Food & Drink

Nor-Cal rapper E-40 has become the surprise toast of the wine world

On the streets, he’s known as E-40, a Vallejo rapper who has spent more than two decades hustling in the hip-hop game. But in the world of wine, E-40 goes by his birth name, Earl Stevens, and his line of wines has scored a surprise smash hit in the ultra-competitive beverage industry.

E-40 has turned into the Robert Mondavi of hip-hop via his Earl Stevens Selections. His three wines include a red blend called “Function,” a moscato and high-alcohol fortified wine called “Mangoscato.” Since their October release, sales of E-40’s wines are already on par with such supermarket stalwarts as Rodney Strong and Ferrari-Carano. Earl Stevens Selections have sold more than 180,000 bottles in Northern California this year, an astonishing amount for a new wine brand.

“I’ve always loved wine,” said Stevens, in a phone call from his Bay Area home. “Sometimes you’ve got to roll the dice, but I had a good vibe about it. We’re making progress.”

The voice behind such West Coast classics as “Yay Area” and “Sprinkle Me” has become an unlikely ambassador of fermented grapes, a guy who’s usually more aligned with the rapper Too $hort than winemakers like Bob Trinchero. Many upstart vintners could only dream of creating the sales buzz E-40 is enjoying. A bottle-signing event at Costco on Arden Way in March drew nearly 1,000 fans, and the distributor for Earl Stevens Selections initially struggled to keep up with demand.

Earl Stevens Selections is finding traction not only in a competitive wine industry, but in a market that’s already crowded with celebrity brands, whether they’re bottle lines launched by KISS, Carlos Santana, Fergie or the rapper Lil Jon. Few of them have matched the success of Earl Stevens Selections. E-40 raps about street life, but he’s also a taste-maker and entrepreneur whose wine is designed as more than a mere vanity project. He hopes to establish Earl Stevens Selections as a bona fide supermarket brand.

“I’m a wine drinker,” Stevens said. “It’s one of those drinks that was always around. Any rapper can have a wine and say, ‘Hey, buy it.’ But you have to be a person who’s real out there. I’m street dude but I’m a person you can walk up to and approach.”

The 46-year-old rapper has been synonymous with West Coast hip-hop since the early 1990s. E-40 might not have the same kind of familiarity with Middle America as Jay-Z or Kanye West, but his reputation as a lyrical stylist and musical innovator is well cemented, having earned notoriety as figurehead of the the early 2000s “hyphy” movement, a boisterous Bay-Area rap style.

E-40 is credited for his numerous contributions to hip-hop’s vernacular, a kind of early influencer whose contributions later filter into more mainstream pop culture. If you’ve ever said “You feel me?” or “fo’ shizzle,” you’ve parroted E-40.

Known for a prodigious musical output,including releasing three albums in 2012, and four albums expected to drop this month, he’s also registered high on the charts. In 2006, his record “My Ghetto Report Card” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/hip-hop albums.

“He’s the king of the Bay,” said Billy Jam, a historian of Bay Area rap and founder of Hip-Hop Slam Records. “It’s not like he’s some guy coming back from 1995. He’s stayed relevant to all ages, and E-40 clearly influenced a generation because of the slang. Not only has he influenced people’s taste, but other rappers. It’s a Bay thing.”

E-40 has long paired his music with entrepreneurship. He launched a line of 40 Water energy drinks in 2007, and opened a string of Wingstop franchises in Vallejo and other cities around the 707 area code. He’s also shown a particular affinity for alcohol. The “40” in his moniker refers to a fondness for 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor, and he’s sprinkled wine references into his tracks since 1993’s “Carlos Rossi” – an ode to the jug wine Carlo Rossi. E-40 also became a face of Landy Cognac in 2008.

His move into wine makes geographical sense; his Vallejo stomping grounds are only about 20 minutes from Napa. His mom worked for 14 years at Napa State Hospital.

“Both Vallejo and Napa are (in the) 707 (area code),” Stevens said. “When I was 23 going on 24, me and my wife used to go on the Napa Wine Train all the time. In 1993, I had a song called ‘Practice Lookin’ Hard’ that said instead of work at the oil refinery, I’d rather work in Napa at the winery.”

While his longevity in the music biz and his loyal fan base have certainly contributed to its popularity, Earl Stevens Wines are marketed with everyday consumers in mind. There’s no likeness of E-40 – with his signature bifocals – on the label, and no wording that states “E-40.” The bottle design includes “Earl Stevens” written in a stately font and a regal crest that incorporates the 707 area code.

“The way something looks has a lot to do with your future sales,” Stevens said. “(People) think that just because I’m a rapper, the bottle will have musical notes. But this (bottle) looks like it’s been around for 100 years. Rodney Strong and Kendall-Jackson, those are successful brands. If they can do that, why not Earl Stevens?”

The bottle style of Earl Stevens Selections ideally speaks to both his longtime fans as well as to anyone simply looking for an affordable wine. The wines are $9.99 to $15.99.

“A lot of his (fans) were listening to E-40 in 1992, and fast forward 20 years later, those are the same people who are looking for a bottle of wine to take home,” Jam said. “Let’s face it. With so many wine choices, sometimes people just go by … the bottle. There’s name recognition here.”

Earl Stevens Selections were created by Steve Burch, a UC Davis alum who works as a winemaker-for-hire for various projects. Burch developed Mangria, a fortified red wine brand conceived by comedian Adam Carolla, and crafted an upcoming wine for pop singer Michelle Branch.

Burch knows how difficult it is to create a hit wine, even with a celebrity connection, and to compete on supermarket shelves with established brands. But Earl Stevens Selections, he said, has surpassed expectations, with upward of 8,000 cases selling in a month.

“Winemakers dream about that kind of success,” said Burch, who owned the now-defunct Burch Hall Winery in Grass Valley. “I’d be happy to do the kind of sales in five years that (Earl Stevens Selections) has done in six months. It’s absolutely insane, but that’s what makes it fun.”

The next challenge is sustaining those kind of sales. “There’s always a risk of something like this to have a novelty appeal,” Burch said. “My feeling was you might buy the first bottle because it’s Earl, but you’ll buy the second because you like it.”

Burch initially created the wines at Napa-based California Shiners. Production has shifted to DFV Wines, the parent company of Delicato, Gnarly Head and others. With 7 million in annual case sales in 2013, the Manteca-based operation ranked as the country’s eighth-largest wine company by Wine Business Monthly.

The grapes in Earl Stevens Selections come primarily from California’s Central Valley, including the moscato. Wines made of this sweet white grape found its sales spike starting in 2009, after being name checked in hip-hop songs by Drake, Lil’ Kim and others.

Function Red Blend is a mix of Lodi zinfandel and cabernet. Retailing for $9.99, it’s crafted with segments of French oak in large tanks, versus spending extensive time in small barrels. Burch’s goal was to create a consumer-friendly wine using methods to keep down costs and speed up production.

“It all comes down to who’s buying your wine,” said Burch. “I love Earl and he has a great fan base, but not a single one of them gives a you-know-what if it’s 55 percent cabernet sauvignon or 58 percent. I know winemakers who will agonize over that decision, and in the process waste a lot of time.”

Southern Wine & Spirits, a leading distributor, added Earl Stevens Selections to its portfolio in January. According to Paul Thompson, vice president and regional sales director for Southern Wine & Spirits, the supply of wines couldn’t keep up with demand in those early months.

Earl Stevens Selections quickly became one of the fastest-growing brands, he said, adding $2 million in gross sales to its distributor. Those sales dwarfed other celebrity wines carried by Southern Wine & Spirits, including Bethenny Frankel’s Skinny Girl wines and Save Me, San Francisco, a wine by the rock group Train. Earl Stevens Selections are now a staple in Northern California supermarkets and bottle shops, including BevMo!, Total Wine & More, Coscto and SaveMart.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Thompson said. “It just took off and we couldn’t keep up – and really, it’s just getting started.”

The Mangoscato has emerged as the runaway favorite. Of the 15,000 cases of Stevens wine distributed since the beginning of the year by Southern Wine & Spirits, about 10,000 of those sales have been for the Mangoscato, the fruity fortified wine. The remaining 3,000 of case sales have gone toward the Function Red Blend, and 2,000 cases of the moscato.

Mangoscato isn’t geared for fine dining or to win over wine judges. At 18 percent alcohol, Mangoscato “packs a punch,” said Thompson. “We recommend you pour it over ice as you would a cocktail. It’s more than a wine or a dessert wine. It’s a cocktail and made to be consumed that way.”

Burch said Stevens took a hands-on approach to the wine-making process, doing more than simply slapping his name on the label. The rapper participated in blending and tasting sessions, noting if one approach to the red blend was too puckery, while keeping a keen eye on the packaging.

“He’s a very detail-oriented guy and certainly had input on the wines as we created them,” Burch said. “At one point, the company that printed labels for us had trouble with the foil. The impression wasn’t as deep on some labels as others. The only person who caught that was Earl.”

Given the out-the-box success of Earl Stevens Selections, three wine styles doesn’t look to be enough. There’s already talk of expanding this line of wines in the near future, and maybe branch into other adult beverages.

E-40 credits Carlo Rossi for being his gateway wine, in both his appreciation of the beverage and its business.

“Carlo Rossi helped me get my own wine,” said Stevens. “I said, ‘Hey, let’s connect. I’m bringing a lot of business your way.’ I brought a new generation to it. Then, I had the opportunity to get my own wine. Red wine is my specialty.”