The Curious, Complicated Relationship Between Wine and Wrestling

Illustration of wrestler performing elbow-drop on table full of wine
Illustration by Becki Kozel

On December 11, 2020, the two seemingly disparate worlds of wine and professional wrestling slammed together at the ThunderDome in St. Petersburg, Florida. That night, the pro wrestler Carmella debuted her valet and personal sommelier, Reginald, on World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) SmackDown as a pawn in the wrestler’s feud with then-titleholder Sasha Banks.

Carmella grew suspicious that her new sommelier was colluding with Banks, and fired Reginald less than three months later. But, for a while, more than two million SmackDown viewers listened to Reginald expound on letting wine breathe, proper serving temperatures and which bottles might pair best with Banks’ defeat.

It was the highest of lowbrow dramas, and while wrestling outsiders may dismiss it as fake, that misses the point. Twenty years ago, Stone Cold Steve Austin was opening up cans of beer and whoop ass in the ring. In 2020, WWE, one of the largest sports franchises in the world, built a storyline around a sommelier.

Illustration of wrestler standing on ropes drinking two bottles of wine
Illustration by Becki Kozel

The changing worlds of wrestling and wine

Anyone shocked by this storytelling turn hasn’t paid much attention to the seismic shifts occurring in professional wrestling—or wine.

Wine first appeared in wrestling mythology with French import André Roussimoff, better known as Andre the Giant. During his heyday in the 1980s, Roussimoff was rumored to regularly have consumed six bottles of wine before matches. The wrestler, who was 7-foot-4 and weighed more than 500 pounds due to a pituitary disorder, also played fairy tale giant Fezzik in The Princess Bride. In a 2018 documentary about his life, director Rob Reiner recalls André polishing off 20 bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau in a single day on set. Roussimoff’s drinking was legendary, if effectively an unhealthy way to manage pain from injuries and his rare disorder.

Wine and wrestling have other, subtler connections. Kevin Nash, a six-time world champion wrestler, is a known collector, who favors McLaren Vale Shiraz, Napa and Sonoma Cabs and the occasional red Bordeaux. Brandi Rhodes, a wrestler and former chief brand officer for All Elite Wrestling (AEW), says wine is part of everyday locker room talk.

“You spend so much time on the road, traveling with all these women,” says Rhodes. “We talk about everything: wine, wineries, restaurants to try. That’s what sparked my interest. And when we tour internationally, a lot of times at the end of the night, you get back to a hotel in Italy or France and enjoy a glass of wine.”

In recent years, wrestlers have started partnering with wineries to create their own labels. In 2017, Nikki and Brie Bella, a former WWE tag team known as The Bella Twins, worked with Hill Family Estate in Napa to launch Belle Radici wines, a project that has now morphed into Bonita Bonita. The same year, Cody Rhodes, who’s married to Brandi and once served as AEW’s executive vice president, announced his first bottles with Walla Walla-based Nocking Point Wines.

In 2019, Carmella (née Leah Van Dale) released a California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon under her “boss bitch” label, Capa Cagna, and Chris Jericho celebrated his win as AEW’s first-ever world heavyweight champion with “a little bit of the bubbly.” Those six words quickly morphed into a meme, and shortly after, an actual bottle of sparkling wine made in partnership with Nocking Point.

“We’ve now sold $1 million worth of bubbly and had two iterations of it,” says Stephen Amell, co-owner of Nocking Point, wrestling superfan and actor best known for his role in The CW’s Arrow. Not shabby, considering just 20% of Americans claim to be wrestling fans, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

Stephen Amell's Wines are for the Comic Book Crowd

“Wine and wrestling doesn’t seem like the most natural partnership, but it comes down to whether wrestling fans will support it,” says Amell, who grew up watching WrestleMania in the early ’90s and, later, WWE’s Attitude Era showdowns, starring wrestlers like beer-chugging Stone Cold Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and The Undertaker. He even worked his way into a WWE match against Cody Rhodes in 2015.

“Wine and wrestling doesn’t seem like the most natural partnership, but it comes down to whether wrestling fans will support it.” —Stephen Amell, Nocking Point Wines

Now, Amell stars in Heels, a wrestling drama on Starz, for which he created a wine to pair with the premier. The Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend is named Kayfabe, the wrestling term for presenting scripted matches and stories as true.

“Kayfabe is the trick the magician doesn’t want to reveal,” says Amell. “It’s the thing you do in a ring because you don’t want to taint the experience.”

Charlie Reyes, a New York-based certified sommelier who bartends at The Wayland and curates music programs for Charlie Bird and other Delicious Hospitality restaurants, observes how the concept has evolved over the decades. “Thirty years ago, when old promoters had their way, if there were two wrestlers feuding, they weren’t allowed to travel together,” he says. “They had to maintain the integrity of the feud that people saw on TV. There are still purists, but I think that the whole kayfabe thing is gone.”

But the once hard lines of kayfabe have softened with the advent of social media and reality television, especially as performers’ non-wrestling interests expand. Bottle-smashing Carmella promotes Capa Cagna rosé from her living room, though not the ring. During its five-plus-year run, WWE’s Total Divas revealed the inner lives of women wrestlers, and Rhodes to the Top, a show about the Rhodes family, premiered on TNT in late September, coinciding with the release of Brandi’s Whoa Baby! rosé.

Wine and Wrestling with Leah Van Dale, a.k.a. Carmella

Reyes grew up on a steady wrestling diet. His dad took him to matches at Madison Square Garden, and his all-time favorite wrestler is Eddie Guerrero, the first Latino to win the World Heavyweight Championship. “For brown kids, in general, he’s a huge hero,” says Reyes of the Mexican wrestler, who died of heart failure at 38 years old, just two nights after winning an important WWE match.

Since Reyes’ early days as a kid watching the Ultimate Warrior win SummerSlam ‘88, wrestling has changed tremendously. So has wine. The latter has become less snobby and elusive. Somms wear t-shirts on the floor, exceptional producers box rather than bottle their juice, and high-end wine restaurants play soundtracks consisting of Nas, J. COLE and Gang Starr.

“Candidly, I was surprised that wrestling fans would be interested in wine,” says Andrew Nelson, managing partner at WarRoom Cellars and the consulting winemaker for a collaboration between Wines that Rock and WWE. “I think it’s testament to how broad wine can be. There’s this thinking…that sniffing and swirling wine from bottles with French words on the label, that’s how you should enjoy wine. It’s refreshing to think you can open a bottle of Cabernet and watch SmackDown.”

Illustration of wrestling ring with bedlam inside
Illustration by Becki Kozel

Crossovers and social consciousness

The Reginald moment, the wrestler-as-corkscrew-wielding-sommelier, wouldn’t have happened without the democratization of wine. Conversely, wine’s growing prominence in wrestling wouldn’t be happening without the prominence of women wrestlers, changing labor norms and heightened industry competition.

Forty percent of wrestling fans are women, but it’s taken decades for women wrestlers to be taken seriously. They had a brief moment in the 1980s’ Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the all-women league depicted in the Netflix series GLOW. But any gains were obliterated by the overt sexism of the late ‘90s and early 2000s Attitude Era at WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF), which included plotlines involving sexual assault, miscarriages, body shaming and frequent bra and panty matches.

Eventually, WWE began recruiting women more for their athletic ability than eye candy potential, and an influx of women entered wrestling. In 2015, after an insultingly brief Divas Championship match between the Bella Twins and tag team duo Paige and Emma, fans demanded that women have longer, higher profile matches with well-developed storylines. Two years later, WWE dropped Divas branding altogether (including its pink butterfly belt) and introduced women’s RAW and SmackDown championships.

Then there’s the emergence of AEW in 2019. Since the late ’90s, WWE has had virtually no prime-time competition. Owned and run by Vince McMahon and his family, WWE generated over $1 billion in 2021, largely from media rights. For decades, if you were a wrestler with serious ambition, it was the only place to work—even if the conditions were far from favorable.

“Wrestling has a shelf life. A lot of people aspire to do things outside the wrestling realm.” —Brandi Rhodes

WWE wrestlers are independent contractors, and while the specifics of these contracts are rarely made public, a 2015 Forbes analyses of about a dozen agreements found consistent trends. Wrestlers have to pay for their own ground transportation, hotels and food when traveling (though WWE does pay for airfare). They don’t get health insurance, despite obvious job hazards and a record of early deaths among wrestlers. They can’t form a union, and they’re exempt from workplace safety and discrimination clauses. And even though they’re not full-time employees, exclusivity clauses in their contracts prevent wrestlers from performing in other promotions or taking non-wrestling jobs, like making wine, without WWE’s consent.

From the start, AEW branded itself a different, more modern institution. Led by father-and-son duo Shahid Rafiq Khan and Tony Kahn, AEW installed wrestlers, including Cody and Brandi Rhodes, Matt and Nick Jackson, and Kenny Omega as executives. This gave performers a voice in labor decisions and storytelling, and many performers are considered full-time employees and receive commiserate benefits, including healthcare.

Notably, AEW wrestlers aren’t bound by exclusive contracts. They can wrestle in non-AEW promotions. They can pursue gaming (Adam Cole makes six figures on Twitch), acting, brand deals and winemaking. “Wrestling has a shelf life,” says Rhodes. “A lot of people aspire to do things outside the wrestling realm, and AEW has opened up a world where wrestlers have options.”      

AEW means more options for fans too. After years of watching and traveling to matches, Reyes abandoned WWE. “The older I got, the more conscious I became, in terms of understanding culture and society and my place in it. The veneer of how great WWE was as an organization just went away,” he says.

Illustration of somms tasting wine in wrestling announcer booth
Illustration by Becki Kozel

How do the wines hold up?

Still, Reyes was curious how WWE wines, and wrestling wines in general, would hold up to professional scrutiny, and last fall he gathered with Brandon Borcoman, founder of Vin-Decision and the former wine director at Charlie Bird, to taste A Little Bit of Bubbly sparkling, Bonita Bonita Sauvignon Blanc, Whoa Baby! rosé, Kayfabe red blend, and WWE’s Ultimate Warrior Zinfandel-Sangiovese and Undertaker Cabernet Sauvignon. (Unfortunately, Carmella’s Capa Cagna rosé arrived a week too late for the party.) The bottles were wrapped in foil so they could be tasted blind.

If it were a wrestling match-up, Nikki and Brie Bella’s Bonita Bonita Sauvignon Blanc, with its classic, aromatic and quaffable expression of the grape, clinched the title.

Is It Time to Redefine 'Sommelier'?

“I’d say 75–80% percent of Americans would absolutely drink this, provided they drink white wine,” says Borcoman.

“It makes sense that this wine would come from someone like the Twins,” says Reyes. “In watching their reality show with my sister, you see that they’re really intelligent in marketing and expanding their brand.”

As a group though, with price points ranging from $22 to $35, Reyes says the wines are not yet ready to go head-to-head with similarly priced top-quality retail bottles. (Borcoman was less generous, and some of his tasting notes might land him on the wrong end of a pile driver.) But, as the bottles were unveiled, one by one, another theme emerged: a split between wines for which wrestlers played an active role in shaping the product, and official WWE wines whose management team led the collaboration.

“I’m fucking insulted by that bottle. This will sell because everyone loves The Undertaker, but you can see a WWE machine behind it.” —Charlie Reyes, sommelier and bartender, The Wayland

With its notes of strawberry Starburst and bubblegum, Whoa Baby! “isn’t Bandol,” says Reyes, but it is on brand for Rhodes, a new mom who’s balancing family life and a wrestling career in the public eye.

In contrast, WWE’s Undertaker Cabernet comes in a coffin-shaped bottle with a thick purple wax seal. Its glow-in-the-dark label depicts the wrestler emerging from the fiery gates of hell.

“I’m fucking insulted by that bottle,” says Reyes. “This will sell because everyone loves The Undertaker, but you can see a WWE machine behind it. There are WWE fans who drink wine. Why don’t you put something out that they’re going to want to buy? You can’t expect wine drinkers to take your product seriously if you put it in a glow-in-the-dark bottle.”

The kayfabe in wrestling wine

Regardless of the juice or bottle, there’s some element of wine world kayfabe at play. Who makes money from these wines? WWE gets paid a royalty on wines marketed using the company’s characters, but it’s not clear how much of that gets passed along to the wrestler, and the organization declined to comment. In contrast, the Bella sisters are the sole beneficiaries of their contract with Hill Family Estate and Nocking Point pays a flat fee per label to its collaborators, meaning Jericho is getting coin for his catchphrase.

It all feels personal to Reyes, who understands the potential of great wrestling and great wine swirling together in the ring and in the glass.

“There are plenty of WWE athletes I still love,” says Reyes. “If there was any way I could support them and make sure that my money went into their pocket directly, I would happily do so, but that’s not possible with WWE.”     

In a dramatic reversal of loyalties, Cody and Brandi Rhodes left AEW in February, and Cody returned to WWE in April in a surprise fight against Seth “Freakin” Rollins. Brandi is still a free agent, and wrestling fans aren’t quite sure what to make of the move: Are the Rhodes betraying their worker-centered values, or will they bring change to WWE? Does this mark a fresh era for the sport, one where wrestlers have greater flexibility to move between competing wrestling promotions and act as independent entrepreneurs?

Regardless, wrestling wines, with their potential for making money, storytelling and fan connection, will survive the fallout. And maybe they’ll even get better. Because everything is possible in wrestling.

Published on April 28, 2022
Topics: Wine Culture