Today Show Cohost Kathie Lee Gifford on Making Her New Gifft Wines and Boosting Ratings with Cocktails.
Emmy award winner Kathie Lee Gifford has had an extraordinary career as a television host, singer and actress, most recently as the star of Today’s fourth hour alongside co-star Hoda Kotb. You’d think that would be enough to keep anyone busy, but recently she added a second career as well: vintner. Her Gifft wines, which launched in 2014 in partnership with California’s Scheid Family Winery, proved an immediate success. Food & Wine’s Ray Isle sat down with Gifford at one of her favorite New York City restaurants to talk about taking on this second career.
What’s the new wine project like?
We're making a red blend and a Chardonnay, both under $20, and this past summer we added a rosé as well. I'm not trying to set the wine world on fire. I'm just looking forward to sharing a part of my life that means something to me.
What sort of style were you aiming for?
When I lived in California in 1975, the wines were all light, crisp fruit; they didn't have that oaky, buttery heaviness they often have now. So I said to the Scheid family, my partner for Gifft Wines, "Let's make a Chardonnay that reminds me of the ones I remember from back then." But look, I’m not a wine expert—I’m a wine fan! I like the Beatles, I like the Beach Boys, I like Hoda, I like Regis, I like people who are fun, and I like wine.
But not Sauvignon Blanc, as I recall!
Well, I still believe in miracles. If someone can make a Sauvignon Blanc that I’ll like, then God bless ‘em.
Who got you into wine in the first place?
My friend Michael Kittredge, the founder of Yankee Candle. He introduced me to the great wines of the world. Some of them were stupendously expensive! But I’d say, “Don’t waste that on me! I’ll have the Pinot Grigio in the corner over there.” Also, I was born in Paris. My daddy would always pour us a little sip of wine. He’d say, if you’re going to drink, it’s better you learn to drink responsibly at home than go off and be an idiot with your friends.
You actually participate in the blending for your wines. Did you want to avoid the kind of celebrity wine that’s just a branding exercise?
I think an audience can always tell when someone is just trying to make a buck, versus when someone is truly invested emotionally in a product. And I’m emotionally invested in wine—I’ve always loved it. To me wine says, welcome, sit down, relax. We live in such hubbub; stop, pause, relax, be grateful. That’s why I’m such a huge lunch fan.
I love lunch. But that's also what happens when your whole career has been about being on television early in the morning. And I do like wine at lunch. It calms me down. I’m not saying drink a whole bottle, of course.
How did “Boozeday Tuesday” and all the wine on the Today show with you and Hoda get started?
Chelsea Handler was on the show for her book Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea. The producers made vodka cocktails for her—just as a gag. But a week or so later, Brooke Shields shows up and goes, "Where's my cocktail?" And then Joel McHale showed up with his own bottle of Hennessy and was like, “I brought my own!” It just started to become this thing, and the more cocktails and wine we included in the show, the more the ratings took off. It’s psychological. If people see the wine sitting there on set, they think, “Oh, they’re have a party! Having fun, enjoying themselves.” We’re certainly not encouraging anyone to drink wine at 10 a.m. That isn’t the purpose. It’s more to give the feeling that Hoda and I are girlfriends, talking things over and having a ball—which is true.
It is true, too, that you named one of your dogs after a wine?
When I was working with Regis, I had one dog named Chardonnay and another named Chablis. Then I got a dog named Regis, and his middle name was Champagne. He was a wonderful dog. We still have him. He's on a shelf in the library.
What’s your favorite hangout in the world?
Alabama Jack's in the Florida Keys. It's a total biker bar, a shack with a tin roof and the best conch fritters in the world. I get up and sing with the band when I’m there. I sing my song: “Crazy.” You know, “I'm crazy... crazy for feeling so blue...” And all these 80-year-old ladies who are dancing, they’ll hike up their dresses and show you their garters. And now the bar has my Gifft wines, so I can order them when I’m there.