collections are altogether more serious than Graham Norton’s dabblings. Anderson’s “Numbers Collection” is a decent trio of Languedoc wines, while Faldo has a heavyweight collection of six to his name that represent the six majors he won during his career, topping out at a 2008 Barolo that costs almost £45.
The hobbyists are an entirely different lot from the endorsers, and I should tread carefully here. Quite a few celebs who’ve made a few bob decide to have a go at wine and discover it’s a very expensive thing to do. They plant the vines, build the winery pay the staff, but the paltry pennies they get from selling it never covers the bills.
Perhaps the grandfather of the hobbyists is Sir Cliff Richard, who owns the “Adega do Cantor” (winery of the singer) in the Algarve that produces a variety of wines under the Vida Nova label. In interviews, Sir Cliff is always tireless in plugging his wines, but reviews tend to be what you what might call mixed, including a magnificently lurid rose. Perhaps the best deal here is the winery tour and tasting for only €7.50 – occasionally tourists have even reported meeting the man himself and persuading him to sign a few bottles.
For others, the pursuit of wine-making as a hobby just gets too much. Mick Hucknall from Simply Red sank a small fortune into his winery on the flank of Mount Etna in Sicily to produce “Il Cantante” (yes, it also means “the singer”). But he appears to have had enough and put it up for sale in 2014. It’s still for sale two years later; you can pick up the gorgeous ancient mill house together with two and half acres of vineyard for just €550,000 – please form an orderly queue.
Finally we come to the serious wine makers. These are the celebrities who have either been born into the wine business, or invested enough time and money to learn about the business properly, or found other people in the know who can show them what to do. These people deserve a bit of respect since not only are they pretty good at the day job but are also turning out a decent drop.
First among these are none other than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. When they’re not acting or saving the world, this couple are producing one of the world’s loveliest rose wines, Miraval from Provence.
The story behind Miraval tells you there are no flies on Brangelina. It started when they bought a picture perfect estate in the Var Valley. It came with some ancient vineyards, so they decided to make something of them. But unlike the hobbyists, they turned to one of France’s finest winemaking families for support – the Famille Perrin, renowned winemakers from the Cotes du Rhone. The result is an elegant, stylish rose that would grace any summer picnic (£14.72 a bottle, uvinum.co.uk).
There may be even more to the deal than meets the eye; I’m no expert in French tax, but I know that large mansions and estates are clobbered by super tax. That is, unless they are used for agricultural purposes. So the Pitt family may not only be making a mint from their wine, they may also be saving themselves a fortune too.
Sam Neill, star of Jurassic Park and The Horse Whisperer is also a wine maker worthy of the title. Back in 1993 Neill sank a small sum into a Central Otago winery in his New Zealand homeland. Since then the estate has grown, as has the reputation of its flagship Pinot Noir. These are really rather special examples of the Otago Pinots whose reputation is spreading around the world. Neill’s wines are not easy to get hold of in the UK: since they are not produced in large quantities, they sell out quickly and nor are they cheap. But Corks Out (corksout.com) stocks the best range and I would plump for the principal wine at £34.99 a bottle.
Finally, as we always do in the world of wine, let’s return to France, where two stars deserve a proper mention. One is the great Gerard Depardieu, who claims to drink 14 bottles of wine day. He owns Chateau Tigne in the Loire valley and is so enamoured by the business of wine making that he insists on putting “vignerons” rather than “actor” in his passport.