If it's 10 a.m. on a weekday and you're not drinking Chardonnay, then you're probably not watching the Today show. Tune in and you'll likely see Kathie Lee Gifford and cohost Hoda Kotb toasting, clinking and sipping from glasses of wine—no spitting allowed.
A lifelong wine lover, Gifford, 60, decided to produce a California wine of her own, called Gifft—a play on words that combines her last name with her "hope that the wine will make a lovely gift." Produced by Monterey's Scheid Vineyards, Gifft launches this spring with 15,000 cases of a Chardonnay and a Merlot-dominated red blend—the kinds of wines that Gifford first fell in love with when she arrived in California four decades ago. Both wines will retail for $20. Wine Spectator sat down with the television host in her dressing room to discuss her distaste for oaky Chardonnay, her vision for Gifft and the misconceptions surrounding her morning libations.
Wine Spectator: Has wine always been a part of your life?
Kathie Lee Gifford: I was born in Paris and lived in Europe until I was 5 years old. My dad was in the Navy. I just feel very, very at home in Europe. And wine is such a part of the culture of Europe. So I think I associate enjoyment of life with wine.
WS: How did your wine label come about?
KLG: A wonderful guy named Andy Cohan—he brokers deals—came to me and said, "You know what, I think you should be in the wine business. I think that I've got the right partner for you." I thought it seemed natural. And so I met the Scheid family.
I didn't want to just be the face or the name of a wine. If I was going to do it, I wanted to be involved. So it's a 50-50 partnership with the Scheid family. We had a great understanding from the very beginning that I was never going to present myself as something I'm not, which is, I'm not a wine expert at all. I just know what I love.
WS: What are the models for Gifft Chardonnay?
KLG: When I first got to California in 1975—I moved to L.A. to become an actress and a singer—I was drinking Chardonnays out there, and they were so much lighter than they are now. The California Chardonnays then reminded me of a Burgundy, even a Chablis, or a blanc de blancs Champagne. Very little oak. Now they've morphed to the point that I have been drinking Pinot Grigio instead of Chardonnay.
So when I talked to the Scheids, I asked, "Can you take the Chardonnay grapes and we'll develop a wine that's much more like the original Chardonnays I loved when I came to California?" I'm hoping that we might reintroduce people to that restrained style. I can legitimately say that we made this together. I love this; I drink this.
WS: How did you decide on the label design?
KLG: The insignia on the bottle is not Scheid Vineyards. It's the end of our property where [my husband], Frank, and I live in Connecticut. It's a gazebo at a place called Prey's Point that's at the end of a peninsula that we're on. We see the New York City skyline. We're not going to grow grapes there, but it's where we share a lot of life.
WS: What do you love to drink at home?
KLG: Until I can start cracking open my own Chardonnays, I drink a little Pinot Grigio. I also love Régnard, a Chablis. And when I went to Italy, I had for the first time Gavi; now that is a beautiful wine. Years ago we discovered Grgich Hills, which was our house wine for quite a while. Even that, though, I started to feel was getting heavy.
WS: You've become notorious for drinking wine on Today at 10 o'clock in the morning. How did that begin?
KLG: We never intended to have any wine on the show. The first month I was doing the show with Hoda, we had Chelsea Handler. She had a new book out called Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. As a joke, our producers made these vodka cocktails and brought them to her, and she starts sipping them. She left and we didn't think anything of it. Next week, Brooke Shields comes on, and she goes, "Where's my cocktail?" And right after that, Joel McHale showed up with a bottle of Hennessy. We said, "What is happening here?" And the more people thought it was a party they were coming to, the ratings started to go through the roof.
If people think we're drinking wine all morning long, they're absolutely mistaken. Those glasses sit there, and once in a while we take a sip, but usually it's for comedic purposes. I think that the wine has contributed a great deal to the success of the show. People think we're having a party. They just love it. And again, we're not encouraging people to start drinking at 10 o'clock in the morning, we're certainly not.
WS: What are the wines you're drinking on air?
KLG: The red one is always Colby, from California. I love the story behind Colby; the family donates money to heart research. When Beaujolais comes out, we'll always have the Beaujolais Nouveau.
WS: Do you envision a long-term future in the wine industry?
KLG: I hope so. I mean, obviously Gifft will have to support itself in the marketplace. They're not gonna keep making wine, slapping my picture on it or my home, if they're not seeing results. Our concern in the next couple years is the drought. You can have the most beautiful vineyard in the world, but if God doesn't send the rain, you're not going to have the grapes. So I'm just hoping that we have a successful launch.
I just do so associate drinking wine with joy and celebration and family and friends. That's what I'm hoping people will discover. I love being in the wine business; it's something that's truly authentic to my own life. Just not as much as everybody thinks.