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Football season is finally here again, and the match-up we're most excited about is wine and the NFL. Players across the league are discovering wine and flaunting their bona fides, from Panthers QB Cam Newton's sommelier stylings to Vikings rookie linebacker Cam Smith, who interned at Melville Winery in Lompoc, Calif., between summer workouts when he was at USC.
And then there are veterans: QBs Dan Marino and Drew Bledsoe, coach Dick Vermeil and late owner Lamar Hunt, who started the American Football League and coined the term "Super Bowl," are just a few of the gridiron pros who founded wineries that have been making increasingly ambitious and respected wines.
Drew Bledsoe, former New England Patriots QB
Wine: Doubleback Cellars, Bledsoe Family Wines, Bledsoe-McDaniels
Partner winemaker: Josh McDaniels
First season: 2007 vintage
Extra point: Bledsoe has been making wine in his native eastern Washington for nearly as long as his NFL career, but the veteran has been having breakout season: His Doubleback wines got a new home in his state-of-the-art Walla Walla winery for the 2018 vintage. August 2019 brought word that Bledsoe had opened a new tasting room in his adopted home of Bend, Ore., and that he'd be launching a new label for site-specific Willamette Pinot and Washington Syrah. "Having a winery specifically focused on Pinot Noir and Syrah will be clarifying for our customers and will give the wines a greater sense of purpose and authenticity that they deserve," Bledsoe told Unfiltered via email.
John Elway, former Denver Broncos QB and current president and GM
Wine: 7Cellars, a Rutherford, Calif., project specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay
Partner winemakers: Robert Mondavi Jr. and Mari Wells Coyle
First season: 2015
Extra point: “I’ve applied the lessons that I’ve learned in football to every aspect of my personal and professional life,” Elway told Unfiltered via email, “so when we launched our 7Cellars wine company, we wanted to surround ourselves with the greatest components we could to ensure success.” Proceeds from 7Cellars benefit Team Rubicon, an organization that helps veterans use their training to assist fellow citizens in times of natural disaster.
Terry Hoage, former NFL safety
Wine: TH Estate Wines, focusing on Rhône styles in Paso Robles
Partner winemaker: Wife Jennifer Hoage
First season: 2002
Extra point: Terry and Jennifer Hoage purchased a vineyard in 2002 in what is now the Willow Creek AVA of Paso Robles and planted most of the vines themselves; it now encompasses 26 acres of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and a few white Rhône varieties. Justin Smith of Saxum was an early mentor, though Jennifer is the primary winemaker now. The Hoages joined other area winemakers in founding Must! Charities to fund community education, health and economic initiatives, and in 2016, they added a Pinot Noir–focused label, Decroux.
Lamar and Norma Hunt, founder of the American Football League and the Kansas City Chiefs
Wine: Perfect Season, Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Partner winemaker: Philippe Melka
First season: 2002
Extra point: Norma Hunt fell in love with wine on trips to Tuscany and Napa Valley. She named Perfect Season in honor of her late husband, Lamar, who was skeptical about entering the wine business at first. “When I asked Lamar about buying a small vineyard, he rolled his eyes,” Norma told Unfiltered. “He was a very good businessman and he knew it was a difficult business.” After Lamar’s death in 2006, Norma continued to seek out vinous excellence, culminating in a newly released Chiefs-themed Arrowhead Red & Gold Reserve Knights Valley Cabernet. “Each season provides opportunity for perfection,” Hunt said. “This is true in both the football and wine worlds where both businesses are extremely competitive.”
Dan Marino and Damon Huard, former NFL quarterbacks
Wine: Passing Time, a Washington Cabernet-focused winery
Partner winemaker: Chris Peterson of Avennia Wine
First season: 2012
Extra point: The game plan started back in the '90’s, when Marino introduced Huard to Washington wines. “I fell in love with them immediately,” Huard told Unfiltered. “We always talked about one day when I was done and retired, to do this thing.” Marino reflected on the days when his partner was yet a rookie both on in the field and in the cellar. “I was starting to collect wines and, basically, [Damon] was a beer drinker," Marino told us. "And I said 'Damon, you gotta taste some of the wines that are right in your backyard!'"
Years later, Passing Time was born, and the roster has since expanded to include appellation-specific Cabernets from Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain and Walla Walla, in addition to the flagship Columbia Valley Bordeaux blend. “I think it's about the mentality of working together to create something special," Marino said, "I think that overflows into the wine business and understanding how you get across what you're trying to produce."
Carmen Policy, former president of the San Francisco 49ers
Wine: Casa Piena, a Napa project specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon
Partner winemaker: Thomas Brown
First season: 2003
Extra point: San Francisco's culinary hot spots introduced Policy to Napa wines, and eventually he'd march up to the valley after each of the 49ers' many '80s and '90s Super Bowl parades. “That started my interest in wine and collecting, and the passion stayed every bit as strong when I went back,” Policy told Unfiltered. Soon after leaving a stint in Cleveland, he began Casa Piena, which means “full house” in Italian.
Dick Vermeil, Super Bowl–winning former NFL coach
Wine: Vermeil Wines, specializing in Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and more
Partner winemakers: Thomas Brown and Andy Jones
First season: 1999
Extra point: What started as a hobby, turned into a full-fledged wine business for Vermeil. The same grapes his grandfather picked from the Frediani vineyard 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 told Unfiltered. “You'd better have a quarterback, and Thomas Brown is the Tom Brady of Napa Valley!”
Charles Woodson, former Oakland Raiders cornerback
Wine: TwentyFour by Charles Woodson; Intercept
Partner winemakers: Robert Mondavi alumni Gustavo Gonzalez and Rick Ruiz on TwentyFour; O'Neill Vintners & Distillers on Intercept
First season: 2001 vintage
Extra point: TwentyFour is a higher-end, Cab-focused lineup from Woodson's home terroir, Napa, where Woodson trained with the Raiders. Intercept, launched in August 2019, is a more accessible line of Paso Robles Cabernet, red blend and Chardonnay, plus a Monterey Pinot Noir. "[With] this price point, I can reach a lot more of my fans. And that's what's going to be most exciting about it," explained Woodson at the launch.
Los Angeles Rams
New York Giants
Wine: California Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
Partner winery: Woodbridge, by Robert Mondavi
First season: 2019
Extra point: Woodbridge is launching 375ml cans of its Cabernet sporting gridiron-themed uniforms in the Chicago, L.A. and New York markets. "Woodbridge wine drinkers have expressed a love for football and, looking deeper into their interests, we saw a strong overlap with football fandom," Jaymie Schoenberg, vice president of marketing for Woodbridge, told Unfiltered.
Wine: California Cabernet Sauvignon marking 25 years of the team's existence in the NFL
Partner winery: Wine by Design
First season: 2019
Extra point: For wine-loving fans of all levels, this is available around the Carolinas, at wine retailers, supermarkets and for game-day toasting at Bank of America Stadium. “We are looking for more ways to bring together wine and sports,” CEO of Wine by Design Diane Karle explained of the partnership in a press release.
For his part, Panthers QB Cam Newton had a prolific 2018 vintage, soothing losses with Sauvignon Blanc and cigars, watching the Somm documentaries and musing about his own possible post-football career working the floor, and finishing out his vinous vintage in a pair of "Vineyards of N.C. #1 Reserve" wine cleats.
New York Jets
Wine: "Jets Uncorked" Sonoma/Napa blend of primarily Zinfandel, plus Merlot, Syrah and Petite Sirah, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl III win
Partner winemaker: Copper Cane founder Joe Wagner
First season: 2018
Extra point: The logo pays homage to the game-winning play, “19 Straight,” which got the Jets their 1968 Super Bowl win, and the label reflects the vintage jersey design. Copper Cane and Belle Glos vintner Joe Wagner, who created the blend, is a longtime Napan who once played for the St. Helena Saints.
Wine: California red blend celebrating the team's 20th anniversary in Nashville
Partner winemaker: Chris Cameron of Paso Robles' Broken Earth Winery and Wine by Design
First season: 2018
Extra point: Move over, Tennessee whiskey. The Music City is in good hands with Paso winemaker Chris Cameron, whose bottling is now available in Nashville-area retailers as well as at Nissan Stadium. "It was a natural fit for both partners," Cameron explained to Unfiltered via email. "Our heritage and sustainable farming practices matched [the Titans'] heritage and corporate responsibility initiatives. It is our intention to continue the partnership."
Wine: Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, one celebrating 35 seasons, another in honor of Peyton Manning's retirement; California Cabernet 2015 commemorating 10 years since 2006 Super Bowl victory
Partner winemaker: Oregon winemaker André Hueston Mack of Maison Noir
Extra point: The bottling signed by Manning was unveiled along with the QB's statue at Lucas Oil Stadium, and at $400, may be the most elite of the NFL wines yet, or at least the most collectible.
Green Bay Packers
Kansas City Chiefs
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
San Francisco 49ers
Wine: The red wine for all these teams is a blend of Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and Monterey Merlot aged 15 months in French and American oak, and each team has a different set of designs etched into its bottles to commemorate championships and anniversary years; the sparkling wine is Lodi blanc de blancs
Partner winery: Mano's Wine in Kansas City, Mo.
Extra point: "We are always in discussion with several teams in the league—some approach us, we approach others, dependent on the market and what is going on with that franchise in the current or upcoming years," Mano's executive vice president Chelsea Mura explained to Unfiltered via email. So far, the bottles are intended as keepsakes or for armchair consumption, but "we have some products in the works for the 2020 season that will be seen in and around the stadiums for fans to drink."
One known wine aficionado among these teams is Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, who notoriously gifted rival Panthers QB Cam Newton a consolation bottleof Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet after his team swept the Panthers, and later befriended vintner John Jordan. Another is Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who rode a Super Bowl duck boat into the sunset, supping from a bottle of Hundred Acre Napa Valley Cab.
Unofficial wine: Washington reds and whites
Winemaker: Northwest Cellars Winery
Extra point: Formerly, the winery offered a Seahawks "12" label—a hat tip to Seahawks fans, who call themselves the "12th man" at Seattle games, "but their legal team put a stop to that," Northwest owner Bob Delf told Unfiltered. Now, fans can get any Northwest bottle labeled with an "I'm In!" Seahawks-hued design in a nod to another team mantra—but this one trademarked by Delf.