WINE POPULARITY RISES AMONG NASCAR SET

Bennett Lane Winery Sponsors Car, Ravenswood Winery Backs Three Races

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- Ten years ago, when Nascar West team owner Randy Lynch traveled with his 12-member crew, he was usually the lone wine drinker at dinner. Today that same group of guys blows through a case or more of Mr. Lynch’s Bennett Lane appellation long before the weekend ends.
Nascar West team owner Randy Lynch outside the Bennet Lane winery that now sponsors his car.

Wine-drinking Nascar crews? What’s next -- brie en croute instead of nachos at the concession stand?

Not quite. But trends are looking up at the track where the likes of Budweiser and Coors have long ruled the road. Not only are there some 75 million Nascar fans, a recent Gallup poll shows Americans prefer wine over beer.

Sponsored car
Indeed, Mr. Lynch’s racecar is emblazoned with the sponsoring logo of California's Bennett Lane Winery. And that's far from the only evidence that rose and chardonnay will be catching on with the Nascar set. Ravenswood Winery announced last week that it will partner with Brewco -- yes, Brewco -- Motorsports to sponsor a Nascar in the Busch League as primary sponsor for three races, and will create a tailored marketing campaign to push the association.

Signs of wine aren’t only on the cars. Nascar team owners and drivers are coming out of the oenophile closet to both promote and produce their own vintages. One of the most well-known Nascar team owners, Richard Childress (for whom the late Dale Earnhardt drove), opened Childress Vineyards two years ago in North Carolina. Superstar driver Jeff Gordon recently put his name on the first of what will be the “Jeff Gordon Collection,” an upscale set of wines bottled by August Briggs in California.

For this unique, and sometimes still acrid, blend of wine and Nascar, Infineon Raceway serves as ground zero. The Sonoma Valley track hosts the only Nascar Nextel Cup run in wine country and is one of only two Nextel Cup racetracks in California.

Blue-collar, beer-drinking crowd
“When I started here in 1998, it was mostly that stereotypical blue-collar, beer-drinking crowd, but over the last four or five years you see a lot more polo shirts and khaki shorts,” said John Cardinale, Infineon VP-media relations.

Infineon took notice of that, as well as the annual barrage of phone calls before the June Nascar race from fans asking for wine-tour recommendations for the weekend. This year, Infineon became the first, and so far only, racetrack to build its own vineyard. Some 661 pinot-noir vines were planted outside the front office at Infineon. The first wines, likely 80 to 100 cases annually, will be ready in three to four years, Mr. Cardinale said.

Stefanie Longton, Bennett Lane’s manager of hospitality and marketing, said the first year of the Infineon Nascar race the company didn’t notice a bump in visits, but by the second year, several Nascar fans started dropping by the small winery that houses the Bennett Lane Nascar in its tasting room. Year three proved to be the charm, with traffic more than doubling for the weekend. To help encourage both the locals and the visitors, Bennett Lane put up a big screen in the tasting room to watch the race action unfold farther south.

Nascar-branded wines next?
Still, the market has room to grow. None of the current wines are Nascar branded or have Nascar imagery on their labels. Some of the Childress wines carry checkered-flag swooshes, but those not aware of Mr. Childress’ association with Nascar might not get the connection.

Mr. Lynch has more ambitious plans, though. He has trademarked a name and idea for a mass-produced wine called “Turn Four,” named for the place where the most exciting action occurs on the track. Someday, he says, he may make that label a mass-market reality.

“Beer is losing market share to wine while sports are losing market share to Nascar,” he said. “I like to say we’re changing beer guzzlers to wine drinkers -- one race at a time.”

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