Kylie Minogue wine label

Did you hear the one about Ian Botham and Kylie Minogue?


Paul Schaafsma on the power of celebrity – and stories – when it comes to selling wine.

Winemaker and entrepreneur Brian McGuigan was signing bottles and talking to customers at a drive-through bottle shop in Sydney suburbia one rainy night. His operations manager, Paul Schaafsma – the man who would one day create the Kylie Minogue wine label – was over it, and turned to McGuigan:

“Brian, it’s 9 o’clock on a Thursday. For God’s sake, what are we doing here?”

Recalling the incident, Schaafsma switches to a gravelly impersonation of the wine-industry legend: “Paul, if I get one minute with each of them, I’ve got ’em for life.”

It’s an anecdote Schaafsma tells his team whenever he senses they might be going off the boil. “Wine is about stories,” he says. Like the one about how he linked up with cricketer Ian Botham to create Schaafsma’s first celebrity-branded wines.

After 14 years with McGuigan, Schaafsma had moved to Hardys in London. The Aussie winery had sponsored the English cricket team and had some fun with television commercials that showed Hardys’ Australian vineyard workers pelting the Poms with grapes.

“We did a lot of stuff at Lord’s with Beefy (Botham),” recalls Schaafsma. “One day I was with him there to launch the Eileen Hardy range. He was supposed to give a five-minute spiel on Lord’s, but he gave a 20-minute speech on the stylistic evolution of Australian chardonnay. I had Sir James Hardy there. He got up after Beefy and said, ‘I’ve got nothing left to say. You’ve said it all Sir Ian.’

Cricketers Michael Vaughan, Glenn McGrath and Sir Ian Botham promoting Hardy’s wines in 2015 Image | Andrew Redington, Getty Images

“Sir Ian was very much a wine man. He used to visit wineries in Australia when the others went off to the pub. I said to him one day, ‘You know your stuff. We should do a brand together.’”

A few years later, Schaafsma took a year off as part of his departure from wine giant Accolade Wines (which owns Hardys) where he was CEO. He was nearing the end of his “non-compete” term when he got a 7am call from Botham. “Where are you?” asked the legendary all-rounder.

“I’m in bed.”

“Get up and get dressed. You’re having breakfast with me. I just landed (in Australia).” Over a hotel buffet, wine was on the metaphorical menu. “You’re mucking about on your boat; you’ve got nothing to do; we’re doing a brand,” Botham declared, adding a demand for final sign-off on the product.

The two men spent six weeks touring and tasting around vineyards in Australia and New Zealand, and Schaafsma almost came to regret giving the cricketer final sign off on the blends as he came to demand mixes such as 30 per cent more of the premium Howard Park Margaret River fruits in a predominantly Riverland entry-level chardonnay. With his belt having gone out a notch, Schaafsma started his own company, Benchmark Drinks and they launched Botham – an all-Australian collection – at Lord’s cricket ground in 2018.

Schaafsma’s next celebrity signing was Take That singer, Gary Barlow, followed by television host Graham Norton, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, and then, in 2020 he sent Australian popstar Kylie Minogue back to where she belongs – to the top of the charts, the wine charts that is with the Kylie Minogue wine label. By harnessing celebrity and story, in just four years Schaafsma has propelled Benchmark into the UK’s big league. The company is now one of the fastest growing wine groups in the UK, producing about 11 million bottles a year, with a turnover of 27.5 million pounds.

Kylie Minogue and Ian Botham wines
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MAY 10: Chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay attends the 13th annual Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit Grand Tasting event presented by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority at Caesars Palace on May 10, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appétit)

“We started out with the view that they’ll buy it once from a celebrity, but they’ll only come back if it’s good enough,” says Schaafsma.

He claims to be approached “every few weeks” by a celebrity interested in doing a brand. Celebrity, however, is no guarantee of success. Witness the range of the late Shane Warne, who admitted to the Sydney Morning Herald at the 2002 launch of his wine range that it took him a while to understand what chardonnay was. “I didn’t even know what made a red and a white different.”

The label didn’t last.

In 2019, a colleague tried to pitch infamous hard rockers Motorhead to Schaafsma. Yeah … nah. The colleague said they had another celebrity, a well-known Australian who was interested in doing a Provence rosé. “She’s spoken to a couple of wineries, but it hasn’t quite eventuated,” the colleague told Schaafsma.

“It’s not Kylie, is it?” asked Schaafsma, dreaming. She on the top of his wish list, with rosé pencilled in beside her name. It was. “Positioning her with pink in terms of the style of person she is, I thought was just perfect. Rosé is a little bit fun, a little bit girlie.”

Minogue’s office was only 500 metres across the Thames from his. He was nervous the day he met her, but she instantly put him at ease, bringing out a cheese board. “It’s always good to have some cheese and bikkies with a wine tasting,” he recalls her saying.

Kylie also came with a killer story – the Kylie Minogue wine epiphany. She had been a cheap lambrusco drinker, until one night at a restaurant in the south of France, or was it Italy? She wouldn’t remember the wine type either, but she was in a whirlwind with INXS front man Michael Hutchence. The rock god was busy “corrupting” the pop princess and turning her on to the sensual pleasures of a good drop, among other things.

“It felt like we were in a movie,” she said of the night. “Sometimes the bottle of wine is almost like another guest at the table.”

And so began her love affair with wine. Schaafsma told her that for a Kylie Minogue wine to work, she had to commit to day-to-day involvement. She agreed and asked to be the creative director, says Schaafsma. She wanted to learn about wine. She asked what books to read, what she could do. “I said ‘We’ve got limited time, because we need to get the fruit now’.”

Kylie Minogue wine label
LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 31: Kylie Minogue attends the Kylie Minogue Wine 2nd anniversary at Annabel’s on May 31, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Kylie Minogue Wines)

It was early 2020 and Provence rosés were typically launched in the northern spring. “We had a couple of meetings in her office. We brought in bottles and samples and competitor wines to taste. She asked lots of questions. She told me what she liked and didn’t like. She had an opinion, which is important. We were just blending away in the office until we came up with a type that fitted what she wanted.” They also started work on the label. She handwrote her name.

 “I’ve still got the piece of paper,” says Schaafsma. “That became the essence of the label we went with.”

Then Covid-19 hit. “We’d meet on the front porch of her house in Chelsea. I’d be on one side of the patio pouring a glass and handing it over. ‘Not quite right,’ Kylie would say.” And so on, until the wine was launched on 28 May 2020, selling out 15,000 cases in 48 hours.

Minogue wanted to do an Australian pinot, so Schaafsma arranged for winemaker Steve Webber from De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley vineyard to send some “base wines” to sample and blend. Webber says he was a little surprised at what Minogue chose. “It was interesting that she didn’t go for the oakier, richer, more concentrated wines. She went for more of the aromatic, more sophisticated [wines], more what I would drink … more Melbourne, you know, more dressed up in black.”

Next, Schaafsma travelled to West Australia’s Margaret River region for chardonnay where Howard Park owner Jeff Burch recalls Minogue being intimidated by a Zoom tasting in front of a bunch of wine experts. “But she came good, and she was marvellous,” says Burch. “We put together a range of chardonnay clones and a combination of oak treatments – one-year-old, two-year-old, bigger barrels, smaller barrels. She didn’t want it too oaked. We sent her the finished product for approval … It’s definitely her wine.”

Burch took “more than one selfie” with her when she eventually came for a three-day winery visit.

 The Kylie brand has now sold a million cases around the world in 15 countries. But Schaafsma is not all about celebrity. He relabelled and relaunched the Mad Fish brand for Burch’s Howard Park. “He came at the right time,” says Burch. “China had just imposed import duties on Australian wine and we had a fair bit of shiraz looking for a home. He’s a hell of an operator … Mad Fish is now the fourth biggest selling Australian wine in the UK.”

Schaafsma defends celebrity brands, arguing that consumers like to be guided by someone they know and trust. “A consumer is typically petrified of buying wine. Ninety-three per cent of consumers in the UK will never visit a vineyard. Their whole experience is looking at the supermarket shelves and panicking. ‘For god’s sake, don’t buy the wrong one’.”

What does he say to the wine snobs? “Taste the wine.” He cites the gold medal Kylie’s Côtes de Provence Rosé won at this year’s Global Rosé Masters and quotes the many positive reviews from otherwise haughty reviewers. “We had a few cranky ones at the start but every time a new vintage comes out, they’re the first to want to taste it.”


Other wines with notes of celebrity

Trump – from the 92ha vineyard bought by Donald Trump in 2011

Francis Coppola – From the California vineyard owned by film director Francis Ford Coppola

Ponting – former cricketer Ricky Ponting has a range with South Australian winemaker Ben Riggs with a nod to his home state of Tasmania with his Mowbray Boy pinot noir

Dan Aykroyd – from actor Dan Aykroyd’s vineyard in Ontario, Canada.

Race-car driver Daniel Ricciardo has his DR3 label through the St Hugo Wines in the Barossa Valley.

Actor Sam Neil, director George Lucas, singer Pink and singer Sting all own vineyards and make their own wines but don’t put their names on the labels.

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