Wine Scores a Touchdown

15 NFL teams are fielding official wines, while a few pros have launched their own labels

Wine Scores a Touchdown
It's been a breakthrough season for NFL teams and players getting into the wine game. (Jeff Harris)
From the Feb 29, 2020, issue

The 2019–2020 season of the National Football League is treating fans to a once-unlikely match-up: wine and pigskin. More teams than ever have announced official wine partnerships, bringing winter-friendly Cabernets and victory sparklers to stadiums and living rooms.

In late October, the NFL itself followed suit, announcing the league’s first official wine. Players across the league are discovering wine and flaunting their bona fides, from Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s sommelier stylings to Vikings rookie linebacker Cameron Smith, who interned at Melville Winery in Lompoc, Calif., between summer workouts as a student at the University of Southern California.

And then there are the veterans. Quarterback-turned–general manager John Elway, quarterback Drew Bledsoe and defensive ace Charles Woodson, as well as former coach Dick Vermeil and late owner Lamar Hunt, who founded the American Football League, are just a few of the pros who have led the way, launching wineries that produce increasingly ambitious bottlings.

Read our full web-exclusive interviews with NFL winemakers!

These gridiron pros have partnered with all-star winemakers, sourcing grapes from elite vineyards or buying land and making the wines themselves. Former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and Damon Huard are a prime example: They bonded over bottles of Washington wine and decided to start making their own with the 2012 vintage, calling the venture Passing Time. It would not be some vanity project: They brought Avennia winemaker Chris Peterson on board, and all three of their 2016 Cabernets have earned outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. “Go deep or go home,” Marino says. “With wine and football, or whatever it may be in life, it’s about having passion for it.”

Longtime safety Terry Hoage is another who’s taken as naturally to the vineyard as to the stadium turf. After retiring from the Arizona Cardinals, Hoage moved to Paso Robles and met Justin Smith of Saxum, who first coached him in the wine business. Hoage and his wife, Jennifer, purchased a vineyard in 2002 and planted more vines themselves. Today, they make their wines. TH Estate Wines now encompasses 26 acres of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and a few white Rhône varieties. “Wine is a very forgiving medium,” Hoage reflects—at least compared with scrambling in front of tens of thousands of fired-up fans. “If you screw up coverage, people know. But if you did something in a wine that was slightly different, people don’t necessarily know, or they might like it.” In 2016, Jennifer Hoage added a Pinot Noir–focused label, Decroux.

Rick Mirer’s taste for wine developed while he was still in the league and training in Napa Valley with the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. After gaining some entrepreneurial know-how from the NFL’s Business Management & Entrepreneurial Program, Mirer brought his signal-calling to wine country and found the exercise of running a winery strikingly similar to quarterbacking. “This is a very competitive industry,” Mirer says. “My role every day requires leadership, communication and decision-making.” His Mirror Napa Valley specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

“When we launched our 7Cellars wine company, we wanted to surround ourselves with the greatest components we could to ensure success,” says Broncos legend under center John Elway. Elway recruited Robert Mondavi Jr. as winemaker, making Cabernet from grapes grown in Napa’s Rutherford AVA.

Among the management ranks, Super Bowl–winning coach Vermeil, John Kent Cooke, former president of the Washington Redskins, and Carmen Policy, former president of the 49ers, have found parallels in training vines and players. What started as a hobby turned into a full-fledged business for Vermeil. The same grapes his grandfather once picked from Napa’s Frediani vineyards for homemade wine are still used today to make Vermeil’s flagship Cabs, but he sources fruit from other esteemed spots, like Dutton Ranch, as well. “It’s just like having a great football team,” Vermeil says. “You’d better have a quarterback, and Thomas Rivers Brown is the Tom Brady of Napa Valley!”

Though Tom Brady can only play for one team at a time, champion consulting winemaker Brown also advises Policy on his Casa Piena Napa project. Cooke, for his part, drafted consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt for Boxwood Estate Winery in Middleburg, Va., where Cooke has 26 acres of Bordeaux varieties under vine. “Making a superb wine is just as difficult as winning the Super Bowl every year,” Cooke says.

Until recently, the greater challenge seemed to be attracting football fans to wine, but that is changing. “Wine has become more popular to fans across the country, and it’s fun to see the evolution,” Mirer enthuses; his wines are served at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., home to the Niners, where team co-chairman John York has built a unique wine-tasting program called Appellation 49. In York’s recollection, Margaret Duckhorn, former owner of Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa, told him, “John, all the vintners are 49ers fans. You should start having somebody down at every game, and start to have them pour wine in your suite.” So he does: six California winemakers in the suites at every game.

It is not the only stadium with a robust wine list. As of this season, 15 teams have “official” wines, with many available to enjoy at games. “We do see an increasing overlap between football fans and wine fans,” Jaymie Schoenberg, vice president of marketing for Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, says, explaining the company’s decision to launch a series of 375ml cans with a gridiron theme in partnership with the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams in 2019. “We see a lot of synergies between football and wine-drinking occasions—whether at the stadium, at a bar or at home.” (In a different league, Rams owner Stan Kroenke also owns cult Napa property Screaming Eagle.) The Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and 49ers all announced wine partnerships in 2018 or 2019 as well.

The blitz for team wines follows a recent relaxation in the NFL’s rules surrounding beverage advertising and sales. In 2017, Yellow Tail aired a commercial during the Super Bowl (featuring an animatronic kangaroo, naturally), the first such wine ad during the big game in three decades. In 2019, the league also loosened rules that had restricted how wines and teams could co-brand.

The logical end for this drive? An official wine sponsor for the NFL itself, announced midseason. Coming to 12 stadiums, the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl, the Wine of Football is … a canned fizzy rosé called Babe Wine. An unexpected contender for the trophy—until one considers that Anheuser-Busch acquired the brand last year. Babe kicked off the partnership with a video of social media personality Kayla Nicole, in full pads, paint and helmet, dismissing an overly rhapsodic sommelier with a hard, shoulder-forward side tackle. “Babe: how football does wine,” she proclaims.

But it turns out there are many playbooks. Look for the roster of football-adjacent wines to expand with additional talent in the seasons to come.


Two former Dolphins forged a brotherly relationship and founded Passing Time in Washington

Toward the tail end of Dan Marino’s Hall of Fame career, the Miami Dolphins quarterback got a new backup, Damon Huard. A mentor-mentee relationship on the field soon became a friendship in wine: After games, the two would retire to Marino’s Miami home to watch movies and dive into the veteran QB’s 5,000-bottle collection. “I had a fun time robbing Dan’s cellar,” Huard jokes. After both finished their NFL careers, they decided to go pro, founding Passing Time, a Cabernet-focused winery in Washington, with the 2012 vintage. The name evokes “that football theme, along with family and friends drinking wine,” explains Marino. With Avennia winemaker Chris Peterson consulting, the wines have quickly gained attention, regularly notching ratings of 90-plus points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale.

Wine Spectator: How did you two come to love Washington wines?
Dan Marino:
Damon came in as a rookie, and he was terrific to me as far as helping me as a quarterback. As we started to go out and have team dinners, I started trying to turn him on to Washington wines because he was drinking beer, rum and Cokes, and I was like, “You have great red wine from where you grew up!” I was surprised he hadn’t tried the wines. Damon ended up coming over to my house for dinner and other things, and I would break out some Col Solare, DeLille and Andrew Will. I told Damon, “You got to try these wines,” and I got him hooked. As time went on, we talked about maybe creating a winery someday in Washington.

WS: Did other teammates drink wine as well during your playing years?
Damon Huard:
I think most of the guys on the team were drinking Hennessy in Miami, if I remember. Danny and I were into the fine wine! We were good boys. But it’s funny because back then, it wasn’t as big a deal. There would be beer at the pregame dinners the night before games. Could you imagine that in this day and age?

WS: How would you say your personal relationship has helped make Passing Time a success?
We both grew up the same way as far as playing athletics, being family people and being competitive. You want the best, and if you’re going to do it, you do it the right way every day. That’s the one thing we have in common, along with Chris Peterson.

DH: I was the oldest of three boys, so Dan was like a big brother to me that I never had. So I always have had so much respect for him. This has been a cool project because although we live far apart we can build a brand together and compete.

WS: What’s one thing you learned on the field that’s essential in the winemaking business?
Go deep or go home. With wine and football, or whatever it may be in life, it’s about having passion for it. I have passion for football still to this day, and I have passion for what we’re doing with our wine at Passing Time.

DH: I would say that the competitive side is great, but I think what made the best teams that I’ve played on is relationships. At the beginning, I don’t think I understood the moving parts in the wine business and all these neat people I met over time, the barrel reps, the farmers. Much like in football, it’s about those relationships and those teams that were close and got along and made it work. Those were the teams that won.


The defensive veteran’s Intercept and Charles Woodson Wines span California AVAs

Oakland Raiders and Green Bay Packers jack-of-all-plays Charles Woodson caught attention as a football talent early, in his high school years, but he also started making wine young. The nine-time Pro Bowler fell in love with Napa Valley’s wine scene when he was in training camp there, and in 2001, at 25, he tackled his first barrel, a Merlot, with a winemaker friend at Robert Mondavi. In 2005, he went commercial with TwentyFour, a high-end label focused on Cabernet from near Calistoga, later called Charles Woodson Wines. Tasting Room24 in Napa, which Woodson describes as a “wine sports bar,” followed. “Drinking wine at a football game, now it’s an accepted thing to do, and I think that’s awesome,” he says. Woodson retired from the NFL in 2015, and in 2019, he launched Intercept, a collection of Paso Robles and Monterey wines comprising Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a red blend, in partnership with O’Neill Vintners, sold at a more tailgate-friendly price of $20 per bottle.

Wine Spectator: What were some of your early wine experiences with the Raiders?
Charles Woodson:
Early on, it was Robert Mondavi. That’s the first one that I can really remember going to, touring a little bit, seeing the barrel storage rooms, walking around the vineyards. I think as my career kind of went along, more and more players that I knew started to get into wine. Rick Mirer was really into wine, so I remember times when we would be traveling back and forth to games—this was before they had all the bans on having alcohol on the team planes—we would bring bottles of wine and we would all break bread together.

WS: What have you learned since you started making your own wines?
From a business standpoint, a lot of people don’t go into it with their eyes wide open, everything that goes into having your own label. As a young guy getting into that business, you kind of got to learn things the hard way. All the little details about the storage and the barrels, all of the little intricate details that go into it—it can be overwhelming. My initial label was a high-end wine. I could only cater to a certain person for the most part. With O’Neill, we can offer more varieties that are affordable to my fans and to people who love wine. ...

[The NFL had] a rule where you couldn’t promote an alcoholic product. My pushback was that I wasn’t promoting someone’s brand out there. This is actually my business. How do you stop me from entering into a business? 

WS: What would you say you need to understand to succeed in both football and wine?
There are similarities as far as the product that you get. When you watch the game on Sundays, you see the end product of the time that I put in the week before, maybe the summer before. There’s a lot that goes into that actual Sunday. You talk about wine, you go into the store, you buy a bottle of wine, you go home, you open it, you drink it, and you’re satisfied with what you’re getting. You just see the end product, but you don’t necessarily know what had to go into it to be that way. The weather had to be ideal, can’t have any problems with fog or insects. So there are a lot of different pitfalls that can get in your way. Just like athletics: You could bruise your hip, there’s a lot of things that can happen, but you’ve still got to pull through on Sundays.


The QB marshals Washington and Oregon with Doubleback, Bledsoe Family and Bledsoe-McDaniels

While Drew Bledsoe has been making winning wines for over a decade, his past few seasons have been championship-level by any standard. After the four-time Pro Bowl New England Patriots quarterback retired in 2007, he founded Doubleback in Walla Walla, Wash., near where he grew up. What began as a single Cabernet purchased from sourced fruit has grown into a company with four estate vineyards planted to nearly 60 acres, a svelte 14,000-square-foot gravity-flow winery completed in 2018, a tasting room in Bend, Ore., that opened in 2019, and three brands, the most recent of which, Bledsoe-McDaniels, launched in 2019. (Josh McDaniels is Bledsoe’s director of winemaking.) It brings a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir into the Bledsoe family and will also encompass three single-vineyard estate Syrahs from Walla Walla. Still, the ambitious vintner says, “We feel like after 12 years, we’re just now exiting the startup phase of our business and trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up.”

Wine Spectator: What led you to decide you were going to make wine in Washington?
Drew Bledsoe:
We were in New England playing for the Patriots, and there were a lot of guys that were into wine. So whenever guys came over, I told them to bring a bottle of red wine. They would generally bring something from Napa or something from Bordeaux and we would do blind tastings at the house—three, four, five wines. And I would always, of course, include something from Walla Walla. I wasn’t playing for second place; I’d grab some Leonetti or some L’Ecole [No. 41] Apogee or Perigee or some Woodward Canyon. But we would always win! So that was sort of an epiphany for me. I could go back to my hometown and not just make wine, but make wine that we would feel stands up on the world stage.

WS: How have both your wine tastes and the wines you make evolved?
I think I started where a lot of people start when they first get into wine: with Napa. Over time, I’ve found that what I’ve started to appreciate more were wines that had a little more elegance to them, a little more nuance. We drink a lot of Barolo and Barbaresco, from northern Italy; those are probably my favorite wines in the world.

How we decide what wines we’re going to make is: We try to make wines we like. And as I’ve evolved in terms of what I like to drink, you’ve seen us going toward that style of winemaking. With the Syrah and even now with some of our specific lots of Cabernet, we’re fermenting and also aging in concrete. I think you just get more purity of fruit with concrete than you do sometimes with oak. So we’re continuing to evolve.

WS: And these tastes informed your decision to start making single-vineyard Syrahs and Oregon Pinot?
We live in Oregon, so we’ve very close to the Willamette Valley. We probably drink more Willamette Valley Pinot Noir in our house than anything else. And then we decided to do this single-vineyard Syrah from the [estate] Lefore vineyard. It leans a little more Old World than New. We tend to harvest a little bit earlier than most. We try to capture some of that black pepper in Syrah—less fruit-driven and more mineral-driven. They’re passion projects based on our own preferences, and we hope other people like them too.

WS: Walla Walla is still an underdog region in some respects. Is there “team spirit” in the winemaking community?
One of the striking differences between the way we competed in football and the way we compete in wine is, in football, whoever we played, they had to lose so I could win. And in wine, particularly in Walla Walla, if my neighbor has success, it’s better for my business. So all of us collectively work together to grow the brand of the valley. That makes it a lot of fun; there’s a great open sharing of information.

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