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A Different Playing Field: Athletes and Fine Wine

Choices, choices, choices. What’s a retiring superstar to do when it’s time to step off the Astroturf, out of the paint, off the fairway, away from the cameras and enjoy all that fame and fortune? If coaching isn’t your calling, then perhaps you might consider the leisurely art of winemaking, a different playing field altogether.  Increasingly, mega-wealthy athletes are, in fact, looking to use their unique brand collateral as an entrée into the wine world. Before you cry foul and imagine sweaty aromas that make brettanomyces  seem like a blessing, you should remember that winemaking is a business, and one that requires a lot of start-up capital. As the old adage goes, it takes only $10 million to make a million in the world of fermenting grape juice. But hey, if an extra nine mil isn’t going to set you back much, it’s a pretty bucolic lifestyle choice.

Take golf legend Greg Norman, recently divorced from tennis legend Chris Evert. (No co-fermentation going on there, apparently.) While his wine business is only a small part of his sizable net worth, at 200,000 bottles he’s a serious player in the vineyard, not just on the links. Greg Norman Wine Estates makes a lineup of wines from fruit sources in both his native Australia and in his adopted home of California. These wines offer reliable value. Though not trophy wines, they’re designed for accessible, everyday drinking. I like his excellent Aussie bubbly as an alternative to Prosecco or pricier Champagnes.

Then there’s Andretti Winery, founded by the racecar legend and partially bankrolled by former Kmart CEO, Joe Antonini (not to be confused with Antinori; the former hails from West Virginia, the latter from Tuscany!). Situated in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley, the Andretti production is very small compared with Norman’s enterprise. Part of the appeal here is frankly the ambience as much as the wines; it’s a business model that emphasizes the Italian lifestyle with a friendly, welcoming tasting room situated in a gorgeous setting. Stop by for an informal tasting, or sign up ahead of time for the VIP “Montona” tasting series and sample Mario Andretti’s flagship wines named for his hometown in Italy.

Lastly, let’s not forget our own domestic heroes. If you think the NFL is only about Bud Light, you’re missing what greats like Joe Montana and Drew Bledsoe have already figured out: Wine is as popular among Americans as beer these days, according to a Gallup poll released in 2011. “Joe Cool” owns a 500-acre Sonoma estate from which he produces wine under the Montagia label, a partnership with Beringer winemaking expert Ed Sbragia. The 2007 Montagia Cabernet Sauvignon clocks in at $150 per bottle but with two legends in their respective fields merging talents, it’s a bottle worth seeking out.

And then there’s Drew Bledsoe’s hometown homage – he’s from from Walla Walla, one of my very favorite US wine appellations in the US. While it doesn’t make me like the Patriots, it’s critical to note that Bledsoe’s childhood pal, Chris Figgins of legendary Washington producer Leonetti Cellars, is assisting with Bledsoe’s “Doubleback” label. Great QBs need great receivers to complete great drives – a partnership that works on the field and off. The Doubleback wines are the real deal, not vanity juice, and it’s nice to see an athlete like Bledsoe reinvest in the community that invested in him.