Tom Celani splits his time between Michigan and his winery in Napa Valley.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
Ardore is an Italian word that means heat, ardor, passion or fire. It’s the name of the wine produced at his Celani Family Vineyards in Napa Valley and the way entrepreneur and businessman Tom Celani tends to live his life.
In addition to the vineyard, Celani’s empire includes casinos, Motor City Harley-Davidson in Farmington Hills — the largest dealership in the Upper Midwest — and Michigan Lottery Amphitheatre, a 120-acre entertainment facility in Sterling Heights.
Celani grew up in the beer business. After WWII, his dad drove a truck for Anheuser-Busch and worked his way up. In 1966, a year before the civil unrest in Detroit, his father was granted the rights to a Hamm’s Beer distributorship located on 12th Street in Detroit. “Our warehouse was near where the riots started, but we survived OK,” Celani said. Then, in 1968, his father purchased a second Hamm’s distributorship in Garden City.
Hamm’s Beer happened to have another beer in its inventory — Miller High Life. “A year after the riots, Philip Morris bought Miller Brewing Company and the rest is history,” said Celani, who worked for his dad as a teen. He attended Central Michigan University on a baseball scholarship for one semester and returned home when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Instead of returning to college, he went to work for his father, who turned his beer distributorship into one of the biggest distributors of Miller Beer in the country. He and his father were named best in the country by Philip Morris 12 times.
In 1982, the elder Celani died of a heart attack, leaving 26-year-old Tom as the new president of the business. Leonard Goldstein, then-president of Miller and a longtime friend of his father’s, took him under his wing. “It’s only because of his friendship that I got through,” he said.
Over the next 10 years or so, Celani happened into several business opportunities, getting in on the ground floor of Native American gaming in the country. He was also among a group of people who spearheaded a 1996 referendum to legalize commercial casinos in Detroit, including Motor City Casino, which he has since sold. He currently owns a casino in Blackhawk, Colo., and runs two Native American casinos in Oklahoma and California.
Perhaps the most iconic casino he owned was the Cal-Neva in Lake Tahoe, once owned by Frank Sinatra. “There was a white line that ran up through the middle of the hotel separating the casino side — in Nevada — from the hotel side in California. Sinatra had built tunnels to his bungalow that ran from one state to the other, which ended up getting him in some trouble,” he said. “But my kids loved playing in those tunnels.”
Although he didn’t buy the casino directly from Sinatra (there was an owner in between), Celani still has the original crap tables, slot machines and artwork.
“There are two kinds of people,” Celani said. “Those who own a Harley-Davidson and those who want one. What other brand do you know of that people tattoo on their bodies?”
His wife, Vicki, bought him his first Harley in 1995, putting it under the Christmas tree. “He was a guy who had everything but a Harley, so I thought I would give him one,” she said.
Celani recalls that Christmas quite vividly. “All that bling and chrome! It was snowing outside, but I couldn’t wait to get on it,” he said.
A year later, an attorney Celani knew in Birmingham let him know about a unique opportunity. “He had a client who owned a Harley dealership in Westland who would soon be going away for murder. Harley wanted to take back the dealership. The lawyer told me that Harley headquarters were right next to Miller’s in Milwaukee.”
Celani called his mentor, who put in a call to the president of Harley and convinced him to make a deal. That was 19 years ago. Celani’s Motor City Harley is the oldest licensed dealership in Detroit — and it’s also how the Motor City Casino got its name. Celani’s casino partners conducted a half-million-dollar search for a name. “Then they asked me what the name of my dealership was. I said, ‘Motor City.’ They said, ‘OK. It’s the Motor City Casino.’”
He inherited his love of wine from his grandfather, who came to Detroit from Italy when he was a kid. “He worked at Ford, but his passion was making wine. We used to make two barrels of wine and one small barrel of vinegar every year.”
He credits two local wine experts for helping him to develop his palate and learn about wine: Eddie Jonna of Merchant of Vino and Syd Ross of Great Lakes Wine and Spirits. “We’ve drunk a lot of great wine together over the years,” Celani said.
Tom and Vicki built a small wine cellar in 1990 and began tasting wines from all over the world. They went to Italy every other year and, while Tom was busy developing Native American casinos in Northern California, he had plenty of chances to visit wineries in Napa Valley. “I began to think about owning my own winery,” he said. “Who doesn’t have a passion for food and wine?”
CELANI FAMILY VINEYARD
“On one of those trips to Napa, I started talking to real estate people. I knew if I asked Vicki, the answer would have been no, so I kept it a secret.”
Vicki adds, “It wasn’t that I was against getting into the wine business. I was against moving our three young teenagers at the time to Napa.”
After looking at a property five times, Celani decided to pull the trigger on a trip to a wine auction in Napa with his wife and five other couples. He suggested a ride out to the property.
“We pulled up at the house and the real estate lady was there with roses and champagne,” Vicki said.
The family found a way to make it work. At first, it was a challenge. “I had never started something from scratch before,” he said. “We didn’t have a winemaker. We didn’t have anyone to run the property. We didn’t have anyone to run the wine business.”
He started by finding a winemaker with a great reputation for making reds: Mark Herold, a scientist by training who has become “an artist with wine,” Celani said. “We just love him. In September, when it comes time to crush the grapes, he comes with a case of beer and a bottle of tequila. He says it takes beer and tequila to make great wine.”
Celani Family Vineyards is a boutique winery set on 20 acres at the base of the Vaca Mountain Range in Napa Valley that specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, a proprietary blend called Tenacious, and a Burgundian-style Chardonnay. All the glass used for its bottles comes from France. Its first vintage was produced in 2005.
The hard work each year starts around Labor Day and lasts until the last grape is picked in November, when the grapes go into the barrel. “We’re busy, but it’s not work,” Celani said. “It’s still a passion for us.”
For visitors, it’s great, Vicki said. “It’s a celebratory atmosphere. By sunset, we’re on our deck with a glass of wine getting to know our customers.”
Tom added, “We’ve collected for years and we’ve never forgotten where our passion came from — making connections with winery owners and winemakers who took a minute to make a connection with us.”
The winery produces 5,000 cases of wine annually. Celani brought his brand to Michigan first. “I wanted to build our roots where our roots are,” Celani said. Sixty percent of all of their brands are sold here. The rest of sales are sprinkled across the country or purchased directly from the winery.
The Celanis still have about 4,000 bottles of wine in their sprawling two-story cellar at their home in Bloomfield Hills and, although they drink a lot of their own wine, they’re still always tasting new wines. “We entertain a lot,” Vicki said. “What’s the good of having all this wine if you can’t share it?”
The Celani family history can be found on the label of Ardore wine.
“The word ‘Ardore’ is inscribed on our wedding bands. That’s where we came up with the name,” Tom Celani said.
The label is inspired by a cigar band to reflect his love of cigars. The Indian head coins commemorate being a pioneer of Indian gaming. “I’m a big Ferrari guy,” said Celani, who owns a Ferrari Enzo, “that’s why the prancing horses.
“The 12 diamonds represent my dad and I being the best in the country 12 times for Philip Morris. It’s my way of living up to his legacy of trying to be the best you can be.
“The most important part of the label is the ‘VOB,’ which are the initials of our children.”
The Celanis have three children: Vincenzo, 27, and Olivia, 25, who both live in California, and Benedetto, 23, who lives in Colorado.