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The Grapes of Cash

The latest craze in celebrity endorsements -- We rate the wines made by Alex Trebek, Steven Seagal, and Francis Ford Coppola

Blame it on Bacchus, but the art of winemaking, long left to anonymous vintners, is luring Hollywood celebs as never before. Director Francis Ford Coppola, who started making his Rubicon wine in 1978, just added 92 acres to his vineyard. The Smothers Brothers, Steven Seagal, Daniel Boone's Fess Parker, and quiz-show host Alex Trebek have all gone for the grapes by investing in California vineyards.

Seagal's Santa Inez home includes 200 acres planted with cabernet grapes, which he contracts a winery to distill. Parker owns 50 cultivated acres in Santa Barbara County and buys grapes from neighboring farms for his six varietals; and Trebek's three Paso Robles vineyard properties, with 250 grape- growing acres, produce nine different wines. The Smothers Brothers market three wines on 40 acres.

But is celebrity wine worth drinking? We checked with four experts: Robin Leach, host of Robin Leach Talking Food on the TV Food Network; gourmet, actor, and Letterman standby Tony Randall; oenophile Spencer Christian, Good Morning America's weatherman; and Mary Ewing Mulligan, director of the International Wine Center in New York. Here are their findings — along with some information we heard through the grapevine.

CELEBRITY: Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek
VINEYARD: Creston Vineyards, Creston, Calif.
WINE TASTED: Pinot Noir, 1992 ($10)
P.R. PITCH: Promotional material refers to Trebek as ''America's favorite quiz-show host.''
LEACH: ''It's the wine category: 'Who is Alex Trebek?' 'The maker of a good bottle of wine.'''
RANDALL: ''The color is transparent. The taste is what we technically call p---.''
CHRISTIAN: ''A light, pleasant-tasting wine, an everyday table wine.''
MULLIGAN: ''This type of grape isn't big and powerful. The taste is charming and seductive with lots of flavor. It has an herbal edge.''
CELEBRITY INVOLVEMENT: According to a spokes-man, ''Alex has a great deal of input — not so much in making the wine, but he does participate in tasting it. No, he doesn't crush the grapes.''

CELEBRITY: Director Francis Ford Coppola
VINEYARD: Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, Rutherford, Calif.
WINE TASTED: Rubicon, 1979 ($56)
P.R. PITCH: The vineyard's press material lists reviews of the wines alongside a filmography of Coppola movies.
LEACH: ''You can tell that a man who crafts movies the way Coppola does would not allow less than his own masterpiece to be poured. You could sit for hours and drink this happily — and I will.''
RANDALL: ''The smell is absolutely divine, and it tastes as good as it smells. Marvelous.''
CHRISTIAN: ''Oh, boy! Now we're talking wine. There is a nice balance of flavors. It's terrific.''
MULLIGAN: ''It looks like ink. This is a huge wine — it almost defies perception. The aromas are of sweat, leather, tobacco, cedar. It's profound — a thinking wine lover's wine.''
CELEBRITY INVOLVEMENT: ''Day-to-day, (Coppola) is not involved,'' says Niebaum-Coppola vineyard's general manager and vice president John Skupny, ''but he's always here on the first day of the harvest. He tastes a couple of times a year. He's a producer, rather than a director.''

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