By Rick VanSickle
The Friday, Sept. 11, 1981, front page of the Whitehorse Star screamed: “The ‘force’ is with them … Blues Brothers Yukon movie.” I can’t remember a larger headline for any story ever at the Star.
I was a young pup reporter at the paper, gobbling up any story my editor wanted to toss my way. So, after a composing room staffer, she who certainly knew her way around the party circuit in downtown Whitehorse, nonchalantly mentioned that she was doing shots with John Belushi in a dive bar the previous night and he was in town with his Blues Brother partner Dan Aykroyd, my ears perked up. Could this be true? It was a long shot at best.
Aykroyd and Belushi were hot in the 80s, real hot, and I immediately sprang into action. I left messages for both Hollywood stars at every hotel in Whitehorse. It wasn’t long before I received a call back.
“Line three, someone claims he’s Dan Aykroyd,” my editor shouted at me. “Hello?” “Hi, this is Dan.” Pause. “You know? Aykroyd from Hollywood. Meet me at the Capital bar at six.”
At the time I thought it was someone in the newsroom playing a prank on a rookie reporter. So, I called Universal Studios in L.A. and was put through to Aykroyd’s office where his secretary confirmed he was in Alaska and was returning any day now, which was close enough for me.
It WAS Aykroyd on the phone and I was going to meet Ellwood, the Canadian half of the Blues Brothers, at the Capital bar at six. I was nervous as hell. It was the biggest story of my life up to that point and I did not want to mess it up or I would be writing local curling roundups for the rest of my existence.
Photographer Vince Fedoroff (who still works at the Star all these decades later) and I waited patiently for Aykroyd at what was thought of at the time as, shall we say, not the classiest bar in town. A tall, blond-haired man walked by our table and certainly looked out of place in the Capital. “I think that’s him,” Fedoroff said. But blond hair? He doesn’t have blond hair?? I walked up to him and said, “Dan? It’s Rick from the Star.”
His hair was dyed blond because he had just finished the movie Neighbors starring him and Belushi about a quiet man’s peaceful suburban lifestyle that is threatened by the new, obnoxious couple that moves in next door. Coincidentally, another movie he starred in, 1941, was premiering in Whitehorse the very week he was there, but his motive for stealthily visiting the Yukon was “to specifically research a project about M division,” he told me, and not to attend the premier (which would have been very cool). “Yeah, you know? About Whitehorse, the sluicers, the hippies, the tourists passing through, driving the Dempster (Highway) in a Datsun, the law and what their role is in all of it, the native community … I think there is a great story here. Adventure, action, and it could have a lot of humour in it — and that’s my field primarily, and I want to write it to exploit all the humorous elements. To tell a nice, modern crime-adventure story based on two members of the force up here.” He wanted the movie to focus on the “force” (the RCMP), but far from the Sgt. Preston stereotype.
The interview veered into some rather strange territory after that, and I have provided a screen shot of the story here that was spread over three full pages (don’t have the third page for some reason). It got weirder as the “high test” beers (Carling Black Label Extra Old Stock, at nearly 6% abv) he was guzzling down (paid for by me!) kept on coming. We spent about two hours talking as the entire bar gawked when they finally realized the “Wild and Crazy Guy” from Saturday Night Live was among them. After a quick (and very cool) photoshoot outside the bar with Fedoroff, he was gone the next day and the story was rolled off the presses with Aykroyd front and centre.
His friend and partner, Belushi, died six months after his trip to the Yukon from a heroin overdose and we did not get to see or interview him for the story. He was in a bad way in 1981.
Fun Fact: After the story ran in the Whitehorse Star, I freelanced it to the Globe and Mail (clipping above), which appeared under the headline: “Dan goes north looking for gold in a comic vein.” Unfortunately, when my dad called me after reading the story in Toronto, he wondered why the Globe changed my name to RICK VonSICKLE. I had no answer, but they paid well, so never asked.
What does any of this have to with wine? I thought you would never ask. Let me explain.
I had several more interactions with Aykroyd in the years following. After the Whitehorse Star, my newspaper career took me to Timmins, Ontario, as the city editor and a year later to the Toronto Sun as a copy editor, beginning 20 years of work at three different Sun newspapers, including editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Sun and Sunday Editor of the Calgary Sun.
While in Toronto, Aykroyd owned a bar called Crooks. It was here that journalists from the Sun, Star and Globe would gather after deadline to enjoy lively discussion (also a near fist fight or two) and many beers into the wee hours. He was a frequent visitor to his bar and one of his many motorcycles was always on display. But it was at the Shark Club on Bloor Street where I would reconnect with Aykroyd most often. Of course, I recognized him, but I was surprised when he (sort of) recognized me after some prodding all those years removed from the Yukon. We chatted about that crazy interview in Whitehorse and why his Yukon movie just never got off the ground.
I like the man; he isn’t a Hollywood type. He’s grounded, genuinely interested in talking, and funny as hell. And he’s proudly Canadian.
Is there a wine part coming? Yes, hang on.
It was a huge deal when it was announced that Aykroyd was coming to Niagara to start his own wine label. He invested $1 million in Diamond Estates Wines and Spirits in 2006 and what seemed like a solid business arrangement took off. Diamond Estates was pursued by Aykroyd while searching for a Canadian distributor for Patron Tequila, a Mexican brand whose makers had recently partnered with him. He settled on Niagara Cellars Inc., which also owned Diamond Estates. The winery took Patron Tequila under its wing.
The wines under the Aykroyd name were well made at the time with a distinctive label showing him with a microphone, a nod to his blues background, rather than his acting chops. There was also a tonne of marketing behind the brand with frequent meet and greets with Aykroyd.
By 2006 I was working as the city editor for the St. Catharines Standard with a side gig as the wine columnist (that I also freelanced to various other newspapers). When I was invited to a Diamond event to interview Aykroyd, I thought, well that should be fun. We’re sort of friends, right?
He again recognized me (or so I tell myself) from all our other encounters, and we had a blast turning our attention to wine rather than making movies. He was absolutely a proud brand owner and adored his own wines in the beginning of the partnership. He appeared knowledgeable and engaged with the products, which at the time, consisted of different quality tiers right up to a reserve level. We had a congenial afternoon, despite the sweat inducing heat, of talking wine with a little Yukon sprinkled in.
Dan Aykroyd wines were gaining a lot of attention. They were starting to collect a bevy of wine awards and the Toronto media couldn’t get enough of him.
In an interview with Toronto Star wine writer, the late Gordon Stimmell, in June of 2007, Aykroyd dropped a bombshell. Not only was he rolling out a premium series of wines, including an $80 Vidal icewine (unheard of at the time) he was also planning a $12 million Aykroyd winery with a ground-breaking ceremony taking place in September of 2007 on a 10-hectare estate in Beamsville. It was slated to open sometime around harvest the following year, with full hospitality facilities. “The reason I really look forward to my winery opening is it is a great place for me to finally put all my entertainment memorabilia, which is now housed in five barns,” Aykroyd told Stimmell.
He went on to tell Stimmell that his wine dream went far beyond Ontario. “With Diamond Estates, I want to go around the world with globally sourced wines made in various countries for my Signature Series. But, for now, we are starting in Ontario. We want to take on Vincor (now Arterra Wines Canada),” he said.
The winery never did get built, and the higher tier wines eventually faded from the shelves.
I watched from the sidelines as the brand slowly devolved to the lower ranks of the Diamond portfolio as a mostly entry level brand, almost forgotten. The glitzy meet and greets with Aykroyd were no more. Today, I cannot find any Aykroyd products currently on the website or at LCBO stores, obviously purged from the annals of history after the tweet below, sent on Dec. 21.
“I have completely divested my shares in Diamond Estates Wineries to an undisclosed buyer. I am no longer a shareholder in or licensor to Diamond and should not be represented as such to prospective investors or interested parties,” he tweeted.
From Diamond Estate’s point of view, Andrew Howard, President and CEO of Diamond Estates Wines and Spirits Inc., told Wines in Niagara that despite a pretty good year with the brand “we have mutually decided to stop marketing and selling his wines as they were no longer listed in the LCBO and wine sales were slowing down quite a bit. The decision was in progress as I arrived at Diamond, so I don’t know all the background. Dan was a great partner with his wines — I know that from talking with others. I’d love the chance to have been around while the wines were rocking as I’ve been a huge fan of his.”
Celebrity wines are not new in Niagara or the world, for that matter. They come and go for various reasons. A lot of it is certainly based on the celebrity’s popularity, but more importantly, the quality of the wine matters.
In Niagara there have been many. Some have staying power, others do not. Remember Mike Weir Wines? That brand eventually had its own winery on the Beamsville Bench but went down in a blaze of glory. It’s now an unrelated winery called Locust Lane on the Beamsville Bench. Wayne Gretzky went through a few owners (and wineries) before settling and succeeding with the Peller family of wines, especially on the spirits side of the business.
There are the Cuddy wines at Tawse, Sass Jordan wines made at Vineland Estates, Tragically Hip wines at Stoney Ridge, O’Leary Wines from Vineland Estate, the new Andre De Grasse 19.62 wine from Pillitteri, Johnny Bower wines from Rosewood Estates, Guy Lafleur wines with consultants Peter Gamble and Ann Sperling, Rick’s Riesling from Vineland Estates (OK, haha, that’s a joke people!), and many more who have tried and succeeded, or they were a flash in the pan and never to be seen or heard from again.
The fact is, celebrity brands are successful only if the marketing is behind them, quality is sustained, and the celebrity’s popularity remains intact for the life of the brand. You can’t just stick it on a shelf and expect consumers to fill their baskets with your celebrity wines. The name might get you a sale or two, but they aren’t coming back if the wine sucks.
I adore Dan Aykroyd, he is central to one of my greatest journalist memories, but you can’t pay me enough money to drink his wines — or any celebrity wine — if the quality isn’t there. And that is the sad reality. The wines just weren’t that good in the end.
He still has his popular Crystal Head Vodka (represented in Ontario by Niagara owned FWM Wine, Beer, and Spirits). It’s crafted from locally sourced, Canadian corn and the brand has found success in the market. going strong. It is distilled four times into a neutral grain spirit and blended with pristine water from Newfoundland, Canada, or so the marketing bumph says.
We do not have to hold a tag day for Aykroyd, but damn, I hope I continue my journey of running into the dude, whether he thinks it’s creepy or not. He is part of my DNA (too far?); that interview with him at the Whitehorse Star gave me the biggest high I’ve ever had in 22 years of writing stories, and I was just getting started. And that’s no joke. Long may you run, Dan Aykroyd!
I did try, through a source who knows Aykroyd, to get in touch with him for this story. I guess we’re just not as close as I thought we were in my own mind.
To see a cool video of the various parts Aykroyd has played, go here.
Six of my favourite Dan Aykroyd movies
(Movie descriptions from GoldDerby)
Director: Ivan Reitman, Writers: Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis. Starring Bill Murrray, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver.
Originally slated as another vehicle for Aykroyd and Belushi, the film was postponed due to Belushi’s death. A few years later the film was made with another SNL alumni, Bill Murray, stepping in to fill Belushi’s shoes. The movie about a group of somewhat inept fighters of ghosts became the surprise comedy blockbuster of the summer of 1984 and spawned a sequel as well as a recent all female reboot.
THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)
Director: John Landis. Writers: John Landis, Dan Aykroyd. Starring John Belushi, Aretha Franklin, James Brown.
The Blues Brothers was the first of what became many Saturday Night Live characters who would be spun off into feature films. On SNL the characters were just basically an opportunity for Belushi and Aykroyd to perform blues songs. The film gave the characters a plot and back story. In the film Belushi has just been released from prison and he and his brother put their band back together to help save their childhood home from demolition.
DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)
Director: Bruce Beresford. Writer: Alfred Uhry. Starring Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Patti LuPone.
Aykroyd became the first male Saturday Night Live alumni to earn an Oscar nomination when he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the screen adaptation of this Pulitzer Prize winning play. The story of the friendship that forms between an elderly white woman (Jessica Tandy) and her black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) earned four Oscars including Best Picture. Aykroyd plays Miss Daisy’s son who hires the chauffeur for her which she is at first reluctant to accept.
SPIES LIKE US (1985)
Director: John Landis. Writers: Dan Aykroyd, Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel. Starring Chevy Chase, Donna Dixon, Bruce Davison.
Aykroyd reunited with fellow original “Not Ready for Prime Time Player” Chevy Chase for this comedy from director John Landis, who had directed him in The Blues Brothers. Chase and Aykroyd play two less than intelligent government employees who think they have been promoted to jobs as spies but in fact are really just being used as decoys so Russian nuclear bombs don’t find another actual set of more competent spies. Donna Dixon, Aykroyd’s wife also appears in the film.
THE CONEHEADS (1993)
Director: Steve Barron. Writers: Tom Davis, Dan Aykroyd, Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner. Starring Jane Curtin, Michael Richards, Adam Sandler.
One of Aykroyd’s most popular characters on Saturday Night Live was as the father of the Coneheads, an alien family with huge pointy heads who lived on earth. When asked wherever they were from, the family always lied and said that they were from France. Jane Curtin also recreated her role as the mother of the family but fellow SNL original cast member Laraine Newman, who played their daughter Connie, was replaced. The film was a bit late to the party being released in 1993, nearly 15 years after the characters were created, so box office receipts were less than stellar.
Director: John G. Avildsen. Writer: Larry Gelbart. Starring John Belushi, Kathryn Walker, Cathy Moriarty.
Neighbors was John Belushi’s final film before his untimely death at the age of 33 from a drug overdose. Belushi plays a strait-laced suburbanite who has trouble dealing with his raucous new neighbours played by Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty. The film disappointed audiences who were accustomed to seeing Belushi in more raucous roles like the one he played in “Animal House” though some critics praised him for trying to stretch as an actor and play against type.