Orson Welles Paul Masson advertisements

Orson Welles acted in a series of advertisements for Paul Masson California wine from 1978 to 1981, best known for their slogan "We will sell no wine before its time", becoming a much-parodied cultural trope of the late twentieth century.[1] Years later, the commercials regained notoriety when a bootleg recording of out-takes was distributed, showing a clearly inebriated Welles on the set of one of the commercials.[2]


In 1978, Paul Masson's California wines hired actor-director Orson Welles to make a commercial for their "Emerald Dry" white table wine. Although Paul Masson's winery had been producing California wines since 1892, they had long catered to the lower end of the wine market, and this commercial was part of a concerted effort by the company to rebrand itself as a higher-end wine producer, tying in with a period of diversification, when they were seeking to expand from the sparkling wines which had first brought them success, and to sell more of their other wine ranges, including chablis, burgundy, riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, port and sherry. As the New York Times noted in 1990, Paul Masson's long-term problem remained the same: "While many consumers know them - who can forget Orson Welles's breathy incantation of 'We will sell no wine before its time' for Masson - they lack cachet."[3] After the success of the initial commercial, Welles was signed to a Paul Masson contract worth $500,000 a year plus residuals, making further ads for the brand on television and in print, which continued for three years until his sacking by the company in 1981.[4]:225 Despite Welles's poor behaviour on set, Paul Masson was described as "a very happy client", with sales of their wine reportedly rising by 30% during the Welles advertising campaign.[5]

By this stage in his career, Welles found it nearly impossible to obtain work as a director (his last directorial credit to be released in his lifetime was a TV movie for West German television, which aired in 1978); and from the mid-1970s onwards, his only acting credits were cameo appearances, mostly in low-budget fare. Accordingly, he was heavily dependent for his income on a series of ads, for products of variable quality. These included Carlsberg beer,[6] Domecq sherry,[7] Sandeman's port (playing the "Sandeman Don" in a TV advertisement),[8]:175 Jim Beam bourbon whisky,[6] Nikka Japanese G&G whisky,[9] Perrier mineral water,[10] Nashua photocopiers,[11] Vivitar instant cameras,[12] Preview pay-per-view television,[13] the board game Dark Tower,[14] Eastern Air Lines,[15] Texaco,[4]:225 Post's Shredded Wheat,[4]:225, Hayden Flour Mills,[16] Lone Star Cement,[16] and perhaps most infamously, Findus frozen foods.[17] Although Welles had made ads for his entire career, beginning when he was a well-known radio actor in the 1930s, by the late 1970s these had become his staple, and he was often (anonymously) directing them as well. John Annarino, the advertising executive handling the Paul Masson account at the time, remembered that Welles, "was eager for almost any kind of work in the early 1980s, hoping to complete a film that was languishing in some European vault (The Other Side of the Wind)."[5] Welles was often highly dismissive of the work, pointing out that he tended to be hired "to give a little class" to such productions.[4]:227

Offscreen, Welles was noticeably dismissive about the Paul Masson commercials' often-pretentious claims to high culture. When asked during shooting to liken a Paul Masson wine to a violin by Stradivarius, he complained “Come on, gentlemen, now really! You have a nice, pleasant little cheap wine here. You haven't gotten the presumption to compare it to a Stradivarius violin. It's odious."[18]:222 He also once complained to his regular lunching companion, the director Henry Jaglom, “I have never seen more seedier, about-to-be-fired sad sacks than were responsible for those Paul Masson ads. The agency hated me because I kept trying to improve their copy.”[6] The advertising agency which made the ads was DDB Needham, and the executive who handled the Paul Masson account was John Annarino, who responded to the 2013 publication of Welles transcripts describing the commercials by sharing his own reminiscences with his local paper, The Desert Sun, and recalling of the experience, "It was no picnic."[19]

Cast and Crew



Ad synopses

1978 - Original ad - Beethoven, Emerald Dry

The first Paul Masson ad had Welles listening to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a record player, and remarking,

"It took Beethoven four years to write that symphony. Some things can't be rushed: good music, and good wine. Paul Masson's Emerald Dry, a delicious white wine. Paul Masson's wines taste so good because they're made with such care. What Paul Masson himself said nearly a century ago is still true today: We will sell no wine before its time."[21]

John Annarino recalls that Welles could be difficult on set,[5] and the first ad was no exception:

"Filming the first commercial was a near disaster. When our director said, “Action!” there wasn’t any. Only a lengthy silence which Orson finally broke by saying, “Don’t say ‘Action.’ Don’t say anything.” While we mulled this over, our director, hired for his wit as well as his talent, wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to Orson, who read it and smiled. The director had written the word “Action”!"[19]

A brief out-take survives from the first advert, of Welles scowling upon being told, "Action!", holding his hand up and saying, "Do you mind not saying 'Action'?"[22]

Subsequent adverts

1978 - Dressing room, Rhine Castle

The second ad showed Welles with a bottle of 'Rhine Castle' riesling in a theatre dressing room, in theatrical costume and makeup, telling the camera:

"A great deal of time and care go into the production of a fine play, just as they go into the making of a fine wine. Paul Masson's 'Rhine Castle' - the taste is smooth, flavourful, delicious. Paul Masson's wines taste so good because they're made with such care. What Paul Masson himself said nearly a century ago is still true today: We will sell no wine before its time."[23]

The setting of a theatre was a somewhat incongruous one - at the time of shooting, Welles had neither acted in nor directed any plays for 19 years. Annarino remembers filming the advert:

"The second commercial had Orson seated at a makeup table in his dressing room wearing a large caftan. Underneath the caftan he wore his big black jacket. I mentioned the jacket wouldn’t show in the commercial so maybe he’d be more comfortable without it. “Oh, no,” said Orson. “It makes me look bigger.” It sure did."[19]

1978 - House party, "Champagne"

This showed Welles hosting a party, supposedly in his home, with background piano accompaniment, telling the camera,

"I like to cast a party the way I cast a play, with very special people, and the champagne must be equally special. Paul Masson: a premium Californian champagne of impeccable taste. Paul Masson wines taste so good because they're made with such care. Old Paul Masson himself said it nearly a century ago: We will sell no wine before its time."[24]

It was during the filming of this ad that Welles complained about the extras hired for the scene. Welles's biographer Barbara Leaming describes the occasion:

"Who the hell are these people?" Orson asked the director.
"They're at a party," the director responded.
"A party at my house?" Orson asked, as the admiring actors marvelled at his presence.
"I wouldn't have these people at a party at my house," Orson told the director. "These people look like a party Robert Young would have!"[25]

1979 - Gone With the Wind, Emerald Dry

Reading a copy of Gone With the Wind at a table in the garden of his real-life house at 1717 North Stanley Avenue, off Hollywood Boulevard, Welles told us that,

"Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone With the Wind in 1926, and she finished it ten years later. The writing of a great book, or the making of a fine wine, takes time. Paul Masson's Emerald Dry, a delightful white wine. Paul Masson wines taste so good, because they're made with such care. What was true nearly a century ago is still true today: Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."[26]

This ad was reportedly a last-minute improvisation by Welles after he dismissed the original script he was given, which compared Paul Masson wine to a Stradivarius violin.[18]:222

1980 - "French" "Champagne"

In what inadvertently became the most famous Paul Masson ad due to the leaked out-takes (see below), Welles was found sitting at a drinks party with two unnamed young people, announcing,

"The taste of French champagne has always been celebrated for its excellence. There's a California champagne by Paul Masson, inspired by that same French excellence. It's fermented in the bottle, and like the best French champagne, it's vintage dated. Paul Masson's superb taste shouldn't be too surprising: This champagne may not come from France - but it was created by a man who did: Paul Masson. Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."[27]

Welles's drunken inability to get through this script without severely slurring his speech, visibly swaying as he propped himself up at the table, formed the basis of the out-takes.[2]

1980 - Chateau Tasting Party, Chablis

This had Welles seated in the gardens in front of the portal of Paul Masson's chateau (the entrance to an eighteenth century Spanish church, imported to California), surrounded by young people:

"I'm here at Paul Masson's Chateau in California. Almost every night here there's a wine-tasting party. One of the favourites is Paul Masson Chablis. It's light and crisp, it's delicious. The wine you drink the most should be the best. And they take special care with it here, because they know Chablis is America's most popular wine. Paul Masson Chablis: I recommend it. Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."[28]

1980 - Barbecue, Burgundy

The last time Welles appeared in a television ad in the series, this one had Welles seated at a barbecue, surrounded by young people:

"In my family, we think the wine you drink the most should be the best. We like Paul Masson's Burgundy. It's smooth and rich. We serve it to our friends, and now a lot of them are serving it to their friends. Why don't you join us? Next time you go shopping, you're choosing a wine, make it Paul Masson Burgundy. Paul Masson himself said it nearly a century ago: We will sell no wine before its time."[29]

1981 - Europeans, Carafe

Welles simply provided the voiceover for his last Paul Masson television ad - he did not appear in person. The ad sought to promote a range of Paul Masson wines, focussing on the distinctive "carafe"-shaped bottle they came in, complete with jam-jar top, and portrayed various European families drinking wine with meals. The voiceover stated:

"When Europeans get together with friends, they serve their wine in a carafe. Thanks to Paul Masson, we can enjoy this same tradition. Paul Masson's convenient carafe, sealed fresh at the winery. To capture each wine's delicious flavour, whether it's Paul Masson's delicate, crisp Chablis, rich, mellow Burgundy, or delightful Rosé, the Paul Masson carafe: The time has come for this great way to serve a great wine."[30]

This was the only Paul Masson television ad Welles did in which he did not say the phrase "will sell no wine before its time" - although a caption at the end does repeat this motto.

1980-1981 - Print ads, Pinot Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon

The last of Welles's adverts for Paul Masson were two print adverts featuring the director smiling over a glass and a bottle, released to tie in with the television adverts; one for Pinot Chardonnay, the other for Cabernet Sauvignon.

"Experts will tell you they drink Paul Masson Pinot Chardonnay because of its full varietal aroma, brilliant color and long pleasant finish. What they mean is...it tastes good. Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."


"Experts say Paul Masson Cabernet Sauvignon is a mature, complex wine, with nice wood. What they mean is...it tastes good. Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time."


Drunken out-takes

The best-known series of out-takes consists of three takes for the "French champagne" advert. In the first, an off-screen voice yells "Action", but Welles does not react for eight full seconds. "Action Orson, please", the offscreen voice says after a pause. "He doesn't do anything?", asks Welles, referring to actor holding the champagne bottle, seemingly unaware he was intended to act first.[2]

The second and third takes consist of Welles beginning his monologue with a heavily slurred, "Mwaaaah, the French! Champagne has always been celebrated for its excellence. There is a California champagne by Paul Masson, inspired by that same French excellence. It's fermented in the bottle, and like the best French champagnes, it's vintage-dated, so Paul Masson's superb...", before being interrupted by an offscreen voice shouting "Cut!" Throughout the takes, Welles appears to be having trouble remaining upright, clearly propping himself up on the table while tapping his fingers impatiently, and several of the extras are visibly having difficulty in not laughing.[2]

As part of his Paul Masson contract, Welles was given elaborate lunches prior to filming in the afternoon. John Annarino, the DDB Needham advertising executive handling the Paul Masson account, recalled that at these pre-shoot lunches, "Welles found it "barbaric" not to begin a meal with soup",[5] and noted of Welles's lunchtime drinking, "Orson liked Paul Masson’s cabernet. He often called the ad agency and instructed, “Send more red.” The agency sent more red."[19] It has been speculated that this is what may have led to his state during the recording session.

The final advert aired managed to avoid embarrassment about Welles's state, by using a combination of retakes (a close-up of Welles holding a champagne flute), cuts away from Welles to close-ups of the wine bottle, and some (not entirely synchronised) dubbing made by Welles later, when he was in a more sober state, over some of the footage shot when he was inebriated. Jim Hallowes, the director of the advert, observed on his personal website in 2009 that it was a "challenge...in dealing with a quite different side of Mr. Welles."[31]

For decades, the clip was only available in blurry, faded Nth-generation duplicate copies circulated on VHS cassette. In recent years, high-quality versions can easily be found on YouTube.[2]

Beethoven out-takes

In addition to the well-known drunken out-takes, other out-takes from the first Paul Masson advert have circulated. These consist of two short takes. In the first, Welles begins saying, ""It took Beethoven four years to write that symphony", and starts to pour himself a glass of wine, before frowning at the bottle in his hand, and complaining to the director, "It's very hard for me to grab it, you've greased it. I'd better not hold it."[22]

In the second out-take, the offscreen director shouts "Action!", only for Welles to scowl disapprovingly and hold up his hand at him, saying, "Do you mind not saying 'Action'?"[22]

End of the campaign

Welles was fired from the ad campaign in 1981. Ostensibly, the reason he was given was that the company wished to promote a new range of "light-bodied summer wines", and it was felt that the slimmer Sir John Gielgud was a more appropriate choice of spokesman than the morbidly obese Welles.[32] However, the wine Gielgud ended up advertising was not a "new" wine, but the same Chablis which Welles had already been advertising.[33] Several Welles biographers have pointed to his unguarded comments on a TV chat show as the reason for his firing - specifically, when asked about the Paul Masson adverts, he mentioned that he was now dieting, and that he no longer drank wine.[4]:225[6]

Critical perception

Film critic Joseph McBride argues that the adverts became synonymous with the perception of Welles as a recluse and a failure in his later years: "The commercial catchphrase ['We will sell no wine before its time'] became a joke, and a signature line for Welles himself, helping to define his personality in the media as that of a hedonist who preferred to dawdle over his vineyard interminably, releasing the fruits of his labor only rarely, if ever."[4]:9

In the years since the adverts aired, their popularity has further grown as they have been the target of various spoofs and pastiches.

Even as the adverts were airing, they were subjected to parody - Steve Martin's 1980 TV special All Commercials... A Steve Martin Special, features Martin inducting Welles into the "Commercial Hall of Fame" for his three great works: "Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, [and] Serve No Wine Before Its Time", and introducing a spoof beer advert in which Welles (played by John Candy) breaks down a wall for his entrance.[34]

The 1990s cartoon series The Critic featured assorted parody adverts by Welles (or sometimes the ghost of Welles), voiced by Maurice LaMarche, in the style of the Paul Masson adverts. For instance, one advert for "Blotto Bros Wine" has Welles telling the viewer, "A rich, full-bodied wine, sensibly priced at a dollar a jug. And now for a little magic, I shall make this jug disappear", before promptly drinking the entire contents of the bottle in one swig.[35]

The drunken Paul Masson out-take has also been a recurring target for YouTube pastiches in recent years, including spoofs by The Midnight Show and others.[36][37][38]


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  38. See for example:
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