"Renegade billionaire" Richard Branson, 56, is known for unorthodox business methods, flamboyant publicity stunts and taking on industry giants such as British Airways. In 1970 he founded Virgin as a mail-order record company; the Virgin Music Group was sold, in 1992, to Thorn EMI for $1 billion. Today, Virgin Group Ltd. has 200 companies in 30 countries and its annual sales exceed $12 billion. Among Branson's newest ventures is Virgin Galactic, a "space tourism" company offering suborbital flights to the paying public. Last year, Branson launched Virgin Vines, and along with it the emphasis that wine doesn't have to be serious or expensive to be enjoyable. The first releases, a Chardonnay and a Shiraz, are available now for about $10 retail, with Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and Merlot to be released in January 2007.
Wine Spectator: What drew you into the wine business?
Richard Branson: Virgin's a brand known for shaking up the status quo and we love a challenge. We're always looking at different sectors to see where we can make a difference. We felt wine was a perfect fit because the industry can be confusing and intimidating. We want to help young adults, 21 and up, feel more comfortable about buying and drinking it. Our winemaker, Charlie Gilmore, is 29, and very much in touch with young adults' tastes.
WS: When and how did you first become interested in wine?
RB: In England, you're allowed to drink at 16. At that age I was, most of all, interested in the fairer sex, and wine was very useful in that pursuit. The two went very well together.
WS: Do you collect wine?
RB: I'm not a collector but my two best friends are. They recently turned up at Necker Island [Branson's private island resort in the British Virgin Islands] with some $3,000 and $4,000 bottles. Personally I find that a waste of money. And with all the problems in the world today, I feel it's slightly obscene to spend that on wine.
WS: Hence the marketing approach that directly attacks snobbery and pretension?
RB: Virgin is a playful brand and we felt someone needed to take the mickey out of the whole wine-snobbery thing. Our bottles appear to have corks--they have the traditional premium look and feel--but under all that is a screw top. That means your bottle will be easier to open and will never be corked. Some people will turn their nose up at that but I think 97 percent of the population will think that's good news. Plus, we've sort of painted up the bottles so they look very beautiful, which is important. Our slogan is "Drink it, love it, know when to stop."
WS: Do you have a favorite wine region?
RB: Definitely Sonoma. I was in California promoting Virgin Atlantic's inaugural flight to San Francisco and we took all our guests up to Napa, where the Sonoma County Wine Patrol "kidnapped" me. Two guys in a helicopter with fake submachine guns forced our bus down a dirt road and locked me up in a big shed, where naked ladies were jumping up and down in grape vats. I was forced to get in there and join them. They went to enormous lengths to convert us to their wines ... and it worked! I've been sold on Sonoma ever since. They are definitely less stuffy.
WS: If Virgin Galactic takes off, will your passengers be drinking wine in space?
RB: If someone wants to bring a special bottle on board, we'd be delighted. They'll have to hold on to it, of course ... .