Watch Orson Welles’ Intoxicating Wine Commercials That Became an 80s Cultural Phenomenon

“We will sell no wine before its time”: some Amer­i­cans respond to this phrase with a chuck­le of recog­ni­tion, oth­ers by ask­ing who’ll sell what wine before when. The dif­fer­ence must be gen­er­a­tional, since those alive to watch tele­vi­sion in the late 1970s and ear­ly 80s can’t have avoid­ed hear­ing those words intoned on a reg­u­lar basis — and in no less pow­er­ful a voice than Orson Welles’. Com­ing up on forty years after Cit­i­zen Kane, the for­mer boy-won­der auteur had fall­en on hard times. Strug­gling to com­plete his fea­ture The Oth­er Side of the Wind (lit­tle know­ing that Net­flix would even­tu­al­ly do it for him), he relied on act­ing work to raise pro­fes­sion­al and per­son­al funds. He’d done it before, but now the pro­duc­tions offer­ing him the most lucra­tive roles hap­pened to be com­mer­cials for cheap wine.

Despite hav­ing been cast into the wilder­ness by Hol­ly­wood, if to some degree will­ing­ly, Welles still had cul­tur­al cachet — exact­ly what the high­er-ups at the mass-mar­ket Cal­i­for­nia wine pro­duc­er Paul Mas­son thought their brand need­ed. Mak­ing use of Welles’ late-peri­od pub­lic image as a Fal­staffi­an gour­mand, Paul Mas­son com­mis­sioned a series of tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials and print adver­tise­ments in which he per­son­al­ly endors­es a range of their vari­etals.

In com­par­ing Paul Mas­son’s “Emer­ald Dry” to Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­pho­ny and Gone With the Wind, two works of art known for their pro­longed ges­ta­tion peri­ods, Welles also implic­it­ly acknowl­edged his own artis­tic rep­u­ta­tion for mak­ing films of genius, if films of genius few and far between.

Though Welles balked at the effron­tery of a script com­par­ing Paul Mas­son wine to a Stradi­var­ius vio­lin, he was­n’t with­out gen­uine appre­ci­a­tion for the prod­uct. “Orson liked Paul Masson’s caber­net,” said John Annar­i­no, the adman at DDB Need­ham who han­dled the Paul Mas­son account. “He often called the ad agency and instruct­ed, ‘Send more red.’ ” He also hap­pened to be a high­ly expe­ri­enced booze sales­man: “As ear­ly as 1945 he had done a radio spot for Cres­ta Blan­ca Wines,” writes Inside Hook’s Aaron Gold­farb. “By 1972 he was doing print work with Jim Beam bour­bon. By 1975 he was hawk­ing Carls­berg Lager. That same year, he pitched Domecq Sher­ry, Sande­man port (in which he por­trayed their ‘Sande­man Don’ char­ac­ter) and Nikka Japan­ese Whiskey, which were a huge hit over­seas.”

The cam­paign got Paul Mas­son a sub­stan­tial bump in sales, but it stuck DDB Need­ham with a some­what dif­fi­cult star. This is evi­denced not just by anec­dotes from the set but sur­viv­ing footage that shows Welles, far from dis­dain­ful of the wine at hand, seem­ing­ly too sat­is­fied by it to deliv­er his lines prop­er­ly. Much like the string of increas­ing­ly bit­ter com­plaints cap­tured dur­ing the voiceover record­ing of a Find­us frozen peas com­mer­cial, Welles’ seem­ing­ly drunk­en takes for Paul Mas­son — and even the fin­ished spots — have gone viral in the inter­net age. Rack­ing up mil­lions upon mil­lions of views on Youtube, these videos have begun to bring “We will sell no wine before its time,” a catch­phrase much-ref­er­enced in the 80s, back into the zeit­geist. But then, don’t some things only improve with age?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ani­ma­tion of Orson Welles’ Famous Frozen Peas Rant

Orson Welles Teach­es Bac­carat, Craps, Black­jack, Roulette, and Keno at Cae­sars Palace (1978)

The Improb­a­ble Time When Orson Welles Inter­viewed Andy Kauf­man (1982)

Sal­vador Dali’s 1978 Wine Guide, The Wines of Gala, Gets Reis­sued: Sen­su­al Viti­cul­ture Meets Sur­re­al Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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