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By Elin McCoy
Nascar Turns Beer Guzzlers to Wine Sippers One by One

At Bennett Lane Winery in the Napa Valley, a bright yellow 2007 Ford Fusion race car emblazoned with purple grapes and the winery's name is parked next to shiny stainless-steel wine tanks.

``It competes in all the Nascar West Series races,'' winery owner and Lynch Racing Team sponsor Randy Lynch says.

Four-year-old Bennett Lane was the first winery to back a Nascar team. To give me some racetrack feel, Lynch, a former Nascar driver, climbs into this speed machine and revs up its 620-horsepower engine. The vroom echoes off the tanks as the car slowly rolls 20 feet (6 meters).

On the sidelines, I sample Bennett Lane's latest release -- the crisp 2006 Maximus White -- and wonder whether this honeysuckle-scented wine can play in a world known for country music, turning left at 150 miles per hour and the lingering smell of burning rubber. Maybe Bennett Lane's turbocharged Primus Reserve cabernet sauvignon would be a better match.

In the past few years, star drivers and team owners have been putting the pedal to the metal in making wine and slapping their names on the labels.

``The old Nascar image is changing,'' Lynch says. ``The audience is more upscale, and nearly half the fans are women.''

He and his wife, Lisa, first bought a weekend house and vineyard, intending to sell the grapes, but when the nearby winery became available, they decided it would be fun to get into the winemaking business, too. They already owned a Nascar team and saw marketing potential for their fledgling winery in the all-American sport's 75 million fans and new upmarket demographics. (Lynch Racing was in first place by 100 points in the West Series after the Napa 150 in Colorado on June 2. Lisa Lynch is starting a second team, named Maximus, that's set to run its first race on June 23.)

`Moving Billboards'

``Nascar is about moving billboards,'' Lynch adds. ``And we like to think we're changing the beer guzzlers into wine sippers one race at a time.''

That seems to be happening. Wine spending among Nascar fans rose 22 percent last year, according to an ACNielsen survey released in February.

This season, the 12 tracks staging Nascar Nextel Cup Series events are selling wine at concession stands for the first time, says Lenny Santiago, a spokesman for Daytona Beach, Florida-based racetrack operator International Speedway Corp. Santiago also reports that VIP-suite orders for expensive brands are way up. After all, the sport now attracts chief executives who fly in on private jets as well as good ol' boys driving up in pickups. It's no wonder that 106 of the companies in the Fortune 500 are marketing themselves through the sport, according to Andrew Giangola, director of business communications for Nascar.

North Carolina Vineyard

Racing mogul Richard Childress owns five teams and won six Nextel Cup championships with the late Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt. Childress learned to love wine while racing in Riverside, California, in the 1970s and dreamed of having his own vineyard someday. In 2004, he built his eponymous winery in North Carolina, a state in Nascar's home territory that now has 61 wineries. He says his mission is to cater to everyone from wine neophytes to collectors.

Lexington-based Childress Vineyards has become a mecca for racing fans from nearby Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte. The winery's name isn't on cars -- yet -- but its new sparkling wine made it to the winner's circle at the beginning of the 2007 season.

``We sprayed and toasted Kevin Harvick with our Victory Cuvee when he won the Daytona 500, and then Jeff Burton at the Samsung 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway,'' Childress says.

Targeting Tailgaters

Even wineries with no racing links want in. Sonoma, California-based Ravenswood Winery, whose high-powered zinfandels have gained a cult following, discovered that its fans liked to pop its zins' corks at racetrack tailgate parties. Ravenswood, which uses the motto ``No wimpy wines,'' sponsored three races in 2006. This year, the winery is backing teams in all 26 main Nascar events and provides the official wine for Sonoma's own Infineon Raceway, formerly Sears Point, north of San Francisco.

The first driver to put his name on a label was Formula One world champion Mario Andretti in the mid-'90s. The latest is four-time Nextel Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who notched a record 78th career cup win on May 13. Last fall, he launched a high-end $45 chardonnay made by August Briggs Winery in Calistoga, California; a cabernet will debut this year. (Gordon also has his name and car number on a new energy drink from PepsiCo Inc.)

Abruzzo to Australia

The ties between auto racing and wine aren't limited to the U.S. Italian Formula One driver Jarno Trulli, with his rock star looks and custom shirts, is behind the Podere Castorani wine estate in Abruzzo. And Aussie Alan Heath, who turned winemaker after retiring in 2001, now makes four different lines at his Heath Wines in South Australia, from bargain to expensive collectible.

As we all know, celebrity sells. But my bottom line is always, Are these wines any good? Some are and some aren't, though even the undistinguished ones would be fine served ice cold on a hot day at the racetrack.

In addition to Bennett Lane, my top scores go to superstar Napa Valley winery Lewis Cellars, owned by retired pro driver Randy Lewis and his wife, Debbie. Lewis's 23-year career included time on the Formula Three circuit in Europe, where he learned to love wine. After a crash in 1992, Lewis left his high-speed life behind and launched his winery's full-throttle wines with the 1994 vintage. The labels don't trade on his racing connection, but the winery's Web site emits an unmistakable race-car whine when you first open the home page. The wines, from chardonnay to cult cab, are high enough octane to accompany any race.

Tank up now. Nascar season ends in November.

Nascar Dozen

Here are 12 racing-star wines to try:
2004 Bennett Lane Maximus ($35): A cab-merlot-syrah blend that's exceptionally tasty for the price.

2006 Bennett Lane Maximus White ($28): An elegant and citrusy sauvignon blanc-chardonnay-muscat mix.

2004 Bennett Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55): Soft, plump and intense.........

Welcome to Bennett Lane Winery  - Home of 36 90+ Point Wines from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate


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