Wine is not the first thing one associates with NASCAR and American stock car racing, but interest in and the popularity of wine has been growing in the NASCAR world. The linking of wine with NASCAR and stock car racing in America may seem odd to outsiders who tend to associate beer with NASCAR, but it should be a long-term benefit for the wine industry because it will lead more and more people to being introduced to more and better wines — especially people who might otherwise see wine as too elitist.
Unfortunately, the introduction of wine into NASCAR is not proceeding in a trouble-free or criticism-free manner. Some people object precisely because they continue to perceive wine as too elitist — and some of that is the fault of those responsible for bringing the wine into the NASCAR world. Others object not because of the wine itself, but because they see it as a symptom of a deeper problem: the treatment of NASCAR as little more than a marketing vehicle, a platform for corporate networking, and a means for extracting money from fans of car racing. They have an even better point.
When NASCAR team owner Richard Childress opened a vineyard and winery five miles from his racing headquarters in Lexington, North Carolina in 2004, it marked the return of the first true celebrity wine-maker in the south since Jefferson. Wine snobs around the world shook their disbelieving heads at the realization that now even NASCAR was into wine (what next: Cuvée Britney Spears?).
But NASCAR is more than a race: it is a market that can be sold things. Bennett Lane Winery in California has been a sponsor since 2003. Indianapolis 500 legend Mario Andretti has his own Napa winery. His neighbor in Napa and fellow racer Randy Lewis is pretty much sold out of everything but the chardonnay these days. And according to a press release I received in 2006, driver Jeff Gordon is now selling a $50 Carneros chardonnay to his fans.
Childress Vineyards is a large anchor destination that benefits some if not all of the other 37 wineries in North Carolina, a state lots of people would be surprised to discover had even one winery in it. Thirty years from now, Childress will be like Mondavi, famous for what he himself did, but important for what he did for the wineries around him. NASCAR has its roots in apocryphal high-speed moonshining adventures from Prohibition days, so Childress Vineyards can also represent a certain closing of the book, if you want it to.
Source: Fritz Allhoff, Wine & Philosophy: A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking
If you treat NASCAR as a culture, then it should be possible to introduce wine in a manner that benefits everyone — the wine industry, wine makers, and wine drinkers. It would have to be done carefully, of course, because you can't just dump something like wine (which has its own culture) into another culture and expect everything to blend well automatically.
However, if you treat NASCAR as little more than a market which can be sold any consumer good so long as some sort of racing label is slapped on it, then you're guaranteed to cause problems. You'll probably sell — and sell enough to make a profit, too — but in the long run you'll only alienate a lot of people from the product itself. The owners of the NASCAR brand, by allowing such behavior, risk alienating people from NASCAR itself. Thus both NASCAR and wine will lose out.
The reason for the business class upgrade? It's simple, at least according to Texan racing legend A.J. Foyt, who says it's all the big corporate sponsorship money. "It brought in all those Ivy League boys who like wine. I'm not into that crap. Wine, that's not A.J."
And if it's not A.J., can it really be NASCAR? For the new breed of more marketing savvy NASCAR drivers, it certainly is. Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's clean-cut mascot who is already dismissed by some die-hards as insufficiently macho, is making wine under the Jeff Gordon Collection label.
Working with a vineyard and a winemaker in Calistoga, Calif., Gordon is producing small quantities of a Carneros Chardonnay and later this year he'll have two more varieties ready for market — a cabernet sauvignon and a merlot. Gordon considers wine a personal passion separate from his NASCAR persona and he's proud to point out that his chardonnay is on the wine list at the renowned French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. But even he admits, "I guess I've always leaned toward a fan that is more into wine than beer."
A.J. Foyt makes a good point, but he's also being used by the author for a point that is mistaken. First, if Foyt doesn't like wine then it's fair for him to say so and to object to people trying to identify wine with NASCAR. Second, though, the mere fact that wine is "not A.J." doesn't entail that wine can't be NASCAR. After all, A.J. Foyt alone doesn't define NASCAR no matter how much he might represent some of its core values and attitudes.
They key point here is something I wrote above: NASCAR is a culture. Well, it's a fact of life that cultures evolve over time. NASCAR today isn't exactly what it was 30 years ago and you can bet that it will be still different 30 years from now. Wine will change NASCAR, for better or for worse — for better if introduced correctly and for worse if introduced incorrectly. You can't stop culture from evolving and you can't stop NASCAR from evolving.
All you can do, if you care about NASCAR and/or care about wine is work to ensure that the changes are more positive than negative.
For fans who may not have experienced the pleasures of wine, Richard Childress, owner of three Nextel Cup teams and two Busch series teams, has turned his Lexington, N.C., vineyard into a racing enthusiast destination. He markets to race fans with his Fast Track Wine Club and RCR (Richard Childress Racing) collection bottles, and NASCAR fans stop in for tastings during race season. This year he will release the Childress Classic, a checkered flag-labeled cab merlot blend aimed at the first-time wine drinker. He's also going to put his vineyard logo on a few cars. "Wine can be intimidating," he explains. "But if fans see it on a race car, they'll feel more of a connection to it."
But it's also possible that NASCAR'S gourmet makeover could be turning off once-loyal fans. NASCAR observers like Mark Yost, author of The 200 MPH Billboard: The Inside Story of How Big Money Changed NASCAR, due out in August from Motorbooks International, says the presence of wine is just another sign that the already marginalized core beer drinking NASCAR fan has now been completely priced out of the sport.
"NASCAR has 75 million fans and that's a lot, but those fans aren't what's driving the corporate army into the sport," he explains. "There's so much business-to-business networking going on that NASCAR events have become a fertile business environment. NASCAR is the new golf course. It's where people go to relax and make deals."
That's precisely why Aussie Vineyards chose NASCAR as a way to break into the highly competitive U.S. wine market. With an Aussie Vineyards car and Australian driver Marcos Ambrose, the company wanted to leverage a fan base known for being fiercely brand loyal. NASCAR gave them access to large volume retailers and distributors that they were able to network with in corporate entertaining suites at tracks all over the country.
The strategy paid off late last year when Aussie wines secured valuable shelf space in Kroger Company stores and a few other chains. "By exposing ourselves to the distributors and retailers who are also NASCAR fans, we were able to get into major markets and take part in the marketing power of the NASCAR road show," says Aussie Vineyards president Duncan Shaw.
Using NASCAR as a vehicle for marketing makes a lot of sense for a lot of different companies and different industries. Is there anything that you can't find advertised on the sides of stock cars today? It's understandable if people have a problem with NASCAR being treated as little more than a market for wine, but that's a broader problem with NASCAR being treated as little more than a market generally — wine is, at worst, just the latest example of a larger problem that they should have been pushing back against long ago. Now it's too late, isn't it?
Where wine differs, perhaps, is that it will seem to be an entirely new class of product. It's certainly different from oil filters and spark plugs, but once again it's fundamentally a problem with how marketing is treated in NASCAR: oil filters and spark plugs alone don't bring in the big bucks, so once the owners are committed to the marketing mind-set they aren't going to stop at just the narrow range of products that appeal to a beer-drinking, car-tinkering crowd.