Did you hear that Emilio Estevez recently became a winery owner? It probably comes as no surprise that his foray into wine hasn’t generated as much attention as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s. Think about the movies they’re known for. It’s tougher to associate “The Breakfast Club” with a fine adult beverage than “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
Someone with too much time on his or her hands thoughtfully compiled a list of celebrities who own wineries and vineyards on Wikipedia. There are a bunch of them, including Nancy Pelosi. For obvious reasons, we don’t see her endorsing the wines made from her grapes. But we don’t see the other celebrities doing that with their wines, either. Even the food-world luminaries who own wineries don’t plug their wine wares on television (or much in print, for that matter), even though we see plenty of plugging of their other products like cookware.
So would celebrity endorsements of wine have an impact on wine sales or the perception of those wines? The Jolie/Pitts of the wine world can generate free media for their efforts. But should wineries owned by lesser luminaries exploit whatever fame their owners have? Or should non-celebrity-owned wineries seek out celebrity endorsers to boost sales?
Four Canadian university researchers recently examined these questions**. They used three equally well-known Canadian sports figures who don’t currently endorse wine or own wineries to test two ideas. First, would the sport of the endorser have an impact on the perceived quality or value of the wine? And would the results be any different if the people viewing the ads and tasting the wines had greater knowledge about wine in general?
One hundred fifteen volunteers were given a short quiz to assess their knowledge about wine. They were then asked to participate in an interactive computer presentation that tested their perceptions about wine. During the presentations they looked at wine ads featuring three athletes: a pro golfer, a speed skater, and a professional wrestler. The athletes chosen were well-known in their sports and did not do endorsements for other products that might make them recognizable outside of those sports. (They also presumably didn’t have personal lives colorful enough to make the tabloids.) Each of the ads was accompanied by a glass of wine, and the wines were spaced throughout the time the volunteers viewed the presentation. The volunteers rated the wines for quality and price they’d pay for them as they drank them.
What the volunteers didn’t know was that all three glasses contained exactly the same wine. And only three participants figured that out — those three had to be eliminated from the study. Otherwise, there were no significant demographic differences among the remaining volunteers.
The researchers went in with the idea that golf had a higher association with wine in the minds of the volunteers, and pro wrestling a lower one, with speed skating somewhere in between. All other things being equal, you might expect the golfer-endorsed wine to come out on top in the study. But as it turned out, the volunteers with less wine knowledge ranked the wines all about the same in terms of quality and what they’d pay for them. The endorser didn’t seem to make a difference.
What about the participants with more wine knowledge? They ranked the wine endorsed by the speed skater higher for quality and the price they’d pay. The researchers suggest that for people who know more about wine, a little cognitive dissonance might help to improve a wine’s image. Since the speed skater was a slightly but not outrageously unusual choice for a wine endorser, he made people who knew more about wine pay more attention.
One issue the study didn’t address is whether it makes a difference if the celebrity endorser is somehow involved with the winery he or she is plugging. To my mind it’s clear that the winery owner has some input on what gets produced, even if he or she isn’t the winemaker. So while no one imagines Angelina Jolie is out there harvesting grapes, she may be helping to make decisions about which wines get bottled and sold. And it could also mean that the endorser would come off as more sincere than one who was just plugging the wine. (Think of those old Remington shaver commercials — “I liked them so much, I bought the company!”)
Celebrity endorsements are rare for wine, so it might not make a difference who was doing the endorsing, especially if the celebrity has no affiliation with the product. That could be what happened in the study for the participants with less wine knowledge. Perhaps if more celebrities start endorsing wines, we’d see a difference in perceptions based on the endorser.
In the meantime, the news ought to make Emilio Estevez happy, because people who know something about wine may really like his. They might not associate his movie characters with wine per se, but if this study holds true they’d be intrigued enough to try it. (It might also be the first and last time that someone willingly chooses him over Brad Pitt, but that’s another story.)
I have to admit I was surprised (and a little ashamed) to learn that we semi-knowledgeable wine lovers can be so easily manipulated. Nothing against speed skaters, but how can we hold our heads up after this? Can we continue to trust what we thought was our previously unimpeachable judgment of wine? Or are we condemned to having our own finely-tuned sense of irony come back to bite us in the end?
[** The study is called "The Effects of Perceived Product-Extrinsic Cue Incongruity on Consumption Experiences: The Case of Celebrity Sponsorship." The researchers, Sarah Clemente, Eric Dolansky, Antonia Mantonakis, and Katherine White are from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario; Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario; and the University of British Columbia. The study hasn't been published yet: e-mail me if you'd like contact information for the authors.]
In the spirit of appealing to cognitive dissonance, I wanted to find a great celebrity recipe from someone you might not associate with cooking. I have a book of recipes compiled from singers at the Metropolitan Opera, but that doesn’t fit the bill — given the stereotypical shape of the opera singer it might not be surprising to learn that they could cook as well as eat. There are a few websites out there that claim to have recipes from celebrities. But my goodness. Never have I seen so much canned cream of mushroom soup used by so many, recipe after recipe.
So I decided to look through a bunch of recipes I had downloaded and found one from Rachael Ray that I thought fit the bill. Yes, she’s a TV cook, so you’d expect her to be able to cook. But bear with me.
I have never agreed with those who look down on her like Christopher Kimball and Martha Stewart do. If there is indeed a trend toward in-home cooking and eating less take-out food, it’s because of her 30-minute meals show and others like it, not America’s Test Kitchen and whatever show Martha’s doing now. Making a meal is often as much about the sequencing and getting a feel for how things cook, how long they take, what you can prep while something is cooking, etc. Nobody does this better than Rachael Ray. You might not be able to make her meals in 30 minutes, since that takes a lot of focus. But 45 minutes? Absolutely.
After watching her show on and off for a few years, though, I had to admit that the recipes were starting to look the same. Lots of meat, not enough vegetables. Chicken breasts and ground beef because they cook quickly. Everything in one pot, and toward the heartier side rather than lighter. I can’t say that any of her recipes have entered my cooking rotation. With one exception.
I think I’ve mentioned before that Cy and I don’t have cable, so I watch the Food Network at the gym. There are two different grocery stores between the gym and our house, so if I see a recipe I like I can easily pick up ingredients on my way home. These impulse recipes are usually from Ina Garten or Giada de Laurentiis, since their shows are usually the ones on when I’m at the gym. For some reason, I had gone earlier one day and caught Rachael Ray. She made a recipe for pasta with ground pork that looked so good I stopped and bought the ingredients on the way home.
What stood out for me was that the sauce was essentially a deconstructed Italian sausage — all the ingredients you’d find like fennel seed, crushed red pepper, sage, and smoked paprika, but instead of having to take already-made Italian sausage as you found it, you could make it to your taste. Plus it has a much fresher flavor than using pre-made Italian sausage. After cooking the sausage ingredients together, Rachael added tomatoes and finished with some chicken broth she had cooked down and infused with saffron before adding the pasta. Lots of flavors I don’t usually see her using, and being a sucker for pasta dishes I thought I’d give it a try.
It was very good as-is, but of course I’ve made a few changes. I think vegetable stock works better than chicken stock (the dish is already rich enough), and I substituted oregano instead of sage because I like the flavor better. I also cook the pasta in the sauce for a couple of minutes at the end and then toss everything with the cheese because it just tastes better that way. You can also make a meatless version using portabello mushrooms, I’ve listed that as a variation below.
My go-to wine for pasta dishes like this is Cave la Vinsobraise Diamant Noir ($15). It’s 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, rich and earthy, but with enough acidity to cut through a richer meal. And it goes perfectly with a side of irony.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound dried ziti or penne
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, 3 pinches
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling at the table
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 pound coarsely ground pork
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 2 teaspoons fresh, chopped)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons smoked sweet paprika
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 (28-ounce) can tomatoes (Muir Glen or San Marzano)
8 large basil leaves, torn up
3/4 cup freshly-grated pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling at the table.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Heat the stock and saffron over medium heat in a saucepan and reduce by half, about 15 minutes.
While the stock infuses and water comes to boil, heat a large deep skillet with extra-virgin olive oil, a couple turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add the fennel seeds and toast for 1 minute. Add the meat, onions, oregano, red pepper flakes and paprika, plus a teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Raise the heat to medium-high. When the meat is brown, add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes. Add tomatoes and crush, then bring the sauce to a bubble, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. While the sauce cooks you can think about starting to cook the pasta — you want it just about al dente, which can take anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes depending on what it says on the package. Don’t worry if the sauce has cooked its 15 minutes, you can turn it off and wait for the pasta to finish.
When the pasta is ready, save a cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta. Add the infused stock to the sauce. Toss in the drained pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat and mix in the pecorino and the basil. Taste for salt, and add some pasta water if it’s too dry. Serve in shallow bowls and drizzle each portion with a little olive oil, then top with a little more cheese.
* Mushroom version: use 2 pounds of portabello mushrooms instead of the pork. Cut the caps into large pieces, then pulse them in the food processor until they’re chopped up but not ground up. Add the mushrooms instead of the pork. The mushrooms will give off a lot of water, and you want this to boil away and the mushrooms to brown a little. This can take about 10 minutes, so be patient. Finish the recipe as directed.