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Bourbon Legend

How Melinda Morris Zanoni helped bring an Ava Gardner signature drink line to life

Published in 2022 North Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine

When Melinda Morris Zanoni’s celebrity clients are dealing with a crazed stalker, a leak of unauthorized nude photos or a tweet-gone-bad, her advice to them is always the same: “Do not react emotionally on social media,” she says. “Be thoughtful, because you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.” And the big one: Listen to your lawyer. “That one doesn’t always go down so easy,” she says.

When Zanoni founded Apollo Sports & Entertainment Law Group a decade ago, she wanted something different than the traditional “top-down, wait-your-turn” law firm where she had started her career, and where she was often the only woman in the boardroom. That’s why Apollo is minority- and women-owned, Zanoni says.

“I love the pace at which we have to multitask,” she says of her small firm. “I love that we are a female-owned law firm that is drama-free. Every day we find something to laugh about, like the absurdity of our Google searches all in the name of working with professional athletes and celebrities.”

The firm has closed deals for media companies, sports leagues (including the American Cornhole League), iconic musicians (like the estate of Juan Gabriel), Broadway stars, professional athletes (including a deal for a Novant Health commercial with Michael Jordan) and the Charlotte Checkers. 

But in the age of COVID, Zanoni’s work has seen an uptick in “digital activations,” which are COVID-friendly events or experiences where fans can interact with celebrities online in lieu of in-person.

“Let’s say Topgolf partnered with a quarterback for the Panthers to sign autographs live at Topgolf, and thousands of fans would have come, then we would negotiate the appearance terms based off those numbers,” says Zanoni of a traditional deal.

But digital activations work a little different, with more creative room for negotiation, she says. 

“Topgolf and the quarterback might agree to do a meet-and-greet with fans over Zoom, or promotional services on the athlete’s Instagram account and other platforms by posting something like, ‘In my free time I swing at Topgolf, maybe you’ll see me there,’” Zanoni says. “They could also upload a Topgolf-related video on YouTube. These sort of digital campaigns entail negotiating the digital content rights and use, and would be a licensing and endorsement deal that is COVID-friendly.”

She also notes that this negotiation would include how long a post must remain on a celeb’s feed: Twenty-four hours as an Instagram story? One week? One month? 

Even in a pandemic, though, the entertainment industry didn’t stop—there were still non-digital deals to be made, like the one she secured for the estate of legendary actress Ava Gardner. In 2020 and 2021, Zanoni’s team oversaw two launches for the late Hollywood icon’s estate, from conception to release. The first was a limited-edition Ava Gardner Select Bourbon Whiskey and the second was the Ava Gardner Signature Wine Collection.

“We sat around and said, ‘OK. Frank Sinatra has a whiskey, but what can we do for this estate client that’s really cool?’ Some female icons have their own wine or champagne, but it’s very unique for a screen siren to have her own whiskey label.

“So we concepted it then we storyboarded it: What we wanted it to look like, how we wanted it to play out. And then we went out and found the distillery and said, ‘Why don’t you partner with this estate?’ They were all in because their parents were huge fans of Ava Gardner.”

The partner distillery, Charlotte’s Seven Jars Distillery, opened sales on 3,600 bottles of bourbon in October 2020, each packaged in a box with an iconic image of Gardner as Kitty Collins in the 1946 noir The Killers. A few months later, in January 2021, the bourbon was awarded a gold medal from The Fifty Best, a spirit-rating guide.

“Seven Jars Distillery and Ava Thompson—Ava Gardner’s niece—are amazing to work with and involved us every step of the way, including in the creative process,” Zanoni says. “We spent a lot of time obtaining the photo rights from Universal Studios and helped design the whiskey label to include Ava’s actual signature. We were also involved in the app design and crafting Ava’s story.”

Zanoni and her team also worked with the distillery to figure out proof, pricing and distribution. “We learned the entire process of how whiskey is made, so I now have new vocabulary words like ‘mashing,’ ‘malting,’ and ‘fermentation,’” she says. “We practiced bottling and corking, and, of course, got to sample the product. I’m intellectually curious by nature, and I really need to learn something every day: I learned how whiskey is made. How cool is that?”

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