Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken got to the point quickly: “What the hell are you doing in the wine business?” he asked the four sports stars on stage. Golfers Greg Norman and Ernie Els, former Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe and Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver each shared stories of how they ended up with their own wine brands.
“We all come from great winegrowing regions of the world,” pointed out Australian Greg Norman, who added that his travels inspired him to explore wines beyond his home country. Greg Norman Estates currently makes 200,000 cases of wine annually, including a range of varieties from Australia and California. While tasting his 2006 Reserve Shiraz, he noted that he’s a fan of big wines and doesn’t fuss over matching wine with food—“I just drink it to drink it,” he explained.
South African Ernie Els—who had fun ribbing Shanken about his improving golf game—agreed that traveling inspired his interest in wine, along with his wife, who comes from the Stellenbosch wine region. His childhood friend, winemaker Jean Engelbrecht, helped him get started and buy the property that is now the exclusive source for the Ernie Els wines, including his Stellenbosch Signature Bordeaux-style blend.
After good-naturedly defending himself from Shanken’s complaints about his wins against the New York Giants, Drew Bledsoe said that his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash., had emerged as a premier wine region during his football career. His neighbors happened to be Leonetti Cellars, so since the NFL “puts you out to pasture” after a certain age, Bledsoe hired winemaker Chris Figgins to help him start his Doubleback Cabernet label. “It was like getting Tom Brady or Peyton Manning for quarterback,” he quipped.
Tom Seaver is very special to New Yorkers, said Shanken as he introduced the pitcher. “Not only was he a great athlete, but as a person, he reflects everything good in sports, and we’re very proud he played for the New York Mets.” A native of California, Seaver was mid-career when asked what he would do when he retired from baseball, and he spontaneously replied that he would raise grapes.
Seaver was emotional as he talked about putting together his Napa vineyard, working with winemaker Thomas Brown and how excited he is to get to work every morning, even volunteering to pull weeds for vineyard manager Jim Barbour. “Walking through my vineyard, I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” When Shanken asked the athletes about their biggest disappointment in the wine business, Seaver said it was going out to his vineyard after the first harvest and seeing all the grapes gone: “The first time, the post-partum was bad.”
Throughout the spirited, heartfelt discussion, there were plenty of laughs, but these successful athletes made it clear that they are as passionate and serious about wine as they are about their sports.