This June and July, South Africa is hosting the world's most popular sporting event: the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, held every four years. The 2010 event will be staged in 10 stadiums, one of them in the heart of the country’s prime Western Cape wine regions. With an expected half-million visitors for the month-long tournament, and billions expected to see it on TV, South Africa’s wineries are hoping for a marked increase in interest in the Cape’s wines. Among those visitors will be the United States Soccer contingent, many of whom are already well-versed in the language of wine.
Because soccer (or “football” for the purists) is a global sport, its players travel to or work in many countries early in their careers, and these soccer hot-spots frequently happen to be major wine-producing nations. Among the nations with the most feared teams in this year’s World Cup, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina and the United States are all home to world-class wines. Even Brazil and England have burgeoning wine industries.
Two of the sport’s most important figures, Manchester United skipper Sir Alex Ferguson of England and the United States’ Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber are both wine connoisseurs. While most of the national team members will be otherwise occupied during their trip to South Africa, commissioner Garber hopes to find time to make a trip to a Cape vineyard or two. “I look forward to visiting South Africa’s restaurants and sampling the local wines and cuisine,” he said. (Following is a list of recommended South African wines Garber and other visitors to the country may want to try.)
Some of the United States’ most decorated soccer players—including 2010 World Cup team striker Landon Donovan—are also wine collectors or regular wine drinkers. Wine Spectator spoke with three of them to find out how they developed their appreciation for wine and what’s in their cellars.
Brian McBride: Tagging Along
Brian McBride played for the U.S. National team from 1993 to 2006, appearing in the World Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2006. He is currently a forward for Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire. He was introduced to wine by a training coach while he was a member of the Columbus Crew.
“I was doing strength and speed training [in the late ’90s] and it was a Friday, and the trainer invited me to join him at a wine bar, and I wasn’t into wine, but I tagged along,” McBride said. “The bottle we had was a Seaview Shiraz. I was like, ‘Wow, this is good; this is different.’” As McBride and his wife started learning about fine wine together and making it a regular part of family meals, his soccer career took them to England in 2004, where he joined Fulham of the English Premier League, arguably the world’s most competitive soccer league.
“Here I was, getting pretty comfortable with my knowledge of California Cabs, and then we moved to England, and I knew nothing about French wine, Italian wine, and then I got to experience that, which was pretty neat.” McBride said. He has also become a self-described foodie during his education in wine. “We also started enjoying some really nice restaurants in England. There are some unbelievable restaurants there; our favorite by far was NoBu in London.”
McBride started collecting wine while living in London, and his cellar has grown since returning stateside. “We’ve got over 600 bottles of wine. Right now it’s mostly California Cabs, but I’ve been getting into Syrahs like Saxum, James Berry Vineyards. We have birth-year Bordeauxs for my daughters.”
Josh Wolff: Time Spent in Germany
Forward Josh Wolff plays for the MLS’ Kansas City Wizards and has been a member of the U.S. National team since 1999, though he is not on the 2010 World Cup team roster. After playing three semesters for the University of South Carolina, Wolff joined the MLS’ Chicago Fire in 1998, and from 2006 to 2008 he played in the second division of Germany’s top soccer league, the Bundesliga, for 1860 Munich.
Like many of his fellow national team members, Wolff’s foray into wine appreciation has been a long but steady learning process. “In college you tinker with the alcohols, but wine is definitely what I prefer now,” said Wolff.”
“We have a decent amount of wine in our home in Atlanta, and we travel a lot so we try a lot of different wines, and that, I think more than anything, is how my exposure to it has grown and grown,” said Wolff. “There’s a decent amount of guys in soccer that dabble in [wine]. When I was in Germany for a few years, I knew another American, Ben Olsen [U.S. National team from 1998–2007], who also knows wine, and that’s where I picked up a bit more. Obviously Riesling is really big there, and my wife enjoyed those wines.”
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Ben and I always joked—we had had Cakebread 2002 ages and ages ago and loved it—and when we would go out for national team dinners, we always looked for Cakebread.”
Landon Donovan: Turned on by Opus One
Landon Donovan is perhaps the most celebrated member of the 2010 World Cup U.S. squad, and has been a member of the team since 2000. Donovan first played in Germany at age 17, in the Bundesliga’s first division for Bayer Leverkusen. In 2009 he played for FC Bayern Munich, and this year spent time with the English Premier League’s Everton before being called back to the MLS’ Los Angeles Galaxy, for which he has played forward since 2005. He is the all-time leader in both goals and assists for the U.S. National team.
Thrown into international competition as a teenager, Donovan was perhaps introduced to wine too soon. “My first wine experience was not the best,” Donovan said. “I was coming home from Argentina and had a little too much wine on the plane, got sick, had to make a connection, and that was not a good day for me,” Donovan said. “I told myself I was never going to drink wine again.”
His appreciation for the grape would come later. “Cut to my first real wine experience, which happened before I came to the Galaxy. It happened in a meeting with Tim Leiweke, who is the owner of the team,” Donovan recalled. “We met at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina Del Ray about a contract, and Tim is a big Opus One fan, and he kind of turned me on to wine that night, because I never realized how good it could be.”
“When I first went to Germany, I was removed from [wine], because I’d never had alcohol at that point. Getting there and meeting kids my age [when I was 17] was interesting because in America alcohol is so taboo, but in those European cultures, even with the kids, they’re not out getting wasted; there’s not a big mystery to it like there is here,” Donovan said. “But when I went back to Germany [in 2009], Munich is such a great city, and there’s so many great restaurants. It was a lot of fun to appreciate that.”
“When we go out as a team, more often than not it’s a steak house, and bottles of Jordan and Cakebread are big favorites with all of us,” Donovan said, echoing Wolff’s anecdote.
For the spectators and tourists heading to South Africa this month and next, as well as those watching at home who want to get into the Cape spirit, here's a selection of wines that make a good introduction to the region's top producers and signature varieties.