Following up on our previous post “Athletes in Wine, Part I”, here are a few more top athletes who have turned to winemaking as an outlet for their creative drive after retiring from the racetrack, golf course, and gridiron…
Mario Andretti, the only racecar driver in the world to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship, created a one-time special label for his “Arrivederci Tour,” also known as his retirement in 1994. The Italian native enjoyed the process so much, despite telling VINE TALK that “it was not the best wine in the world,” that he wanted to continue. He teamed up with friend Joe Antonini to purchase a vineyard in Napa Valley, and they have maintained a stable and high-quality product throughout their 15 years in business. Mario says that he gets to control all the “fun parts,” such as tasting, drinking and hosting events. Although he grew up in Tuscany, a region known for its grapes, Mario says he did not become interested in wine until he was able to sample different varietals all over the world thanks to his racing career. But, he told VINE TALK that as a tot he was given “juice” that was 95% water and 5% wine, which we believe could have influenced his palette at an early age. The self-proclaimed Bordeaux fan produces 16 different wines at Andretti Winery, including Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling, and Zinfandel, under the Montona, Andretti and Napa Valley labels with the help of winemaker Bob Pepi. “I want people to smile all the time when drinking wine,” Mario told us. “I love seeing people’s reactions [to our wine]. It’s the best sign of approval.”
In pro golfer Annika Sörenstam’s 15-year professional career, she won 89 worldwide titles, eight LPGA Player of the Year Awards and qualified to play in a men’s PGA tour event – something very few women have done to date. And since she had already earned her spot among her male counterparts, creating a wine label seemed the next natural step when she retired in 2009, joining the likes of Arnold Palmer, Ernie Els, and Jack Nicklaus. She is still the only female golfer with her own wine label, called Annika. Through a mutual friend, Annika was introduced to the Wente family, who have been in the winemaking business for five generations (since 1883), and her dream of having her own label was realized. Now, her role consists of “telling Karl [Wente] what I like in terms of the taste profile,” Annika told VINE TALK. “He puts together some samples of different ‘juices,’ then we literally sit like a lab class with beakers measuring different blends until we find what we think is right.” The business is still developing, and Annika is confident that the quality of the product will carry her label through. “The 2006 ANNIKA Syrah is my favorite because it was our original blend, and I think we nailed it,” she says.
Football Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who is one of only two people to win the Superbowl as a player, assistant coach, and head coach, has a private label with the help of partner Mendocino Wine Company. The winery in Ukiah, CA allowed him to taste all of their varietals, and Mike found six to put the Ditka label on: a Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and his signature “Kick Ass Red.” Each year, he approves the flavor profiles of the vintages before they’re bottled. His brand, influenced by his book, “In Life, First You Kick Ass,” published in 2005, has since stretched to reach everything from wines to cigars, hot dogs and vitamins. “If you know Mike, he personifies kicking ass,” Steve Diebold, the coach’s business partner, told VINE TALK. “It’s really our brand.” While currently there’s only a “Kick Ass Red,” by 2012, all of them will be identified as such. Between hosting a radio show and TV shows on ESPN, to running three restaurants and building an empire of products, “Da Coach,” as he’s known, still finds time to make wine a priority. According to Steve, he once signed 1800 bottles of wine for six hours straight, because he didn’t want to disappoint anyone in line. “He personifies the regular American guy,” Steve told us. “He’s all about having a good meal and a great glass of wine.”
Australian golfer Greg Norman is one of the biggest success stories in athletes-turned-winemakers. Greg Norman Wine Estates is a collection of wines produced from numerous regions in Australia and California. Greg has been producing wines for nearly a decade, but like most professional athletes, his interest in wine started long before, when he began traveling for competitions and tours. His Australian wines, which include a Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet-Merlot blend, are created by winemaker Andrew Hales, while his California varietals, which include a Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, are handed over to Ron Schrieve. Greg himself helps in shaping the wines, by sitting in on barrel tastings and deciding on the final blends. As a wine collector and an advocate of the role of wine in an active lifestyle, Greg’s goal is to produce wines that are both approachable and compete with the best in the world. “Experimenting with different wines is a necessity and really the only way to truly understand what flavors and qualities you prefer,” he says on his website. “Experimentation is the best path to understanding and appreciating wine.”