Mixing Wine and Beer on the NASCAR Circuit

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Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

Jeff Gordon drinks wine from the winner's trophy after winning the Dodge/Save Mart 350 Nascar Nextel Cup auto race in Sonoma, Calif., on Sunday, June 25, 2006.

At NASCAR's season kickoff in Daytona, Fla., a couple of weeks ago, a new breed of fan eschewed tents and parked their six-figure luxury RVs adjacent to Daytona International Speedway. At the airport, over 500 private jets touched down to deliver more fans, among them Fortune 500 CEOs and team owners like Richard Childress, who spent their time in suites and luxury trailers. But the most telling sign that NASCAR is outgrowing its good-ole-boy, moonshine-running roots was the spectators in the Nextel Fan Zone, who didn't hesitate to plunk down $50 a bottle for a limited edition commemorative cabernet merlot etched with a Daytona Speedway logo.

If the notion of NASCAR as a luxury destination seems far-fetched, you obviously haven't attended a race recently. A new Nielsen Sports survey shows wine consumption among NASCAR fans is up 22% from last year. Fans can now buy wine in the grandstands, and this year tracks are offering special wine programs — tastings at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, an exclusive lounge at Phoenix International Raceway where anywhere from $1,900 to $4,000 gets you a great view, gourmet foods, and, of course, wine. And at California Speedway in southern California, a new Wolfgang Puck restaurant with an extensive wine list. The NASCAR-tied vintages of Bennett Lane, named after the vineyard owned by Randy Lynch, a former racer with a NASCAR team who was the first to put grapes on a car, have even received 90+ scores from the prestigious magazine Wine Spectator.

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."

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.

As wine drinking grows more mainstream and the NASCAR demographic gets more upscale, the two will inevitably intersect. Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma is banking on it so much that this year they will be the primary sponsor for the No. 27 Ford in three races, which means the car will be painted to look like sloshing wine going 200 miles per hour. The slogan: No Wimpy Wines. To core racing fans who are more partial to beer, that may be hard to believe — and too much to swallow.