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Life is a Cabernet, old chum.

Showbiz mavericks bottle success in wine biz

One can count the rows of grapevines in Bruce Cohn's vineyard and divine the number of Doobie Brothers records it took for each to get planted and bear fruit. At Francis Ford Coppola's estate, those rows are at the end of a pipeline from the box office of films such as "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Cohn, manager of the Doobies and proprietor of the BR Cohn Winery in the Sonoma County, Calif., town of Glen Ellen, and Napa Valley, Calif.'s Coppola are rare commodities: They have managed to simultaneously stand tall at the intersection of Hollywood and Vines.

Their success stories, along with a host of other factors, are inspiring enthusiasts from the entertainment industry to get into the juice game.

Cohn bought his first vine-growing land in 1974 and a decade later started his winery after selling Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay grapes to local vintners who were earning heaps of praise with their small-batch wines.

That entertainment and wine would coincide at this time is particularly interesting, considering the changes that both industries have gone through recently.

"There's consolidation in both businesses and they're similar in distribution, marketing, sales techniques," Cohn says. "The difference is in making wine, you (hope to sell) what you have made. In music, if you have a hit you just keep making the CDs" and the potential cash flow is limitless.

"In wine it requires massive amounts of patience and you have to have a long-range view," says Scott Wright, a radio promotion exec who worked as a deejay for more than 20 years. "In entertainment, everything is immediate." Wright is now bottling his second vintage of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Sonoma County for his Scott Paul label.

In the 25 years since a pair of California wines--Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' Cabernet Sauvignon -- trumped their French counterparts in a famous Paris tasting session, the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties has attracted millions of dollars in investment from people who earned their money elsewhere.

Part of the millennial grape rush can be attributed to the Silicon Valley gold rush. All those instant millionaires in 1999 and 2000 not only raised Bay Area real estate prices, they sank money into wine collecting and effectively gave vintners the license to raise prices. All this in turn raised profits, making the wine business attractive not only romantically but financially as well.

But while most studios can survive three consecutive bombs, it only takes one invasion of pests or bacteria to wipe out a vineyard.

Though there has been a steady flow of Hollywood cash traveling to Santa Barbara County, Calif., vineyards and beyond, there's a new rush into the very expensive hills of Northern California:

* New Regency Films CEO Arnon Milchan and Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin purchased 600 acres in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County last year with plans to open a winery; they'll start by planting 70 acres.

* Robin Williams is in Napa County just above the Sonoma County line selling grapes to winemakers.

* Dennis Turner, a music manager for 26 years, has purchased 100 acres in California's most recently approved American Viti-cultural Area (Santa Rite Hills), where this month he will plant 20 acres with Pinot Noir, Syrah and Pinot Gris. Eventually he'll bottle Turner Vineyards wine.

And when Napa County winemakers swap gossip, they eventually get around to the rumors that seemingly everyone eventually hears in a trendy neighborhood: Madonna's buying some local property.

Even Malibu is in on the act. George Rosenthal, who founded L.A. production facility Raleigh Studios in 1955, added Rosenthal -- the Malibu Estate vineyards to his portfolio a decade ago; he is now the sole producer of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Southern California beach community.

Entertainment money headed to wineries isn't limited to California. In New York, New Line Cinema co-chair Michael Lynne purchased two wineries in the North Fork section of Long Island last summer. In the hamlet of Cutchogue, Lynne oversees boutique winery Bedell Cellars, which grows eight varietals and produces only 8,500 cases; in Southold, his Corey Creek Vineyards produces Chardonnay and Merlot. "These are artisans with a vision trying to craft something very personal," Wright says, drawing a comparison between entertainment and wine making.

John Brecher, who writes Tastings, a weekly wine column for the Wall Street Journal, with his wife Dorothy Gaiter, says of the two industries, "Both feature highly individual, sometimes difficult characters passionately pursuing their own special vision. People in both know that their products need good finishes, and both provide people a wonderful way to escape the ordinary."

Napa Valley real estate sales in the last 18 months include deals in which buyers paid around $1 million over the asking price, says Napa Valley Realtor Beth Braby of Pacific Union. Four planted acres in Napa are all but guaranteed of getting $1 million.

The trend, from novices to the long-established vintners, is toward the high-end wines that collectors line up for and restaurants can list as special allocation bottles.

Wine priced over $15 a bottle in 1999 accounted for less than 10% of the wine produced in California, but generate almost 30% of the industry's revenue, according to a study released this year by Motto Kryla & Fisher.

The wine Oscar is generally handed to Coppola, who has spent the last 25 years building a wine empire in the Napa town of Rutherford that, unlike his film ventures, has not suffered economic peaks and valleys.

He was preceded to the winemaking biz by the Smothers Brothers and actors Raymond Burr and Fess Parker (TV's Perry Mason and Davy Crockett, respectively). And the latter's Santa Barbara tasting room is the only winery able to compete with Coppole in the Hollywood memorabilia department and wine production.

Indeed, Coppola's 1,560 acres, with 174 acres of grape-producing vineyards, have delivered boffo box office, producing 30,000 cases annually. "He's a serious wine guy who made some very smart decisions in buying what he bought," says chef, restaurateur and Food Network TV host Mario Batali, whose business partner, Joe Bastianich, owns a vineyard in the Friuli region of Italy.

"Coppola's guiding the business with a great winemaker -- and they're in it for the long run."

That's an important quality, notes Batali, because when it comes to having a famous name attached to a product, "people may enjoy it, but they won't buy wine like they will buy salsa."

Plenty on tap

What Coppola has built in Napa is a grand emporium that dwarfs the tasting rooms and gift shops at wineries along the county's main artery, Highway 29.

The former Niebaum family chateau, purchased following the success of 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula," houses a Coppola film history, dining rooms that double as storage spaces of various vintage bottlings and three rooms of products ranging from dishes to neckties to olive oils. It's practically a Macy's with a wine bar.

"I slid into the food and wine business when I figured out there was no way to survive if all of your eggs are in one basket," Coppola said at a Variety-sponsored seminar at the Cannes Film Festival this year. "The winery has now taken over supporting our family."

To a degree, the same is true for Cohn, who is flying around the country this summer alternately pitching wine and the Doobies, who are touring in support of a new album.

"I couldn't have done this without the music business," Cohn says, standing by the former barn on his property that now houses barrels of his two most recent vintages. "The Doobies allowed me to buy the property; Night Ranger is how I built the winery."

Night Ranger was introduced to Cohn in 1983 when he was selling his grapes to wineries such as Ravenswood. The band, generating hits such as "Sister Christian" under Cohn's guidance, became one of the most popular mainstream hard rock bands of the decade. Following its success, Cohn hired Helen Turley, now one of Napa's most respected winemakers with a label of her own, as his first winemaker. Her wines drew considerable Attention.

BR Cohn's first two releases, the 1984 and `85 Olive Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, received ratings of 93 and 94 from the Wine Spectator. Ratings for the wines in the 1990s have been consistently in the 90s.

Ratings and reviews, primarily the ones from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and Steven Tanzer, carry considerable weight among consumers and collectors. In some cases, a rating of higher than 95 has resulted in the tripling and even quadrupling of the price of a bottle.

The bigger risk, though, is not so much the fickle entertainment audiences -- all winemakers say that offering regular customers a good product at a fair price means many return purchases -- but insects (the glassy-winged sharpshooter is the most feared), and bacteria such as Pierce's disease.

Like the movie business, this is a "horrifically expensive" operation, says Turner, who has no idea when he'll be out of the red.

Putting down roots

"The acreage price is one thing," says Turner, who manages Kenny G, George Benson and Billie Myers out of his Ventura, Calif.-based Turner Management Group. "But there's a complete infrastructure that has to be in place."

Turner's five-man crew is led by vineyard manager Andy Kahn, who has made noteworthy wines under his own label, including the Cab Frank with a label featuring a painting by Frank Sinatra. They are now planting Turner's Santa Rita Hills property, which abuts three winemakers on Highway 246 leading out of Buellton, Calif.: Babcock, Clos Pepe and Ron Melville.

"We're hoping for three tons per acre in three years once the grapes hit their stride," says Turner, who will be getting his start the way Cohn did -- by selling his grapes, in this case to Kahn.

"But you can't begin to even think about breaking even until you're bottling your own wine," Turner says.

Cohn, meanwhile, is in the process of augmenting his operation by renovating the buildings on his 100-acre property and greatly expanding the portion of his winery that the public sees.

He plans to open it all Oct. 6 with a gala followed the next day by his annual fund-raising concert and a Monday golf tournament.

"A lot of music industry people ask me why I'm up in the boondocks," says Cohn, whose family had sheep and goat farms in the area when he was growing up. "And I say this kind of lifestyle has helped me keep my head in a better space rather than in L.A., where I never shut down.

"I could've had a much bigger career and probably managed a lot more acts if I were stationed in L.A., but it was a matter of quality of life vs. quantity of life."

These are the flagship red and white wines from vineyards owned by or
Partnered with professionals from the entertainment industry.

Producer           Wine (recent vintage)                    Price
Niebaum-Coppola    Rubicon Cabernet ('97)                    $100
Niebaum-Coppola    Blancaneaux ('99)                          $35
BR Cohn            Olive Hill Special Selection Cab ('97)    $100
BR Cohn            Joseph Herman Vineyard Chardonnay ('98)    $26
Scott Paul         Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir ('99)           $38
Scott Paul         Kent Richie Vineyard Chardonnay ('99)      $35
Rosenthal          Rosenthal Cabernet ('96)                   $30
Rosenthal          Rosenthal Chardonay ('98)                  $18

Coppola makes 17 different wines. BR Cohn makes seven wines.
Scott Paul makes two wines. Rosenthal makes three wines.
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Title Annotation:entertainment industry executives who produce wine
Comment:Life is a Cabernet, old chum.(entertainment industry executives who produce wine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 23, 2001
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