Go ahead, fancy pants. Swirl that ’95 Chateau Margaux in a glass the size of your head, taking gentle whiffs of its complex, oaky nose. It may be delightfully chewy, richly tannic, and marvelous for sipping one sultry night on the quarterdeck of your yacht. But for weekday afternoon binge drinking, it has nothing on the ’11 Ramona.
The ’11 Ramona Singer pinot grigio is the second vintage from the “Real Housewife of New York” and superior, in her view, to the ’10. It comes now in tandem with the ’11 Barrymore, the first release of branded pinot grigio from actress Drew Barrymore. Both are light, crisp, fruity wines, which retail for around $20 (the Barrymore sells for up to $23 and the Singer can be had for as low as $14 on Amazon) and go down dangerously fast. So fast they could replace the Gatorade in coolers at kids’ soccer games with ice cold ’11 Ramona and no one would notice until it was way too late.
Celebrity-branded wines are nothing new, and many have been well reviewed over the years. Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Vineyards in Virginia and produces an array of respected table wines. Acclaimed vintner Francis Ford Coppola is hardly slapping his name on boxes of Franzia. Otherwise-famous people produce a wide array of highly drinkable merlot, chardonnay, syrah and, cabernet sauvignon. But the dual—arguably, the dueling—releases of the Barrymore and Singer wines suggest we are entering a new era of boldfaced oenophilia: the golden age of the celebrity pinot grigio.
Why now and why pinot grigio? “It’s a very accessible wine,” says Tina Caputo, editor in chief of Vineyard and Winery Management magazine, a trade publication for the wine business. “For people who are not super wine geeks, it’s a really easy wine to like. You don’t have to know a lot about it. It’s not expensive.” It is not rocket science, in other words. It is the alcohol version of a wide-release romantic comedy premiering over a holiday weekend.
“Some celebrities are very passionate about wine, serious about their involvement, and hands-on in the winemaking decisions,” says Dana Nigro, senior editor of Wine Spectator. “Some are less interested and it’s more of a branding opportunity where they contract with a winery to do the work.”
“What draws celebrities to the wine business is that wine is a great brand and an easy way to slap their name on something and sell it, a la perfume,” says Gary Vaynerchuk, co-owner of WineLibrary.com. He describes pinot grigio as “a vastly overrated type of white wine,” which only became popular over the past two decades because of the marketing efforts of the Terlato family, who introduced the category to American wine consumers in 1979.
In 2005, Sopranos actress Lorraine Bracco picked up where the Terlato family left off and introduced the category to American celebrity wine consumers. Bracco, a lifelong wine aficionado who named her daughter Margaux after the Chateau, introduced a pinot grigio with grapes she sourced herself from the Veneto region of northern Italy. It drew mixed reviews, and she is no longer producing it. “I bought it to support her because I like her,” Singer says. “I didn’t like it though. I bought a half a case, and I couldn’t buy it again. The last note wasn’t smooth.”
There is typically not a lot of trash talking in the wine world, but this is one of the pleasures of the dawning era of celebrity PG. Singer, who says she went through 30 separate tastings to ensure that the last note of her pinot is smooth, swears it is not a competition. She will not say a bad word about the Barrymore vintage except to point anyone interested to a YouTube video in which “a gentleman blind tastes both of ours and mine won hands down.”
Fighting words aside, the two projects share a similar backstory. Both are the result of long journeys of self-discovery. Barrymore’s wine is the product of years of travel that carried her to Italy and to a new appreciation of the joys of family. “For her this has been very much a journey: learning about herself, learning about that family atmosphere,” says Lisa Cleaver of Wilson Daniels, which imports the Barrymore 2011. For Singer, it was the result of a lifelong love affair with wine—and the queries of her Twitter fan base. “They kept writing to me: ‘Ramona, what’s your favorite pinot grigio?’ ‘Ramona, I’m drinking pinot grigio and I’m thinking of you.’” She found herself changing her mind every few years about which brand was her favorite, so she decided to strike out on her own. “It just shows you how important social networking is for business,” she says.
To optimize the celebrity-wine drinking experience, it’s best to enjoy a glass (or the whole bottle) under the same conditions as (you imagine) the celebrity in question does. Imbibe as they imbibe. Thus, a glass of former New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback cabernet sauvignon tastes best over a giant steak dinner on a frigid East Coast winter night. A wine from Matthews’s Blenheim Vineyards is preferably consumed in soft lighting, while playing the acoustic guitar. A 2006 cabernet sauvignon from rapper Lil Jon’s Little Jonathan Winery is nicest when sucked through the fangs of a diamond-encrusted Dracula grill. Or so we presume.
This principle holds for the latest crop of pinots. Barrymore 2011, a straw-colored blend with hints of apricot and “lively citrus,” is best glugged straight from the bottle, eyes closed and barefoot. Singer’s Ramona 2011, a crisp, light wine with a smooth finish, is perfect for a Wednesday afternoon. It also tastes delicious warm.
“I’m such a control freak, I had to make sure it tasted good warm,” says Singer, on the phone from Aspen, where she and friends recently finished off many bottles of the latest vintage over lunch. “Some pinots taste terrible unless they are freezing cold.” But what if it’s hour four out on the sun deck and all the ice in the ice bucket has melted and the refrigerator just feels like too far a walk? These are real issues. “If it’s warm the flavor comes out,” she says. “Sommeliers that taste my wine are very impressed. You should see how they raise their eyebrows.”
Singer also designed her own label. “When I go into a wine store, I don’t necessarily know what wine I’m going to pick, but I’m attracted to the label,” Singer says. She opted for a clean label with her name in all caps because “Ramona is melodic. It’s not like my name is Wendy.”
Barrymore, pregnant and recently married, is similarly hands-on with her blend. “Drew is a very active participant in everything that goes on with the wine,” says Cleaver. “She’s very, very involved on a daily basis, wanting to know where the wine is, meeting with the press, working with our distributor relationships and our sales organizations. It’s been very fun to work with her. She’s exactly like she is in the movies: quirky, self-deprecating. She’s darling.” Barrymore, who went through rehab for alcohol problems during her wilder youth, also designed her own label, with an assist from artist Shepard Fairey, he of the Obama “HOPE” poster. It is based on the sign at her family’s estate in California.
Both wines are selling briskly, and both women hint at expansion plans. “I think it’s positive that celebrities are involved in the wine business both as winemakers and consumers. It brings some glitter to the wine world and also attracts new consumers to the pleasures of wine,” says wine critic James Suckling.
It also gives the mere day drinkers among us an opportunity to get closer to our favorite stars, a sparkly little transubstantiative experience of fame. Drink enough Ramona Singer pinot grigio—and lord knows I did yesterday—and you begin to feel ever so slightly bonded to the reality-show star, as if you have a tiny vicarious sense of her life. But that’s how celebrity feels, right? A pleasant dizziness, a light bubbly feeling that goes straight to your head.