It’s the early 1990s. Take That are on tour in Australia and Sony Music has chartered a luxury catamaran to take the still-boyish boy band on a trip around Sydney Harbour.
Also on board is Paul Schaafsma, a young Aussie who is working his way through a business degree. “The head of Sony said to me, ‘These guys are going to be bigger than the Beatles. You’ve got to look after them’,” Schaafsma remembers. “I’d never heard of them, but we took them out sailing, came back and there were 300 people waiting at the wharf. I said, ‘You guys are really famous!’ They said, ‘You’re the only one that’s missed it, mate!’” He gives an infectious chuckle.
Thirty years on, Schaafsma has just launched a wine with Take That’s Gary Barlow. “And when we were reintroduced he remembered! I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just had no clue who you were. I know now.’” Another chuckle.
It hasn’t been easy to miss the Gary Barlow wine launch. The news that the singer had released two Spanish wines (a red and a white) was all over the papers and made ITV’s This Morning, while social media went into a skittish Mexican Wave of competitive puns. If no one’s mentioned Gary Barolo or Gavi Barlow and the dad on your family WhatsApp group hasn’t messaged: “I can’t take that”, where have you been?
This isn’t Schaafsma’s first celebrity wine; he’s been making a habit of them. He is the sharp commercial brain behind fellow Australian Kylie Minogue’s wines; he “did” Ian Botham; his company, Benchmark Drinks, also imports and distributes Graham Norton and Sarah Jessica Parker’s wines.
The way Schaafsma operates is quite particular. Unlike, say, Sir Cliff Richard, Sting or Brad Pitt and (formerly) Angelina Jolie, his collaborators don’t own their own vineyards. Also: “they hate it when you call them celebrity wines”.
“[For us to work with someone] there has to be authenticity,” he says. “They have to be absolutely involved, in every aspect… the process of finding the wine, selecting the winery partner, the packaging… otherwise we’re not interested in doing it.”
With Botham this meant a big Australian road trip, visiting and tasting with producers and haggling over the amount of oak in the wine (Botham likes oak). With Barlow he tasted 50 wines from different countries to figure out the singer’s palate. (Barlow was too nice to criticise anything; he would just say: “That’s interesting but maybe not for me.”)
The initial Kylie rosé from France was developed during the pandemic. “I’d go around to her place and we’d stand on the front porch three metres apart handing bottles backwards and forwards and tasting,” says Schaafsma. “It was a lot of fun. She’s just gorgeous; a lovely person, so down to earth.” He reveals Kylie got really into the process, signing in to Zoom tastings under a pseudonym as part of her research.
The success of Minogue’s wines has been, in Schaafsma’s own words, “crazy”, helping to take Benchmark Drinks, launched in early 2018, from nothing to a turnover of £24 million in just three years. “It just happened so quickly. We got people saying, ‘When are you going to launch a prosecco rosé?’ All right. OK.” The prosecco rosé – not my kind of thing, but gorgeously packaged – is on course to sell one million bottles by the end of the year.
This hasn’t entirely come out of nowhere. Schaafsma has worked with huge wine brands for most of his career. His first wine job was at Wolf Blass in his native Australia. “My real education was with Brian McGuigan [of the eponymous wine brand]. He was the quintessential wine entrepreneur. I worked with him for 14 years.”
Schaafsma’s last job before setting up on his own was as chief executive of Accolade Wines, the fifth largest drinks company in the world (its brands include Banrock Station, Echo Falls, Mudhouse, Hardys and St Hallett). “He knows what sells and more importantly how to sell it,” says a former head of supermarket wine. “Supermarkets love buying from Paul. He makes it so easy and he knows what matters to buyers.”
Why are punters so keen to buy celebrity wines? Schaafsma says: “It’s really simple; 93 per cent of consumers in the UK will never meet a winemaker, never go to a winery, never see a vineyard in their lives. Their experience of going to the supermarket and walking along the wine aisle is sheer panic and terror because they’re just wondering, ‘What on earth do I buy? I don’t want to get it wrong.’
“And this side of the hill, or that estate, you know, doesn’t mean a great deal to them. So they are looking for cues. They will say, ‘I know Kylie. I’ll give it a go.’ And if it’s good, they’ll come back.”
My take on what goes into the bottle is that – broadly speaking – the quality of the cheaper wines is good to very good (depending on the wine) within the frame of internationally recognised mass-market brands. You can often get better wine for the price – more characterful, more subtle – but is that the point here? Some wines are also slightly sweeter than those I like to drink, but that’s in line with a lot of supermarket big sellers.
Schaafsma bridles when I ask about the “celebrity premium”. “The work that goes into creating a brand is no different to any other,” he replies. “We run a very lean team and try to keep our costs manageable.” Of the two Gary Barlow wines, I wouldn’t drink the red (and I don’t think my mum would either); it’s smooth but there’s nothing there to make me want another sip. But the white! I can’t believe how good it is, and it’s fantastic value, too (see below).
I have more questions, such as why is Gary Barlow’s name so enormous on the label in contrast to the dainty point size of Kylie Minogue? Answer: it was designed like an album cover by Stephen Kennedy, with whom Barlow always likes to work.
Schaafsma says he now has celebrities asking to make wine with him. “We turn down about one a month. I’m very honest. I say, ‘Look, you’re not a wine brand.’” He does have one more waiting to launch though: the wines go into Tesco on Nov 1. It’s another household name – not, this time, from the music industry – and there is a “food matching” twist. And that’s all he’ll say. For now, anyway.
Wines of the week
Gary Barlow Organic White Wine NV Spain (12.5%, Morrisons, £6 down from £8 until Nov 2)
Grab this whilst it’s on offer as it’s a great buy at £6. A simple but refreshing white, made from 50 per cent verdejo and 50 per cent viura, it tastes of white sherbet pips, lemon and melon. Tellingly, there’s no mention on the label of what the grapes are – though you can click on a QR code to find more information.
Kylie Minogue Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2020 Australia (13.5%, Harvey Nichols, £28)
This is made by De Bortoli, a very good Australian producer that has also made own-label pinot noir for one or two of the big supermarkets. It’s a lovely drink – beautifully smooth and redolent of cherries and rosewood. But it does feel on the pricey side.
Miraval Côtes de Provence Rosé 2020 France (13%, Sainsbury’s, £19)
This isn’t one of Paul Schaafsma’s wines, but Brad Pitt’s rosé (Angelina Jolie recently sold her stake), made with the Perrin family of winemakers. Despite all the post-divorce bitterness in the air, I prefer it to Kylie’s similarly priced wine: a blend of cinsault, grenache, syrah and rolle, it’s one for those who drink pink all year round.
The post Meet the man behind the best celebrity wines on the supermarket shelves appeared first on The Telegraph.