The Name Game

Star-crossed wines such as Marilyn Merlot may boost sales, but most are ordinary, at best


Naming products after famous people presumably helps sales, and wine is no exception.

In the 1990s, a Napa Valley-based company, Nova Wines, started making wines using actress Marilyn Monroe’s image and name on the label. 

They called it the Marilyn Collection, which included its popular Marilyn Merlot. It then branched into a Marilyn Meritage, then came a “blonde” de noir, a sauvignon “blonde,” among others. 

The inexpensive to midrange wines are still available today for $20-$30 a bottle. 

You can still buy older vintages of Marilyn Collection wines online for $200 and up, which is pretty remarkable. 

I’ve tasted only a few wines from the Marilyn Collection — the merlot and the meritage — but don’t find much to recommend. They are pretty ordinary. There is nothing bad or wrong about them, but what they are selling is the packaging, which, in addition to Her Blondness, includes etched bottles and wines lounging in velvet-lined boxes. So, OK, it’s cute.

We’ve also seen wines named for Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, singer/actress Olivia Newton-John, and associated with Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Dylan. 

The highest quality wine with a famous name, in my opinion, is golfer Greg Norman’s reasonably priced Australian, California, and Argentinian lines, starting at $15 for a California chardonnay and topping out around $50 for his Australian Limestone Coast Reserve Shiraz.

Michigan’s most famous wine-connected name is the singer Madonna. Her father and stepmother head Ciccone Vineyard & Winery in Suttons Bay. 

There was a lot of publicity a couple of years ago about a “Madonna” line of wines to come. But that did not materialize, much in keeping with the Ciccone family’s past shyness about promoting the connection. Name aside, Ciccone actually makes some good wines.

Always Elvis was certainly Michigan’s most notorious “star” wine. Made in 1978 after Elvis died, it was reportedly the brainchild of a Detroit advertising executive. The label indicates that the juice for the wine came from Italy, was imported to Detroit, bottled here, and distributed by International Wine Company of Detroit. It was made in a very limited quantity. Probably a good thing!

According to the bottle’s label, Always Elvis was supposedly made from “Frontenac Blanc D’Oro” grapes, which is a bit of a mystery because Frontenac and Frontenac Gris are French hybrid grapes, not Italian. And, Frontenac Blanc wasn’t cloned until the 1990s and then in Minnesota. Frontenac Blanc D’Oro doesn’t exist anywhere I can find in wine literature or science. 

One man who claimed to have tasted it several years ago said that he believed it was the inexpensive Italian moscato grape. 

The bad thing about Always Elvis is that it became identified with Michigan, and many people believed incorrectly that it was a Michigan wine. In fact, it had absolutely nothing to do with any wine grown in the state. It merely passed through here on its way to dubious fame.

Amazingly, there are several bottles of Always Elvis selling on eBay for between $20 and $150 apiece. That’s one wine I’m not sure I would want to taste at this point.

So, if there is a lesson here, it is to be cautious of these icon-star wines. Most of the time they may be fun — or even make a good gag gift — but what’s in the bottle is not always all that good. 

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