Athletes in Wine, Part I

Did you know that there are more than a few top athletes who have turned to winemaking as an outlet for their creative drive after retiring from the grid iron, golf course, or ice rink? Here are some players who love grapes as much as they do the game…

Drew Bledsoe
Football star Drew Bledsoe was the number one pick in the NFL draft of 1993. He’s credited with leading the New England Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI and earned a championship with them in 2001. He officially entered the winemaking business with childhood acquaintance Chris Figgins, founding Doubleback in the spring of 2007, just as he was announcing his retirement from the NFL. Drew, who spends anywhere from 8 to 12 days a month at the vineyard or on the road marketing and supporting distributers, told us that his role as the owner is to guide the overall direction and build interest and attention in the brand. It’s also clear that Drew is creating a business that has staying power. “We are truly sparing no expense building for long-term success,” he told VINE TALK. “This means focusing on vineyard health and sustainable practices as opposed to producing more fruit in the early vintages.” The company, which currently produces one wine, the Doubleback Cabernet Sauvignon, has also made the commitment to only bottle their best wine in each vintage. “We taste all of the different blends blind and when we pick our favorite that is what we put in the bottle. In 2007 this meant bulking off about 40% of our wine. But we are moving ever closer to being able to use almost all of the fruit we bring in.” When asked what he thinks is the most difficult part about winemaking, he answered: “Patience! Having the patience to do things correctly is both expensive and painstaking,” he told us. “The results have been worth the wait so far. I’m excited to see what is ahead as our estate vineyards begin to mature.”

Peggy Fleming
Husband and wife team Greg and Peggy Jenkins planted 650 Chardonnay vines near their home in Los Gatos in 1999. From that small start grew a deeper appreciation for winemaking, and they eventually expanded to their own winery, Fleming Jenkins, in 2003. The couple now sells five wines: a Chardonnay from their original plants; Madden Ranch Syrah, which is sourced from Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden’s vineyard; Choreography, a Bordeaux-style blend of five red wines; Syrah sourced from the mountains of Santa Cruz; and their Victories Rosé which was created to raise funds for breast cancer research and awareness. (The duo has donated over $45,000 to charities supporting the cause.) Peggy, who won the gold medal in figure skating at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, told VINE TALK that she helps on a part-time basis, harvesting the vineyard, making blending decisions, throwing events and parties at the tasting room and assisting with marketing and public relations. Her husband Greg works full-time as the winemaker, and uses his background in dermatology to embrace the art and science of winemaking. “Winemaking is challenging, but educational and satisfying on many levels,” Peggy told us. “We’re very proud of our wines and what we have accomplished and are gratified by the support and recognition we’ve received.”

David Frost
David Frost joined the PGA Tour in 1984 and quickly became an elite golfer, breaking numerous records and winning 12 international titles over his career. Though still very much involved in the game, Frost established a 300-acre vineyard in the Paarl wine region of South Africa in 1994 “Some golfers had planes, and it was a decision between a plane and the farm,” he told VINE TALK. “I went for the farm.” With a basic knowledge of grape growing—his family has been in the winemaking business for over 60 years—David was able to grow Frost Wine into a fairly large business, which produces 7,000 cases of Meritage, Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. He balances wine and golf by hosting events when he travels for tournaments, first demonstrating putting and chipping techniques, then serving a winemakers dinner or a wine tasting. To him, the marriage of wine and golf makes perfect sense. “My angle to get people to listen to me when I talk about wine is though golf. Golf has been a great way for people to remain healthy, by getting exercise. Wine is healthy, like exercise, just not too much!”

Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky, former Canadian ice hockey star, is widely acclaimed as the best player in the history of the National Hockey League. He was nicknamed “The Great One,” and his jersey number, 99, was retired by all teams in the NHL when he hung up his skates in 1999. He launched Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery in 2007, with the goal to celebrate Canadian winemaking and simultaneously create a resource for his charity organization (a portion of all proceeds are donated to the Wayne Gretzky Foundation). Like his pro-athlete career, his wines have won numerous awards and recognition, and the winery, located in Ontario, is a destination for hockey and wine fans alike. His wines include Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Merlot, Pinot Noir and dessert wines, and are made by Rob Power of Ontario’s Creekside Estate.

For information on more athletes who are involved with winemaking, click Athletes in Wine, Part II.