Yes, there is a Downton Abbey wine — two, in fact. The collection — which went on sale earlier this week — comprises two Bordeaux blends. The “Blanc” is a white described as having an “expressive notes” with “classic notes of tangerine”; the “Claret” is said to have “gorgeous scents of wild berries.” And yes, Downton Abbey is still just a TV show.
Pop culture-themed wine is no longer all that surprising. Though beer is still the more popular alcoholic-beverage tie-in (with licensed brews from Monty Python to Breaking Bad), wine is also in on the trend. In September, a Fifty Shades of Grey wine collection was announced. The band Train has had their own wine since 2011 and announced earlier this week that a portion of proceeds from their holiday wine set would go to charity. Last year, the Alamo Drafthouse announced a line of wine inspired by The Princess Bride.
Ron Roy remembers a time when this particular pairing — of wine and entertainment — would have seemed right out of left field, but that time has passed. He’s a CEO of Wines That Rock, the company behind the Downton and 50 Shades vintages; the company also makes wines licensed by bands like The Rolling Stones, The Police and Pink Floyd.
“In 2008, really nobody was carving out that space,” Roy says. His a-ha moment came when he realized upon walking into a wine shop that, even though he didn’t know too much about wine, he could tell which labels were cool. He and his business partners had worked with a variety of big-name bands, by running a few music-adjacent companies throughout their careers, and he thought they could combine the two. “If you walked into a wine shop and saw the tongue and lips of the Rolling Stones, your eye would go to that,” he thought. “We may not know everything about wine but we sure as heck can learn, and we know a lot about marketing.”
Roy says that these days Wines That Rock bottles can be found on the menu at Hard Rock Cafés, are expanding into every state in the U.S. and are also distributed in Europe and Australia.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we have great wine,” says Roy. “If you look at your typical wine-drinker, it’s not a sommelier.” And don’t confuse a sense of humor with a lack of attention to detail. Roy is adamant that his company’s trendy bottles aren’t just a case of trying to capitalize on a fad by slapping a label on any old bottle. In the case of the 50 Shades and Downton wines, the company targeted those particular properties because they thought the tie-in made sense: the characters in the book and on the TV show all drink a lot of wine. (The music wines have deeper meanings too; for example the Police “Synchronicity” wine is a play on the word created by blending many different grapes.) For 50 Shades of Grey, the company approached author E.L. James and she flew to California to be involved in the blending of the wine, making sure it was something Anastasia and Christian would enjoy. Roy says the same effort went into their latest bottles.
“We looked at Downton Abbey and said every single show has Mr. Carson down there with the wine. Wine is everywhere,” he says. “We wanted to be authentic to the period in England so we had [the wine] made in France. They were not drinking California grapes at Downton Abbey.” Hence, the choice of a Claret for the red.
Roy knows that commentary about Downton wine may be a little tongue-in-cheek, as was much of the initial media response to the 50 Shades release—but, as his business expands, that doesn’t matter so much.
“Wines That Rock ran up against this too. We knew it was coming. You could think of any product with any brand and someone will say you’re trying to rip off the consumer, but we’re the exact opposite,” he says. “Here’s this product that’s an integral part of the storytelling. Chill out. Relax.”
And if you need help relaxing, he knows a certain wine that might do the trick.
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