UNITED STATES—What do Sting, Sarah Jessica Parker, David and Victoria Beckham, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Francis Ford Coppola, Jon Bon Jovi, John Legend, Dave Matthews and Fergie have in common? Other than sharing status as globally renowned celebrities, each of these stars has invested in the creation and marketing of their own wine label.
In a past era winemaking was considered insular and winemakers had a reputation for being aloof, even a bit stuffy. But in recent years, the world of wine has taken on a sense of glamor and sophistication.
An industry that was once thought to be cold is now regarded to be cool.
Stars like Gerard Depardieu – who has had wineries in France, Italy and the US for over three decades – helped pave the way for celebrities to go beyond using their image to pitch wines to instead take an active role in developing their own thriving wine business. Another example is actor Sam Neil whose winery has been in operation for 20 years. Then there are performers such as legendary rock guitarist Carlos Santana whose lover affair with the wine industry culminated in a partnership to launch a sparkling vintage wine.
To create and launch their own labels, the typical two options for celebrities are either to invest in their own winery or partner with an existing winery. For many celebrities venturing into the wine business under these basic scenarios, simply applying their social media platform can be enough to effectively market a brand. Because celebrities bring this impressive marketing prowess to the table many wineries seek them out to partner on a specific wine, creating another possibility for today’s stars.
For celebrities desiring a label of their own without forming these traditional formal partnerships, there are two primary paths – to invest in building out a new winery or to acquire an existing one. Both options require a substantial financial investment.
But now, from an iconic Paso Robles winemaker, comes a third path.
Erich Russell is a master vintner. In 2022 he will enter his 50th year as a winemaker, having begun his calling while a schoolteacher in San Diego. His storied wine industry history began when he was a San Diego schoolteacher and winemaking was a personal passion. Russell attended San Jose State on a track scholarship where his many successes as a long-distance runner earned him the nickname ‘rabbit’ by his teammates — a handle he would enlist years later by adapting Rabbit Ridge as the official name for his winery. From his home garage, Russell created a Chardonnay that he entered into the amateur division of a California State Fair winemaking competition – and won the Gold Medal. His victory caught the attention of Sonoma’s Chateau St Jean which promptly offered Russell a job in the famed winery’s cellar. From there, Russell was recruited by Simi Winery and moved to Belvedere Wine where he became both head winemaker and President of the Premium Division.
After establishing Rabbit Ridge Winery in Sonoma in 1981, Russell entered the elite group of winemakers that have earned the coveted Connoisseur GuideWinemaker of the Year Award. He also had three wines that were ranked the prestigious Wine Spectators top 100 wines in the world and a Zinfandel that became Food and Wines magazine’s Best Wine Value of the Year.
As Rabbit Ridge began to make a name for itself it became apparent that the winery was outgrowing its Sonoma facilities. Together with his wife Joanne, Russell made several trips to Paso Robles, where he was smitten by the area, finding it ideal for his traditional approach to winemaking. “I immediately became enamored of the climate and soils of the area and knew this is where I wanted to plant grapes and cultivate our wines,” says Russell. In 1996, Russell and his family completed their first planting as their winery grew to encompass three vineyards comprising over 150 acres. Today, Erich Russell continues to apply his care and skills that have resulted in the sale of more than three million cases of wine since launching Rabbit Ridge Winery in 1981, growing a variety of grape varietals on its vineyards.
Together with Rabbit Ridge Winery principal Steven Jones – a noted California businessman and wine industry M&A consultant – the Paso Robles vintner designed a third path for celebrities looking to bring their own wine label to market.
“Wine is a personal endeavor, reflecting the taste and style of its owner,” said Jones. From this philosophy, Russell and Jones offer a new opportunity for launching a label that includes formulating the wine, trademarking the label, handling all Federal, State and Local forms and regulations, helping to design the bottle and label, then overseeing all manufacturing and marketing. Russell and Jones provide their vast winemaking expertise, extensive business experience, successful marketing track record and superior vineyards and impressive industrial fermentation tanks, while the celebrity contributes their own vision for the wine and unique professional brand. The celebrity makes an upfront investment that is a fraction of what would be required to build or purchase a vineyard and shares a percentage of the profits with the facility.
“There is no reason why a celebrity drawn to the wine industry can’t create and market their own label under our formula for success,” said Jones.
Rabbit Ridge Winery can be visited online at https://rabbitridgewinery.com/.