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Football to Fermentation: Former NFL Players In Wine

Football to Fermentation: Former NFL Players In Wine

nfl players in the wine industry

Terry Hoage was a two-time consensus All-American defensive back for the University of Georgia. He earned a Super Bowl ring in the NFL with the team now known as the Washington Commanders. He also earned accolades from wine critics Robert Parker and James Laube.

This looks like an incongruous list of achievements. But they’re the product of Hoage’s transition from the gridiron to winemaking once his playing days were over. His Paso Robles, CA winery, TH Estate Wines, released its initial vintage under the name Terry Hoage Vineyards’ in 2002. Praise from wine critics eventually followed. “I never chased accolades as a football player or as a winemaker,” he says. “But I do appreciate them.”

NFL Players in wine
Terry Hoage

Hoage’s post-football leap into the wine industry isn’t an anomaly. Several former NFL players, from Hall of Famers to unheralded offensive linemen, are involved in the winemaking game. Some produce copious amounts ready for retail distribution. Others create just enough juice to meet the needs of their wine clubs. Each foray stems from a passion for wine and an understanding of the community that can develop around a carefully crafted bottle.

Forging – and Keeping – a Connection

At first glance, football and winemaking seem mutually exclusive. The former carries the reputation of being a snarling, occasionally violent affair with players sacrificing their bodies in exchange for victory. The latter’s reputation is one of art and elegance, where the vintner’s toil produces graceful expressions of flavor complexity and terroir. Dig a little deeper, though, and connections emerge that draw the two seemingly disparate worlds closer.

“There are quite a few parallels,” says Vince Ferragamo, former NFL quarterback and owner/winemaker for Vince Ferragamo Vineyards in Orange, CA. “Both require passion and a willingness to get in the trenches and get dirty. Both require a measure of physical and mental preparation. You also need perseverance to succeed in both — when something bad happens on the field or in the vineyard, you just have to shake it off and keep going.”

“In football, you can bruise your hip or dislocate your shoulder, but you’ve got to pull through on Sundays,” adds Charles Woodson, Hall-of-Fame defensive back and founder of Charles Woodson’s The Intercept wines in Paso Robles. “When it comes to wine, you still have to deliver world-class wines with every vintage. That’s where you truly understand that there’s no substitute for hard work.”

NFL Players in wine
Charles Woodson

Applying the gridiron’s philosophical constructs to winemaking makes the jump from football to fermentation more understandable. It also points to another key component of the journey: When football players make the leap into the wine industry, they don’t make the move with a sense of novelty. They take things seriously, and it manifests in studious behaviors. Sometimes, this quest for knowledge is sudden or by necessity. “To be honest, I didn’t know the California Central Coast existed as a wine region,” Hoage explained. “It wasn’t until we saw all the vineyards in the area that we realized we could grow grapes here.”

When interest is ignited, however, they can approach it with geeky zeal. When Hoage settled into the Central Coast, he sat at the feet of Justin Smith from Justin Vineyards for a year and learned the ins and outs of viticulture. Ferragamo became intrigued with the possibility of making wines to pair with his wife’s cooking. It led him to earn his Level 1 sommelier from Court of Master Sommelier member Michael Jordan, taking wine-related courses at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and figuring out which Italian varietals thrive in the clay soils of the Orange County, CA foothills. A tour of Robert Mondavi’s operations and vineyards inspired Woodson to absorb as much knowledge as he could about winemaking and its journey from grape to glass. It’s something he loved sharing with his teammates back in the day.

“When I was playing for the Oakland Raiders, our training camp was in Napa Valley. I developed a great appreciation for wine and the people around it early in my career,” he explains. “On road trips, we’d all bring bottles and break bread together. It was an experience that bonded us.”

The Process and The Purpose

While the players are involved in the winemaking process, the level of involvement does vary.

Woodson, for instance, enlists the talents of winemaker Amanda Gorter of The Intercept’s viticultural partner, O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, to craft wines that match his intended flavor profiles. “Amanda’s an expert, so I let her take the lead in the winemaking process,” he says. “I’m very appreciative of her hard work and what she puts into every barrel and bottle.”

Hoage and Ferragamo are their property’s respective winemakers. This can occasionally produce amusing responses among consumers that know their football-playing background. “People are more surprised than anything,” Ferragamo states. “I’ve heard people say, ‘You made this? How did you do this?’”

NFL Players in wine
Vince Ferragamo

Regardless of the role they take, their former status as college and pro football players can lead them to view the industry through a different filter. When Woodson talks about The Intercept’s current lineup or future labels, he specifically discusses his fans, what his fans want, and keeping the price point at a certain level so his fans can afford to purchase bottles. This approach allows Woodson to acknowledge and embrace why people may be interested in his wines. It also allows him to connect with his consumers in a style that other wine industry professionals cannot. As much as an oenophile may admire the career of, say, Heidi Peterson Barrett, it’s doubtful that they would have had a poster of her walking the vineyards adorning their office or den. The wine-loving Raider fan of a certain age, on the other hand, may still have a Woodson poster hanging somewhere.

What’s Next for NFL Players in Wine

2022 marked Hoage’s twentieth vintage, and it will be one of his last. He and his wife Jenny will be retiring from the wine industry in 2023, and they’re ready for a different adventure. “During the pandemic, we re-evaluated what we wanted to do,” Hoage says. “We wanted to experience something different, and we can’t run a winery from afar. I’ve had 20 years of football and 20 years of winemaking behind me, so it’s a good time to explore a different iteration of life.”

While the clock is winding down on Hoage’s viticultural success, it feels safe to assume that few players currently active in the NFL will do what Hoage did and launch a second career in the winemaking business. Whenever this occurs, the veterans on the scene will be poised to aid the rookies. “We’ll definitely be there for the next generation,” Woodson says. “Whatever sport they come from or whatever beverage they want to pursue, we’ll be there to help them thrive.”

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