Robert Mondavi could legitimately be called a wine celebrity, even though he wasn't the winemaker for his eponymous winery.
Olivia Newton-John is a celebrity, too, but how she is viewed in wine circles is anything but clear.
Yet both are associated with wine. The difference is that Bob Mondavi knew a claret from a pinot noir, created an iconic winery that is known the world over, and the winery he founded in 1966 has long made dozens of world-class wines.
The Australian singer's wine, Koala Blue, probably was created merely to make money from the singer's name. The brand seems to have been abandoned in the late 2000s.
Famous names often have been used as a way to make money rather than make a statement. Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia and many other celebrity names have been used on wines whose creation usually was by business people who see profits from naming wines for famous folks.
The most recent such gimmick is a wine called Downton Abbey Claret. I read about this wine last week. It appears to be targeted toward fans of the soapy British upstairs-downstairs series that focuses on the Crawley family.
The wine was made to sell for about $18. From what I've read about it, I'd rather not try it. One reviewer said it wasn't worth half what the creators say it's worth.
With most celebrity wines, quality is immaterial. Except for a few serious celebrities who got into wine for the "right" reason (quality), many of these wines are just a way to make a buck.
One recent celebrity entrant into the wine game was Yao Ming, a 7-foot-6-inch ex-basketball star (Houston Rockets), who introduced a wine bearing his name in 2011. The wine, a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, originally was sold only in China for nearly 300 U.S. dollars per bottle. Some 5,500 cases were made from the 2009 harvest.
The Yao wines are now being sold in the United States. A Yao Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is $625; a Napa Cabernet is $150, and a wine called Napa Crest, red blend, is $48.
Is the Yao wine more legitimate than other celebrity wines? Perhaps, since Yao has said that during his years in the National Basketball Association he dined out often with teammates who knew a lot about dry red wine.
That may answer the question about where Yao acquired his taste for red wine, but articles about Yao and his wine project have not said he ever drank Cabernet while dining out with his NBA friends.
One of the few celebrity names on truly attractive wines is Greg Norman, the Australian golfer, who I have met and interviewed about his wine interests.
Though not a winemaker, Norman is a dedicated wine lover who says he is involved in tasting all wines that his affiliated company, Treasury Wine Estates, distributes.
The Norman line of 13 different wines includes bottlings from Australia, California, and Argentina. Two Norman family members, a daughter and a son, now work for the brand, which makes about 150,000 cases a year that are sold for about $15 a bottle. They represent good value.
As for the Downton Abbey wine, it is called Claret, suggesting it is a Bordeaux, but the label indicates it is from Entre-Deux-Mers, not a terribly prestigious Bordeaux region.
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