Considered by many to be the greatest racecar driver ever, Mario Andretti was known for his versatility, maneuvering just about anything with four wheels and a steering wheel past the checkered flag. He is a four-time Champ Car National Champion and the only person ever to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship. Upon Andretti's retirement in 1994, the native of Italy shifted gears and took up another favorite Italian pastime: winemaking. He teamed up with his friend and former K-Mart CEO Joe Antonini to purchase a 53-acre vineyard and winery in Napa Valley, where they produce wines under the Andretti and Montona labels with help from winemaker Bob Pepi.
Wine Spectator: When did you begin enjoying wine?
Mario Andretti: I was born and raised in Italy, and wine was on the table at every meal. My dad made his own wine and sold some to my grandparents, who had a small restaurant/hotel at the train station. Wine was the order of the day; as a kid I thought that's what you were supposed to drink with every meal. I would have preferred a soda pop, but that was that.
But did I really love wine back then? No. I think my love and curiosity for wine developed in the 1970s, during my Formula One days. One of my sponsors was a lavish party-thrower…and we had this double-decker hospitality bus. There was always Corton-Charlemagne flowing, and Haut-Brion and Lafite all over the place. It was heartbreaking to see half-empty bottles of Pétrus lying around at the end of the day. Unbelievable. So after being exposed to all of these great wines, how could I not like it?
WS: When did you discover California wines?
MA: In 1976, I was turned onto California wines by Ken Tyrrell, who owned Jackie Stewart's racing team. We were having lunch in Newport Beach, and I started to order a French wine, and Ken said, "What are you doing? We're in California--you have to order California wine!" That's when I started traveling to Napa Valley. At the end of every racing season, I gathered some friends and took my plane and visited a few wineries and came back with a plane full of wine. We became good friends with people like Jack Cakebread, Justin Meyer from Silver Oak, Joseph Phelps and Gil Nickel--he was a wonderful guy. I always look forward to going back.
WS: What's in your wine collection now?
MA: In my home cellar [in Nazareth, Pa.], I pretty much have what you would expect, like Haut-Brion, Pétrus, Lafite and Latour from France; Gaja, Sassicaia, Brunello from Italy. I was able to buy some old American wine from an estate that was liquidating. I bought a case of '74 Charles Krug, some '78 Sterling, a case and a half of '74 Mondavi. I cover the bases fairly well.
WS: Any really rare trophies?
MA: I had two bottles of 1925 Château Margaux. [In 2002] I was at a party in Paris, and as fate would have it, somebody served [their own bottle of] '25 Margaux. The sommelier who opened the bottle was shaking when he poured it, he was so nervous. The wine wasn't very good. So I was shaking when I opened my own bottle--I was curious to see if mine was bad too. It was OK at first. Then we decanted it and let it breathe for a while and get its legs, and an hour later it was superb. And I have one bottle left.
WS: How did you get into the wine business?
MA: The 1994 racing season was my retirement season, which was called the Arrivederci Tour. At almost every venue, we had a special event, and somebody came up with the idea for a commemorative wine label. We teamed up with Louis Martini, and they produced some 1991 Cabernet with my name on it. Later we found a property and started a licensing deal, but after a year things weren't going the way I liked. I called my friend Joe Antonini, the former CEO of K-Mart, which sponsored my team for many years, and asked him if he'd like to venture into the wine business. So we bought the interest out and started controlling our own destiny.
WS: Which of your wines is your favorite?
MA: The varieties we have are like my children. On any given day I like one better, but I'm basically a Bordeaux drinker, even though I enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or a good Chardonnay.
WS: What's your winemaking philosophy?
MA: My philosophy is simple. I'm diversified as a businessman--we have auto dealerships and a petroleum company, and I always try to rely on experts in each particular area. When Bob Pepi and I first started talking about making wine, I said, "Bob, clearly you're the engineer here and I'm the driver." I don't know how to fix an engine, but I always appreciate the performance of the finished product.
WS: Any favorite wine drinking experiences?
MA: In 1998, I was invited to a ceremony dedicating a monument to Enzo Ferrari, in his native town in Modena, Italy. I brought a couple bottles of my Sangiovese along. One evening we had dinner in Bologna at the Ristorante Primavera. The owner of the restaurant loves my Sangiovese. So we had a blind tasting with mine alongside some Tuscan Sangiovese. Afterward I called Bob Pepi and said, "You know what, we got some bragging rights here." They were so surprised how my Sangiovese stacked up with theirs.