Charles Woodson, whose 2009 Calistoga Cabernet earned outstanding marks in last week's California Tasting Highlights, owes at least part of his fascination with wine to the Oakland Raiders. The 1997 Heisman Trophy winner was drafted in the first round in 1998 by the Raiders, who hold their training camp in the city of Napa, gateway to the valley.
Staying in Napa for several weeks each year exposed the much-celebrated defensive star an opportunity to follow his curiosity about wine first hand. Everywhere he went, it seemed, people were drinking wine with their lunches and dinners, whether fancy affairs or casual picnics. He liked the casual pace and the fact that wine seemed to slow people down and bring them together.
He has had an illustrious career, being the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998 and NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, among many honors. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the 2010 Green Bay Packers, who he joined in 2005, returning to the Raiders this year. But he's also been a vintner for the past 10 years, adding his jersey number to his name to create TwentyFour by Charles Woodson.
One of his first contacts with the wine industry came in meeting Rick Ruiz, who worked at Robert Mondavi Winery, and later Gustavo Gonzalez, who also worked at Mondavi as a winemaker and makes wine under his Mira label. Today they are part of Woodson's winemaking team, making many of the key decisions.
Woodson came to Napa a Merlot fan and that was the first wine he made in 2001. But hanging out with Ruiz and Gonzalez and tasting other Napa wines led to discovering Cabernet, which is the focus at TwentyFour.
TwentyFour comes from a 7-acre Cabernet vineyard near Calistoga that Woodson leased and planted in 2001–02. He made his first Cabernet in 2005 from purchased grapes and his first vintage from the site near Castello di Amarosa a year later.
During a visit to Napa recently, Woodson presented all of his wines dating to the 2001 Merlot and the Cabernets from 2005 to 2009. All of the wines were exceptional. The 2001 Merlot is aging beautifully, with juicy, youthful berry and herb notes and soft tannins. The Cabernets are equally exceptional, well-crafted, pure and rich without being weighty or overly tannic. See all my reviews of the TwentyFour wines here.
The 2005 (the only one I haven't officially reviewed) is sleek and refined, with supple cherry and herb notes, ready to enjoy; the 2006 (90, $150) is a shade denser, rich in dark berry, mocha and black licorice, with firmer tannins and can stand cellaring; the 2007 (88, $150) is the biggest of the wines, with a muscular profile that will benefit from cellaring.
The 2008 (89, $150) shows a gutsy vibrancy to the core Cabernet flavors and is framed by firm tannins. The 2009 (90, $150) is the most complete, a function both of the vintage and vine maturity. It too is deep and concentrated, with dark fruits, licorice and pretty oak shadings.
He also makes a Sauvignon Blanc from his property. The 2011 (87, $20) features pure citrus and green fruits such as apple and melon.
Although he's new to wine and winespeak, Woodson, 36, knows what he likes and is able to articulate where he hopes to be someday. "Coming from college, you didn't sniff and swirl," he laughed.
The desire to compete and excel is one parallel between playing football and making wine. In both endeavors, said Woodson, you have to pay attention to all the details. Everything matters.
"Lots of things go into wine," he said, ticking off weather, insects, harvest challenges and rain, among others. "You have to be very in tune to try and get what you want."
In the end, it's about respect on the field and in the market. "I want to have that respect [with my wine]. We're a small operation [1,200 cases] and I want the production spoken for every year. I know we have quality, the right people with Gustavo and Rick working with wines. I want the wines to be worthy. Respect is what it's all about."
"The main thing is competition," he added. "Me being 36, I'm considered an old timer [in the NFL]." But he's a youngster more rookie than vet when it comes to wine.
More NFL players are drinking wine, Woodson said. "They order it in restaurants and they are more curious every year." Occasionally players will come up to him after a game and convey their appreciation for TwentyFour, the wine. But no one talks about wine while they're blocking and tackling. "You don't want to be too nice during the game," he laughed.
Woodson donates $10 of every bottle sold to the CS Mott Children's Hospital & Von Voightlander Women's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich.