Celebrity Wines

The practice of celebrities putting their names on wine has been going on for millennia but the New Zealand Wine industry has taken it to a whole new level. And with the culture of celebrity never higher, the sales figures show the old maxim that "celebrity sells" has never been more true…

Invivo co-founders Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron with Sarah Jessica Parker Photo: Invivo Wines

Scene 1: A beautiful American TV star goes into the local grocer’s store at her home in Ireland to buy wine…a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

Scene 2: Four years later she goes into the same store and sees rows of wine bottles bearing the personal signature label that she designed…and containing the wine blended carefully to her taste.

Amazingly this particular screenplay is fact not fiction. The star in question is Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex in the City” fame, and the wine is the Invivo X, SJP Sauvignon Blanc 2019 from Marlborough in New Zealand’s South Island.

Invivo & Co was founded in 2008 by Kiwi school friends Tim Lightbourne and winemaker Rob Cameron who set out to make great wine without any elitist attitude. They believe that nothing should stand in the way of a great drink.

Bold marketing has always been incredibly important to Invivo – even in those early days. They knew they needed a point of difference from the outset and a new take on the celebrity role was on its way. 

But Sarah Jessica Parker was not the first celebrity to grace endorse their wine. 

Rob Cameron with Graham Norton Credit: Ash Mills

In 2014 Invivo launched a new brand with legendary TV megastar Graham Norton. Tim and Rob heard he liked Sauvignon Blanc and a bold phone call followed: ”G’day, Tim from NZ here. Do you reckon Graham would like to try some of our wine? …” 

The answer was “yes” and a collaboration began which now sees the trio meeting up every year to taste, discuss and blend the wine, a process Graham Norton calls: “This weird alchemy… like cooking but much more interesting and more delicious. I love this process.” The conclusion: “I could drink this until the cows come home.”

From just 14,000 bottles of the Graham Norton range produced in 2014, the 2019 vintage topped 3.5million bottles and has since risen to 5 million. The multiple-award winning range of Graham Norton’s Own Wines – which includes Rose, Prosecco and Shiraz – is now enjoyed by people in over 17 countries including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and Ireland, the US, Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong and Japan.

It’s the same success story with the SJP connection which had similar origins, with Tim and Rob again employing Kiwi cheek and chic and effectively cold-calling the New York icon after hearing she liked wine.

As Tim recalls: “Rob and I had spent 12 months looking for an ideal partner in the US, someone hands on to help in the creative process and also loved wine. From her side she was willing to take a chance on us, two guys from New Zealand…bottom of the world…with a funny accent.”  

Read more about Invivo and Sarah Jessica Parker

For her part, Sarah Jessica Parker was simply intrigued:

“I thought it was absurd. I’d no business messing around in the wine trade. My husband and I are consumers and I wanted to meet the men bold enough to even produce the idea.”

A long conversation followed: “They convinced me that they would share all their information and experience and let me learn. I could ask questions and be wrong; be inspired, be informed and it’s just been an extremely unexpected, lovely delicious experience. It’s been such a treat and I have grown to be so fond of Tim and Rob and the way they conduct their business.”

Celebrities have been putting their names to wines since Greek and Roman times because they enjoy wine and/or as an investment.

In the United States, Francis Ford Coppola, Arnold Palmer, Joe Montana and Mario Andretti all have vineyards in the Napa Valley while other famous Americans with wine-growing interests include Drew Barrymore, Johnny Depp, Madonna and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie with a winery in France they bought in 2011 for NZ$60 million.  Unlike their marriage, the Rose they produce in Provencal has gone from strength to strength, with a magnum of Muse de Mirival fetching almost NZ$5 million at a charity auction.  

Other stars lending their names to the wine industry include Sting, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, Olivia Newton John, Cliff Richard, Gerard Depardieu, Boz Scaggs and Mick Fleetwood along with golfers Nick Faldo and Greg Norman and ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

What’s different with the Kiwi connection to their stars is the degree to which Graham Norton and Sarah Jessica Parker are involved in the whole process.

SJP had in fact been a guest on the Graham Norton Show and ironically she discovered she’d already been a solid customer of the Invivo brand. She has a house in Ireland and bought it all the time from the above-mentioned local grocery store.  

Tim again: “We wanted someone who would give us a shot so she’s been amazing in the creative process, working on the label.

“I sat in there and presented different concepts and it was great just working with her but also in the blending process as well… working with Rob and not always agreeing with the samples we were presenting to her… which is exactly what we wanted from her.”

The label is a very personal creation. She signs off letters in her own hand or emails with “X, SJP” and it was Tim’s idea to use the signature as the label.

Teal – for the sauvignon blanc label - is her favourite colour and she bought the paint and spent hours on getting the “X,” just right. The paint was acrylic and dried quickly leaving a ridged texture which they left on the label.

The attention to detail was carried into the wine-making process and as Tim says: “Blending the wine with her was a hugely fun experience.” The Invivo co-founders and SJP expanding on the experience in a global virtual wine tasting with Wine.com via Zoom. 

Rob: “The way you were describing the wine and the way you talk about it… the styles that you like: texture,  elegance. That was a great brief you gave me to go and blend some components that we could then put a blend together. Sarah Jessica was 100 per cent the director of that movie for sure!”   

The USA is New Zealand’s largest export market for wine with $422 million USD in sales… an impressive statistic considering that NZ produces less than 1% of all the world’s wine, and the data shows there is room for further growth.

For Invivo, having Sarah Jessica Parker on board was aimed at using her profile to raise that of their wine but her involvement went far beyond being a figurehead.

Rob to SJP: “We’re not living in America, we’re not eating what you guys do. How fitting is it to have someone in your country help us design a wine that’s going to be a little bit more tailored to your palette?

“It’s what Tim and I founded our business on. It’s not all about us. It’s actually about bringing our consumers and people into the actual process. “

Cue the jousting as the Kiwi palette engages with the American to create a new NZ Sauvignon Blanc…

Rob: “With any wine you have to respect where it comes from. It’s still going to be screaming of Marlborough, it’s still going to have massive amounts of citrus and tropical fruits and be bursting with fruits. But there’s an element of the process that’s very much down to human hands and that’s the little bit of magic that SJ put into this blend and it’s her style and sway on it which we think is such a fun thing.”

But as Rob recalls, the collaboration during the blending wasn’t always plain sailing. “I kind of liked some of the components and she really did not,” explains Rob. “One aroma she really didn’t like was a passionfruit /papaya aroma. For the layman at home this particular chemical compound is detectable down to parts per billion. It’s something that SJ’s nose is so attuned to we took it out of the blend.”

“I personally liked it and we try to put some of it in our wines but this was her blend and it was really good fun, a little bit of creative tension there.”

Nothing to worry about according to SJP: “It was so nice. You were always so gentle about it. You never seemed offended. There wasn’t fisticuffs or anything. We didn’t bust out about it. It was like really good sword playing negotiations.” 

The results speak for themselves with the wine winning a slew of awards and accolades and opened up New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to female wine drinkers in the US.

After arguably the biggest global wine launch of 2019 SJP’s Invivo X from Marlborough created headline news around the world with fans in New York queuing for hours to meet the star and have their bottle of wine autographed.

Mike Osborne, Founder and Executive Vice President of wine.com – America’s biggest online wine retailer -  describes the wine as “one of their most successful launches ever.”

And on that Wine-com forum Sarah Jessica Parker is seen adoringly stroking a bottle of Invivo X, SJP and fondly commenting: ”It’s been so great. She’s been so well received. She’s won awards. It’s been so nice.”

Actor Sam Neill of Two Paddocks - Photo: Two Paddocks Wines

Front-runner of the celebrity Kiwi wine growers is actor Sam Neill who has been in “the wine and cheering-up business” since establishing his Two Paddocks label in 1993 in Central Otago.

While he hasn’t used his fame to sell wine he has used the money he accrued via his career to establish and grow the business.

Unlike the bigger producers there is no real commercial imperative and in fact it really is a labour of love not loot, as he explained in response to a question from the UK’s Winefullness Magazine:

Is winemaking a profitable venture for you? “No! (Laughs) But it’s something I find extraordinarily compelling and it’s been immensely rewarding. When I get great feedback and reviews – the respect that my wine garners – that’s immensely rewarding. But it’s more than that. It’s the whole business of working with soil and with seasons that has greatly enriched my life. Not in a monetary sense, but in so many other ways.”

Sam Neill’s passion for wine was sparked in 1979 at a dinner in Charlie Chaplin’s favourite restaurant in Switzerland with legendary actor James Mason. They shared a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin from the Burgundy of France which has Pinot Noir as its main grape variety. “It changed my life,” said Neill. “An absolute clarion call.”

Two Paddocks has four vineyards producing Pinot Noir and Riesling from organically grown grapes, the organic theme on the farm including other fruit and vegetables along with saffron, lavender and olives.

 “We believe in organics,” says Sam Neill. “A healthy working environment, healthy people, healthy wines.”  

Neil tasted his own wine for the first time in 1997 hoping it would at least be drinkable. “It was better than drinkable. It was very bloody good!”

The revelation spurred on the determination to produce not just good wine but the best and since then Two Paddocks Pinot Noir has garnered a host of accolades.

Decanter magazine in the UK called it one of the top 50 “most exciting wines of the world”, while the wine scored 95/100 with Wine Spectator in the US. 

Asked by Winefullness what makes his wines stand out from the competition, The Proprietor, noted for his eloquent wit, replies: “Modesty makes me reluctant to answer this. But privately, of course, I am insufferably lacking in humility about my wines.”

And he lists the qualities of Pinot Noir thus: “Elegance, poise, tension, brooding, lithesome, subtlety and flexibility… you can drink it with anything.”

So what began as a “delightful diversion” from the film industry became a “crazy obsession” and while he acknowledges his acting may bring pleasure to people he knows that his wine brings pleasure.

“My legacy will be Two Paddocks wines,” he says. “Not old movies.”

 “One day people will forget who founded these vineyards but they will be renowned and that’s my legacy.” 

Compounding that degree of altruism is the fact that unlike most of the celebrities Neill does not use his celebrity to enhance the labels on his bottles.

Renowned director and pal Roger Donaldson set up his vineyard next door to Neill at the same time producing wine under the “Sleeping Dogs” label – the title of their first film together in 1977. 

Michael Seresin of Seresin Estate

And, with a nod to serendipity, the cinematographer on “Sleeping Dogs” was Michael Seresin who went on to establish his own vineyard in Marlborough.

Seresin caught the wine bug after befriending an eccentric Genovese count in Italy who would invite him to his rambling farmhouse and serve his own wine.

As he told Club Oenologique magazine: “He had five acres and they’d harvest the grapes, crush them in the barn, use a small basket press and age it. We’d go over and have lunch and a bottle of his wine surrounded by the vines. It was f……… amazing!”

Seresin made his fame and fortune as a cinematographer with his credits including “Bugsy Malone”, “Midnight Express”,” Harry Potter”, “Gravity” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

Like Sam Neill’s organic Two Paddocks, the Seresin vineyards in the Wairau Valley near Blenheim don’t use chemicals. The company was one of the largest biodynamic wine companies in New Zealand with an annual output of more than a million bottles. 

Personal connection with the label also applies to Seresin wines with the hand print of the founder Michael a distinctive trademark featured on every bottle.

And golfer Greg Norman employs his Great White Shark trademark on the label of his Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, produced by the Greg Norman Estates company run by daughter Morgan-Leigh.

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