Which came first, the fame, or the love of wine? This age-old question is a great table topic to discuss – perhaps over a bottle or two of wine. It is a question I often ask myself when I see wine labels started by famous people (or even just those with a lot of money).
Celebrities who own wineries and vineyards are not a recent phenomenon, though it has really taken off over the last decade. I often blame wealth for the gravitation toward wine. Some celebrities, I’m sure have a true passion, while for others, it’s just another notch in their belt of “cool” accomplishments.
The most notable name in fame and wine is Francis Ford Coppola. His family had a long history of winemaking before his filmmaking career. Coppola may have set the bar for celebrity winery owners, and while his winery produces millions of cases, most celebrities have a more modest approach to the world of wine. For example: local boy Les Claypool, best known as the bassist for Primus, after living in West County (that’s everything West of HWY 116 here in wine country) for many years became an avid wine lover simply by being immersed in the wine country lifestyle. His under-the-radar wine label is made in small quantities with the help of a few friends.
Some of the names of people with their hand in wine may or may not surprise you: Madonna (Ciccone Vineyard and Winery – Michigan), Wayne Gretzky (No. 99 Estates Winery – Canada), Lil Jon (Little Jonathan Winery – Central Coast, California), Emilio Estevez (Casa Dumetz – Malibu, California), Antonio Banderas (Anta Banderas – Spain).
There are several names here in wine country that have made it big enough to sustain a tasting room and more. I stumbled upon one the other day; completely unknowing that it has any fame and fortune behind it. The Two Amigos, Guido and Vito Vino (aka Squire Fridell and Bob Briner), recently opened their downtown Sonoma tasting room in November. They take their winemaking seriously, but beyond that, its pretty much a clown house – everything down to the label.
There is a slight pun intended when I say clown house, you see, because Fridell served as the official “Ronald McDonald” clown character from 1984 to 1991. No, seriously, dude was kicking it with Grimace, Hamburglar, and the Fry Kids during the heyday of McDonald’s. Perhaps the most unlikely of culprits, Fridell has owned an operated GlenLyon winery since 1987 along with partner Bob Briner, who he met in college and has continued a friendship with for 50 years.
I have a hard time trusting gimmicky labels. Typically, a gimmicky label translates to shitty wine. I walked in based on hearing about the new tasting room and didn’t really expect much from a label with two guys on it, wearing Groucho glasses, but I got more than I bargained for – good wine, and a completely unique tasting experience. Really, when it comes down to it, my favorite wineries are the ones who are laid back and don’t take themselves too seriously, and honk clown horns with every purchase. And that’s just what you get while sipping wine at their tasting room.
A sign reading, “sniff, sip, giggle” welcomes you to the tasting room. Some wines are capped with foils decorated with a red-and-yellow striped capsule – homage to clownery without stepping on McDonald’s corporate toes. Promotional videos of Guido and Vito play in the background, and pictures of tomfoolery and wine adorn the tasting room. Stories are told and laughter is encouraged, and as long as you buy their wine, nobody gets hurt.
I purchased their Sangiovese. The grapes are sourced from Santa Barbara and the cooler climate aids in trying to create a Chianti Classico style wine. And while they come close, Guido’s Vino Rosso is a Pinot-lovers Sangiovese; it’s soft with bright aromas of cherry and vanilla that follow through to the palate with a touch of earthiness and chewy tannins. What this wine lacks in depth and age-ability, it more than makes up for in drink-ability. It’s the perfect red table wine to go with pizza or spaghetti and meatballs (probably not with a Big Mac). It’s a perfectly crafted sipping wine that is hard not to like.
We’ve come along way since the days of ancient Greek and Roman times. In those times, it wasn’t unheard of for playwrights, politicians, and philosophers to own a vineyard. But at that time, it really was more for personal consumption that it was for personal gain. And while anytime you mix commerce with wine, it becomes about a profit. These guys are simply having fun doing what they’re doing, and I applaud them for that.