Hollywood & Vine

What do Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp and Whoopi Goldberg have in common besides lots of fame and lots of money? Lots of famous wine that costs lots of money.

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In his waning Hollywood years, Orson Welles was paid a good deal of much-needed cash to shill various products with his sonorous delivery and commanding presence. The most memorable of these adventures was a TV commercial for Gallo wine in which the auteur of Citizen Kane, comfortably seated i in his enormity like a true connoisseur, lauded the output of a brand winery best known for its inexpensive, mass-produced reds closely associated with college-dorm parties. Welles, who was, of course, actually quite sophisticated about wine, performed with self-delighted hamminess, delivering a line-reading of the Gallo ethos, "We will sell no wine before its time," with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

That all happened in the 70s, when the country at large had ceased to take Welles seriously, but, thanks in some small part to Welles, was about to start taking California wine very seriously indeed. Brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo got mass America used to the idea of drinking wine by making their product affordable and ubiquitous. Today they make premium wines for mainstream America, having moved in on the market that the Mondavi family, the other household name in the history of West Coast vineyards, was instrumental in opening up. Hollywood lies almost adjacent to the southern tip of the terrain where countless independent wineries now produce high-quality and even collectible wines, so it makes sense that there would be an element in the entertainment industry attuned to the joys and subtleties of the grape. And now, as in the days of Gallo and Welles, the wine industry is attuned to the value of Hollywood.

Even today, the language of wine aficionados sounds to most Americans like an elitist code--rich in decadent European cadences, employed by a cabal of effete hedonists lounging about in plush surroundings. Those who verbally caress the objects of their obsession with adjectives like "jammy," "satiny" and "buttery," and enthuse about such impenetrable qualities as "hints of cassis, black cherries and burnt spices lurking in the background" are wielding the argot of the oenophile. Hollywood loves to speak it. And now, far more than at any time in the past, Hollywood often knows what it's talking about when phrases like "plums on the nose" come up.

The perennial attributes of Hollywood success--the Bentley with smoke-tinted windows or, for more cerebral types, the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and the Corbusier chaise longue--continue to be in style but like art collecting in the '80s, wine connoisseurship has increasingly come to symbolize the sophisticated edge of Hollywood glamour. These days a great many stars, agents, producers and directors maintain home collections where legendary vintages like a 1985 La Tâche or a 1959 Mouton-Rothschild--the oenologic equivalents of 10-carat ice--age in quiet anticipation.

Good wine is constantly evolving and gaining in intensity and flavor until it peaks, whereupon it begins its inevitable descent. It is a development that mirrors the human aging process or, you might say, a career in Hollywood. Little wonder players and insiders get drawn into the drama and suspense of wine collecting. Bob Golbahar, an expert sommelier who owns West L.A.'s Twenty Twenty Wine Merchants, has been catering to and providing perfect temperature-controlled storage space for high-profile Bacchus devotees since the mid-'70s (for years Mel Brooks has been coming to him for magnums of his favorite Bordeaux, Château Lafite-Rothschild.) and knows exactly whose tastes run to the most fabled vintages.

Johnny Depp is partial to Golbahar's well-aged treasures from the Chateau Pétrus estate in the Bordeaux region of France, and in this refined but expensive enthusiasm he is not alone. Nicole Kidman told this publication not long ago that her favorite red wine is a 1975 Pétrus, which currently retails for about $1,500. "I have expensive taste," she confessed. "I know quite a bit about wine because I drink it a lot." Pétrus vintages are so beloved by Whoopi Goldberg that she has been known to say (and perchance not entirely in jest) that she would like to buy the Bordeaux estate and retire there one day. Among the first wines Golbahar himself ever sipped was a 1947 Pétrus, and he considers the memory priceless--as is the wine itself, which Golbahar nevertheless stocks at Twenty Twenty. A magnum can be yours for $22,500. The thrill of enjoying a bottle of 57-year-old Pétrus extends beyond taste buds. A particularly old and venerable vintage comes swathed in layers of history and romance; it's like swirling a tiny bit of the exquisite past around in your mouth. Pétrus Pomerols were served at the wedding of Britain's Queen Elizabeth in 1947; they were favored by the Kennedy clan in the '50s.

L.A.'s most visible sommelier to the stars is Christian Navarro, who co-owns Wally's wine shop in Westwood, from whence he has catered to top names like Jack Nicholson, Sharon Stone, Danny DeVito and Tom Cruise. (Cruise's pick: Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's 1985 La Tache, a Burgundy made from what are thought to be the world's finest Pinot Noir grapes.) Navarro has witnessed firsthand the transformation of many a top name into true wine aficionado. "They'll have a great bottle of wine somewhere in the world and it will hit them like a ton of bricks: 'Oh my God, this is amazing! What else is there?' Based on those experiences, I try to find out what exactly is right for them."

The names of the Hollywood luminaries with the palate and will to do more than make a show of the latest touted vintage are surprising. If Jim Carrey invites you over for dinner, he will most likely serve you nothing less than a Bordeaux rated a maximum 100 points by Wine Advocate's uber-arbiter Robert Parker. The actor's fave wine is the 1982 Château Latour, a classic Bordeaux customarily priced around $800. According to Twenty Twenty's Golbahar, Sandra Bullock, Craig Kilborn and Brendan Fraser have been known to occasionally pick up outstanding vintages as gifts, but it is hard-core collectors like Denzel Washington, Julio Iglesias and Chi McBride who take their pleasure in wine most seriously. As does Jackie Chan, who enthusiastically collects Château d'Yquem vintages from the '70s through the '90s. The famed estate exercises such strict quality control in its grapes selection that only one glass of wine per vine is reportedly produced.

Meanwhile, the burgeoning California winemakers have been courting their illustrious fellow citizens to the south to take advantage of Hollywood's growing enthusiasm. Auctions hosted by Napa Valley winemakers have become star-studded social occasions. At a recent event hosted by General Motors and the Napa Valley Vintners Association, NYPD Blue star Henry Simmons led the proceedings, while Mira Sorvino and husband Chris Backus looked on as such loot as 109 bottles of superb wines and a special Cadillac XLR Roadster Convertible outfitted with a custom-made aluminum wine cooler in the trunk was sold for $220,000. Last July, Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards owners Peggy and Fred Furth hosted a benefit for Sonoma County children's charities and the Russian National Orchestra's outreach program for orphans, auctioning off a dinner with Sophia Loren based on her favorite recipes at her Southern California Ponti Ranch (six couples bid a total of $240,000 for the privilege) and a walk-on part in an upcoming Sydney Pollack film.

California vintners have a home court advantage in all aspects of the heated-up competition for marketing ties to Hollywood. Calistoga's Sterling Vineyards provided a 2001 Reserve Chardonnay and a 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon to this year's post-Oscars Governors Ball. The redoubtable Beaulieu Vineyard, among Napa Valley's oldest, stocked the post-Emmys bash with its 2001 Reserve Carneros Chard and a 2000 Tapestry Reserve. But French exporters make their play for entertainment industry ties too. When the official guild of Champagne makers launched its L.A. chapter last fall with a bash at the Beverly Hills Hotel, bubbly fans David Hyde Pierce and Ron Livingston showed up to be inducted as honorary members--and sip vintage cuvees from France's most prestigious Champagne makers.

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