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food How Product Placement Gets Wine Bottles Into Shows

The appearance of a wine bottle in television and film is almost never an accident; it’s a carefully brokered deal between the wine brand and the production’s prop master.

Murray Barlett (left) and Nick O'erman in episode three of “The Last of Us,” featuring conspicuous shots of Caymus and Louis Jadot wine bottles.,Liane Hentscher/HBO

Like many wine lovers, I was tickled to see the starring role that wine played in episode three of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” Nick Offerman, playing an antisocial prepper whose paranoia is vindicated by the arrival of a zombie apocalypse, had stocked his compound not only with guns and ammo but also cases of Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon and Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages.

The Jadot, in fact, was a minor plot point, as a wine that Offerman’s character served at two fateful meals bookending the episode. Some wine nerds have complained that a Beaujolais Villages was a poor casting choice: It’s a simple, inexpensive red, and yet was positioned as a special-occasion bottle on Offerman’s table. I’d argue, however, that it was a wise choice because Offerman served it with rabbit, which is known to pair well with a light, earthy red like Beaujolais.

But I digress. The lingering glamor shots on the Jadot labels, which seemed so conspicuously placed in the frame, got me thinking about product placement. I’ve been vaguely aware that the appearance of a wine bottle in television and film is almost never an accident; it’s a carefully brokered deal between the wine brand and the production’s prop master.

 I wanted to learn how this brokering actually works. So I made a few calls. (Kobrand, the importer of Louis Jadot, did not respond to an interview request. A Caymus representative said that the winery did not pay for product placement in the episode.)

As it turns out, much of the set that we see onscreen is likely to have been “placed.” Steve Moore, the founder of Hollywood product-placement agency Legacy Entertainment Services, has placed everything from the Donzi boat that Charlie’s Angels ride to the Klein bicycle that hangs in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment (and which now hangs in the Smithsonian). He also places wine — lots of it. “We do about 200 films a year and almost every primetime television show,” said Moore. “Almost every single project we work with needs wine.”

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Most recently, he got Napa Valley’s Davis Estates into “She Said,” the movie about the New York Times’ Harvey Weinstein investigation. According to Moore, Davis Estates wines appeared in the movie on 18 occasions.

About half the time, Moore said, a prop master will come to his agency with a specific wine in mind that they’d like to include in a film, and it’s then up to him to track down the wine. (He recently got just such a request for Memento Mori, a high-end Napa Valley wine, so Legacy got in touch with the winery’s publicist.) The other half the time, he’ll go to the prop master on behalf of existing winery clients, many of whom are on annual retainer, and explain why he thinks a given brand would be a good fit for a scene. Legacy’s services start at $7,000 for a guaranteed two placements.

The advantage of working with a product-placement agency for the producers, Moore said, is that they can “reduce their window of vulnerability” by having an iron-clad contract giving them legal permission to display a brand’s logo. Also, the movie or TV show gets free product. (In the case of some very expensive products, like Volvo construction equipment or Mac trucks, both of which Legacy represents, this saves the production quite a lot of money.)

The wine companies get a say in how their product is shown — it can’t be used in conjunction with underage drinking, for example, or spoken of in a negative light. “Let’s say we have a movie with a mafia guy, very wealthy, and they want him to be drinking a high-end wine,” said Moore. Some wineries will relish the opportunity to be seen as the mafioso’s beverage of choice. Others will say no, “we’re a family company,” Moore explained.

Consider the final scene of “Hannibal,” in which Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal with refined taste, enjoys a bottle of 1996 Phelan Segur on a plane. The Bordeaux winery’s then-importer, Seagram, decided that was great publicity and gave the green light, said Evan Goldstein, a San Francisco master sommelier who worked for Seagram at the time and negotiated many product-placement deals for the company’s wine brands.

Sure, the wine was being consumed by a deviant cannibal. “But it was Anthony Hopkins,” said Goldstein, who added that the goal of any appearance in a film was to make a wine look “associative and aspirational.”

Not all placements are equal. Sometimes a wine bottle’s label can’t be seen fully, or it’s blurry. “Verbals are the biggest deal if you can actually get them,” said Goldstein: an explicit mention of the product name. Or clear, lingering shots in which the bottle is held by one of the film’s protagonists, like Elizabeth Hurley handling Perrier-Jouet Champagne in “Austin Powers” — another one that Goldstein arranged.

Perrier-Jouet was also a frequent fixture in the background of “Seinfeld” episodes. “Everything you saw in ‘Seinfeld’ — Tequila, whiskey — was a Seagram product,” Goldstein said.

There seems to be a general consensus that appearances in popular television or film is a home-run marketing win for wineries, though the return on investment can be hard to track precisely. Moore said that his agency’s clients see “more than a billion” impressions a year. He argued that placement is much more cost-effective than traditional advertising — not only do his services cost less than producing a commercial, he said, but people tend to avoid watching them.

Or maybe the ultimate allure of product placement lies in the possibility of a product becoming consecrated in the pop-culture canon — on the level of Pahlmeyer Chardonnay in “Disclosure” or Dom Perignon in “Dr. No.” What winery could resist a chance at that immortality?

Esther Mobley

Senior wine critic Esther Mobley joined The Chronicle in 2015 to cover California wine, beer and spirits. Previously she was an assistant editor at Wine Spectator magazine in New York, and has worked harvests at wineries in Napa Valley and Argentina.

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