The story behind the brand's success includes a bit of Hollywood serendipity as well. Bob and Donna Holder, principal owners of Marilyn Merlot, moved to Napa in 1978 from Berkeley, CA. He was a CPA, and she worked at St. Helena High School, but they quickly gravitated to wine.
In 1980, the Holders and a few friends started producing a barrel of Cabernet at the couple's Rutherford home. They called the wine Cannibal Sauvignon and, although it wasn't for sale, packaging stood front and center: The "brand" was dubbed "Maneater," and the bottles got a snappy cartoon label designed by Denys Cazet, one of the home winemakers.
Using some purchased grapes and some grapes on the Holder property, they produced their first homemade Merlot in 1983. One evening two years later, when the wine had been bottled, dinner conversation turned to a name for the Merlot. We wanted something cute that fit with the Maneater brand. Donna Cazet said, “Why not call it Marilyn Merlot?” The idea just hung there, and it really seemed like a clever name recalls Bob Holder.
By that time, Holders also had some first hand knowledge of the wine business. In 1980, they became partners in a commercial venture called Manzanita Cellars, which produced Chardonnay and Cabernet from purchased grapes.
Holders credit the idea to take Marilyn Merlot commercial to a friend in the wine business, "We gave a case to an auction in 1987, and Tony said, 'You ought to be selling this stuff,'" says Holder. So they did! Another friend connected them with the attorney representing the estate of Marilyn Monroe. They eventually hammered out a licensing contract, which allowed them to use the photo reproductions on the labels and gave exclusive rights to the brand name. Sales of the first commercial vintage, the 1985, which was made with purchased bulk wine, were good. They sold out the initial 2,500 cases they'd made, and then received an order, from Japan, for 2,000 more cases of the vintage. They bought more bulk Merlot and did a second bottling from the 1985 harvest.
But the real spark came from an unlikely source, in the form of a criticism by a Los Angeles Times columnist. "He wrote, 'Can you believe this? There's a group in Napa Valley using the image of an unfortunate substance abuser to sell wine," Holder recalls. The next day, a professional photographer called asking for bottles for a shoot. A photo appeared in Life magazine first, then in other magazines and newspapers around the world. A (wine) star was born. "That column proved the old adage that any publicity is good publicity," Holder quips.