On May 27, while the pandemic raged across America, GrapeStars, a direct-to-consumer app built to showcase spirits and wine brands solely owned and/or promoted by celebrities, launched in a deserted Times Square to little fanfare. Its creators have billed it as “a game-changing online marketplace” that slings over 350 famous personalities’ sauce on one free platform.
Open the sleek, 21+ app, and encounter a digital video card of, say, Drake, clad in a black turtleneck, seducing a woman with his Virginia Black whiskey ($36.99). Swipe right, and up pop George Clooney and entrepreneur Rande Gerber riding motorcycles and examining agave piñas in Oaxaca as if hand-crafting each batch of Casamigos tequila ($47.99) themselves. Swipe some more and there’s Lil Wayne drinking Bumbu rum ($35.99) opposite a couple of goats, Post Malone riding a pink Vespa through a vineyard for his Maison No. 9 rosé ($21.99) and UFC fighter Conor McGregor sitting in a wingback chair drinking his Irish whiskey, Proper No. Twelve ($31.99).
Undoubtedly, the genre of celebrity booze is booming (back in 2018, fewer than 40 such labels existed), and the founders of GrapeStars seem to believe that these brands necessitate their own enclave, as it were. The brainchild of Miami-based Canadian Jean-Jean Pelletier (who is president and CEO), his brother Robert and three boyhood buddies, GrapeStars was born when Jean-Jean encountered Miraval rosé at a restaurant in Los Angeles. Eventually realizing it was owned by Brad Pitt, “a lightbulb lit up in [his] head,” according to Haute Living. Pelletier has long played in the luxury and celebrity space: Previous endeavors include IceRocks, luxury spring water ice cubes; Beyond Gold, a Canadian mining company; StarShop, a celebrity-curated shopping platform; and Injex 21, a needle-free injection system founded with Sammy Sosa.
Beyond stirring up brand alliance with celebrities, the question is, why does GrapeStars exist? The draw for stakeholders is clear: The company does not own, store or ship any of these products, rather it merely routes orders to a licensed retailer in a consumer’s area, and in exchange takes a 15 percent commission on every sale. GrapeStars raised over $5 million in seed money from investors like Shark Tank judge Kevin O’Leary (whose eponymous wine brand is featured on the app) and is currently valued at $12.5 million, with projections of $100 million in earnings within the next five years.
The link between the celebrities and the products that appear on GrapeStars is not always explicit. While the link between Cameron Diaz and her “clean wine” brand or Yao Ming and his Napa Valley cabernet are clear, things get murkier when attempting to untangle the connection between Lenny Kravitz and Dom Pérignon (he designed a limited-edition bottle) or Ernest Hemingway and Papa’s Pilar (the rum is named in his honor) or Frank Sinatra (Jack Daniel’s labeled a release “Sinatra Select”). It’s even more difficult to understand what, if any, involvement the celebrities themselves have with GrapeStars. With the exception of country singer George Strait, whose Código 1530 tequila appears on the app and who is quoted in the press release, and Guy Carbonneau, a retired hockey legend who is listed as an investor, there seems a lack of any formal public relationship between the platform and the personalities it hawks.
However, Kevin Harrington, a former Shark Tank panelist and self-proclaimed inventor of the infomercial, sees GrapeStars as filling a true need. “Celebrities have a real difficulty finding retailers for their products nationwide,” he says. An investor in the app and the chairman of the company’s board, Harrington predicts GrapeStars will become the Amazon for celebrity alcohol. Though Clooney’s Casamigos, which sold for $1 billion in 2017, and Ryan Reynolds’ Aviation Gin, bought by Diageo for $610 million earlier this year, appear on the app, they seem to have done just fine without it.
The appeal to consumers, however, is perhaps the least defined. GrapeStars claims it’s a curated channel, a place to parse a super-saturated space with products that have been personally endorsed. “We target millennials, who represent 55 percent of the market,” Pelletier told Haute Living, whose founder Kamal Hotchandani is another GrapeStars investor. “Their consumption habits are greatly influenced by celebrities.” (Pelletier and GrapeStars declined numerous requests for comment.)
This may be true, but a platform populated by images of Brad Pitt, Drake, Diane Keaton, Bruno Mars, Jay-Z and Khloé Kardashian is a different space than one hawking sexagenarian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s pinot grigio, Chazz Palminteri’s Sicilian vodka or The Fat Jewish’s rosé. Even if the app zips along like TikTok, GrapeStars feels more like a repository for random celebrity trivia or a novel Cameo-Drizly hybrid than a hard seltzer–drinking millennial’s shopping platform.
Like mansion-quarantined celebrities doing Zoom singalongs to “Imagine,” GrapeStar’s push to amplify wealth-led brands while craft spirits sales are in an industry-crushing decline is curiously tone-deaf, rendering GrapeStars an instant relic of a dystopian era in which the rich grew richer, Gen Z stopped drinking and the world burned on.