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Wacky Labels and Celebs - Just What the Wine World Needs
Copyright 2006 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed January 18, 2006. For more information go to

Pop-music star Madonna, a.k.a. "The Queen of Pop," plans to launch her own wine label, the British news media breathlessly reports.

The bottles will bear Madonna's image and will come with a "certificate of authenticity," according to The Daily Express, which reports that there'll be four wines in the series - ranging up to a relativly spendy 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon at E25 (close to US$50) - plus a non-alcoholic "wine" for fans who don't do the alcohol thing.

Meanwhile, speaking of celebrities and their wines, the usually staid Decanter this week passed along news about the Hollywood star Johnny Depp's favorite wine: Chateau Calon-Segur, a mere third-growth Bordeaux from Saint-Estephe. "It's a marvellous wine that you can drink every day and it's also very affordable," Decanter reported, quoting from a Depp interview in the French magazine Madame Figaro.

"Affordable" may be in the eye of the beholder, as Calon-Segur 2000 currently commands $50 or so from U.S. retailers, with the 2003 vintage going for $70 and up. But Depp probably isn't worrying much about his wine bills, having reportedly pocketed $18 million for his recent role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A few other Depp favorites from the extreme high end of the wine-price spectrum: Chateau Petrus, Chateau Cheval-Blanc and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. "With those wines, you reach nirvana," he said.

Yeah, right!

From the cultish Marilyn Merlot (a fair-to-good Merlot in a collectible bottle) to '80s-era Italian wines bearing unauthorized images of Elvis-on-velvet on the label, the wine industry has rarely been loath to take advantage of celebrity names to sell wine, knowing that an eager fan base will lay down cash for their favorite celeb's wine without worrying over-much about what's in the bottle.

For those who are more interested in wine than celebrities, I recommend appropriate skepticism, just as I do when you are confronted with a wine bearing the picture of a cute animal, a humorous or risque label, or even an offbeat bottle colored neon blue or glowing red. In a marketplace with literally thousands of wine choices, we can't blame a producer (or his marketing geniuses) for seeking a marketing gimmick that will make his wine stand out on a crowded shelf.

But it's what's inside the bottle that counts. If you can't resist parting with your cash because you love Madonna or your heart is touched by a label with a picture of a cute kitten or noble dog or hilarious clown, please be my guest. But I suggest tasting a glass before you go back for a case.

Please note that I am not suggesting that we shun all wines with sexy or silly labels. Quite a few of the most wacky items, like Bonny Doon's "Cardinal Zin" and other labels designed by the cartoonist Ralph Steadman, can be excellent, not to mention Bonny Doon's "Il Circo" line of Italian wines with circus-poster labels and its "Ca' del Solo" portfolio of Italian-style wines from California. The "Goats do Roam" South African wines and France's "Fat Bastard" are more than passable, too, and the list goes on.

So, don't buy a wine just because of the label or a celebrity endorsement, that's my advice. But don't reject a wine untasted for the same reasons. Let your taste buds be your guide.


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