Wine Importer To Bring Special Valderrama Vintage to the US

Celebrity buzz over wines aimed at Hispanics -By Christina Hoag Miami Herald –

A couple of South American wineries are betting that a little celebrity branding will create new wine fans among U.S. Hispanics.

Meet the Don Francisco Reserva Especial the Diego Armando Maradona Clásico La Colección Carlos Valderrama and the Bautista Heguy Blend.

Vintners hope that since those names sell TV shows soccer and polo throughout the Spanish-speaking world they'll be able to sell wine in the United States and Latin America too.

''Don Francisco has tremendous brand equity to his name'' said Alex Huber commercial manager of Chile's VIA Wines Group referring to one of Latin America's longest-running TV personalities a Chilean whose real name is Mario Kreutzberger.

``For him to put his name on this wine gives it credibility. It's been vetted by Don Francisco himself.''

The luminary-laden labels are set to be launched this fall in South Florida their key U.S. market due to the sprawling Hispanic population.

The buzz is already humming said Tampa importer Marco Vivona who's bringing in the Maradona and Valderrama soccer-star lines from Argentina's Raíces de Agrelo winery. The cabernet sauvignon and malbec blends will retail for about $13.

''I've got a lot of requests and the wines aren't even here yet'' said the president of Marco and Son Wine Importing and Distribution adding that they're due to arrive for their Oct. 14 launch in Miami Beach.

He's also preparing to import Raíces de Agrelo's Boca Cabernet named for the famed Buenos Aires team Boca Juniors. And in case fans of Boca's archrival River Plate cry foul the Mendoza winery has that team's eponymous vino in the works Vivona said.

Aimed at the more upscale set is top polo player Heguy's $40 red from Bodega Benegas one of Argentina's oldest vintners. Heguy is touting the limited-edition wine as he travels around the world to his matches said Federico Benegas Lynch president of the winery. The company is also exporting it to California Florida and New York U.S. markets where polo is played.

''It'll be in Miami before the end of the year'' Benegas said. ``Bautista will also be taking it to Boca Raton and West Palm in polo season in March.''

Such personal pitching is essential as even a glam label is not enough by itself to propel sales especially in the ubercompetitive U.S. market winemakers said.

Kreutzberger who has four Don Francisco lines ranging from $6 to $30 found that out this year when his first Stateside foray flopped. VIA of which the TV host owns 20 percent brought in the $6 line of chardonnays cabernet sauvignons merlots and sauvignon blancs with the aim of appealing to Kreutzbergers' mass fan base and reaching it through supermarkets.

''We thought: regular people who may not be big wine drinkers'' Huber said. ``But the mass market is not that easy. Supermarkets required a lot of investment up front in marketing. We had to rethink that strategy.''

Now the company plans to relaunch the brand starting this month limiting it to the Reserva lines which sell for $9 to $15 and distributing them almost exclusively in restaurants and similar South Florida locales.

''We want to build up the wine at the upper level to build credibility get the wines recognized talked about reviewed but we know it's an uphill battle'' Huber said. ``We'll have more personal involvement by Don Francisco getting to restaurants and things too.''

Celebrity labels are still a novelty in the industry said California wine analyst Eileen Frederikson. The estate of the late Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia and the California winery Clos du Bois market a J. Garcia line. ''None have aspirations of being million-case brands. They appeal to a specific marketplace'' Frederikson said.

``Argentine and Chilean wines obviously have a natural pull with the Hispanic marketplace and certainly having close ties with frantic sports fans will be what distinguishes them on the shelf.''

The South American producers could also use a push she noted. While U.S. wine imports jumped 3 percent in the first half of 2004 shipments from Argentina and Chile remained flat.

And while the celebrity labels may put stars in imbibers' eyes winemakers know that fans will only continue sipping if the wines pack star power. in their palates.

''Hispanics are not a traditional wine-consuming population; they buy wine for special occasions'' Huber said.