There are some people that are popular. Then there are some people that are celebrities. And then there are people that hold such a legendary status in culture that it is sometimes hard to describe what they have become. Not being someone prone to follow cults of personality, these people and those who worship them are a mystery to me. I’ve never understood, for instance, the Princess Diana following. Likewise, it is also hard for me to understand how Marilyn Monroe continues to capture the imagination of our culture. Perhaps this will fade over time, as fewer and fewer people are alive who actually would have seen her in movie theaters when they were young, but for now, Marilyn fever still runs high.
Despite my lack of understanding, there is no doubt about the power of her name and image. The proof doesn’t even require us to leave the wine world. No, wine drinkers everywhere have a way to celebrate their love, nostalgia, and reverence for Norma Jean, thanks to the Marilyn Wine Company. Since 1985, this company, started by Bob and Donna Holder and a few friends over a dinner table conversation, has been making one of the most popular collector wines in the world: a simple Napa Merlot, released every year on Marilyn Monroe’s birthday (June 1st) with a different picture of the actress on it each year.
And when I say popular, you need to think on the Marilyn Monroe scale. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I said that these wines had the single highest collector value of any modern California wine, even wines that sell for ten times its price. But they do. The inaugural vintage, sold for around twenty bucks, now commands a staggering $3500 per bottle at auction, while a 12 year vertical from ’85 to ’96 will run you $7,000. These prices continue to climb every year.
And then a few months ago, the 2003 Velvet Collection came out. Not content, perhaps to produce the only wine in the world which bears images of Marilyn, the winery has now released a wine that contains perhaps one of the most famous and controversial images in the history of the United States, an image that literally created the Playboy brand and started the fortune of Hugh Hefner, its founder. The photo of a nude Marilyn Monroe reclining on red velvet adorns the three different sizes of bottles that make up the Velvet Collection’s boxed set, and each is carefully obscured by a glittery bikini that exists on a peel-off clear plastic decal.
Amazing, eh? Or perhaps not in this age where celebrities living and dead endorse everything from credit cards to shampoos. The collectability of this wine was assured from the start, but it has become even more precious since the majority of the Velvet Collection 2002 and 2003 vintages were stored in the Mare Island warehouse which recently burned down in the San Francisco Bay Area. Luckily for the winery, the Merlot and other wines were stored elsewhere.
The important thing to talk about, of course, is whether underneath the marketing, the wine is any good. And surprisingly, much to my relief, even, it is. Not fantastic, mind you, but good enough to prevent the whole enterprise from being the world’s biggest wine branding joke.
These wines are made by winemaker John McKay, who began his winemaking career at Hanzell vineyards and continued to Charles Krug, Vichon, Merlion and Monticello. The grapes for both wines come from various parcels on the floor of the Napa valley including the famous Besckstoffer vineyard outside of Rutherford, and two other vineyard sites near Yountville. The Merlot is 85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and is barrel aged in 30% new oak before bottling. The Velvet Collection is 55% Cabernet 45% Merlot.
2003 Marilyn Merlot, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a nose of cherry, vanilla, and light hints of roasted coffee. In the mouth it has good balance and a pleasant mouthfeel with primary flavors of black cherries, dark plum, and tobacco notes that surface in its moderate finish. The tannic structure is smooth and very light, making it easy to drink as a young wine.
Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $19.00 on release. Where to buy?
2003 Marilyn Velvet Collection Red Blend
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a dark nose of black cherry, chocolate, and cola aromas. In the mouth it is lush and full with primary flavors of black cherry, chocolate, and hints of spices supported by very fine, dusty tannins that seem well aged already. The wine is well integrated and poised, with a decent finish.
Score: 9. Cost: Available for sale as a magnum ($175) or as part of a three bottle collectors box for $200. Where to buy?
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.