The owners of the Marilyn Merlot label know sex sells. Their new Velvet Collection brand features the famous "Red Velvet" nude photo of Marilyn Monroe on a peek-a-boo label, a first for the wine industry. The movie star's figure is partially covered with iridescent sparkles; to see all of her, you simply peel away the overlay.
Marilyn Merlot is a curiosity in the wine world. Its clever name and labels featuring images of the iconic actress (licensed by her estate) made it an instant collectible when it debuted in 1985. Napa Valley-based Marilyn Wines later followed up with a Marilyn Cabernet and the Norma Jeane line, also with colorful labels featuring Monroe. Currently, Marilyn Merlot is one of the fastest-appreciating wines in the United States. The 1985 sells for $3,500 a bottle, and a vertical from 1985 through 1996 fetches more than $7,000.
The 2002 Velvet Collection is a limited-edition blend of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Its label shows a famous photograph taken in 1949 by Tom Kelley; the image became the first Playboy centerfold, appearing in the magazine's debut edition in 1953.
The story goes that before Monroe was a star, Kelley paid her $50 for a photo shoot in which she reclined nude on a bolt of bright red velvet. One of the images was used in a calendar (with her billed as "anonymous") before Playboy founder Hugh Hefner purchased the likeness. Ten additional photographs from the 1949 photo shoot will be featured on subsequent vintages of Velvet Collection wines.
Nudity on wine labels has created controversy in the past. In 1978, Kenwood Vineyards planned to debut its 1975 Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon with an original work by artist David Lance Goines that featured an image of a naked woman in a vineyard. The federal bureau that regulates alcohol labels regarded the picture as "obscene and indecent" and denied the request, only to later approve the same image in 1998 for the 20th anniversary Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon 1994.
The U.S. government also rejected Clos Pegase's plan to use the 1943 painting Bedecked Nude by Jean Dubuffet on its 1988 Hommage artist label, so the winery ran it with the lower portion of the painting deleted. Clos Pegase later ran the full image on its 1998 label, to mark the 10-year anniversary of the controversy. And Château Mouton-Rothschild withdrew its 1993 artist label, a drawing of a nude girl by Balthus that had been approved by the U.S. government, after receiving protests; the estate replaced it with a blank white box.
Individually numbered magnums of the 2002 Velvet Collection retail for $225. There are also fewer than 1,000 boxed sets, which include one double-magnum, one magnum and one 750ml bottle, cost $1,000. The wines can be purchased starting next week from www.marilynwines.com or by calling (866) 669-4637. They will also be available at select retailers and at the Napa Wine Co. in Oakville, Calif., where Marilyn Merlot is made.
Royalties from the wine company's use of the images benefit the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute and the Anna Freud Foundation Monroe Young Family Center.