From Big Wins to Big Wines
Top Athletes Who Turned Their Favorite Drink Into a Business Venture
For the majority of sportsmen, operating in a field where peak physical fitness and razor-sharp reactions are a necessity, wine appreciation isn’t perhaps the most obvious of recreational pursuits. In today’s professional era, most athletes are more likely to endure an ice-bath and energy drink than enjoy a well-deserved glass of red or a chilled Chablis.
But there are some sports that, for the spectators and former players at least, lend themselves to wine appreciation. Take the game of cricket. As well as being a leisurely contest—Test matches take place over five days, with breaks for lunch and tea written into the laws—it is also played in some of the most beautiful wine regions in the world. In South Africa, Newlands Cricket Ground is a short drive from the Western Cape vineyards of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. New Zealand’s McLean Park is in the heart of Hawke’s Bay, home to some scintillating red wines.
While there are plenty of celebrities who endorse brands, there is also a number of sportsmen who have genuinely caught the wine bug, whether it was a memorable first glass while on tour, over a meal with their future wife or long after they’d retired from the locker room. For a few, like Formula One driver Jarno Trulli, that off-duty love of wine has matured into a post-retirement business.
Years before climbing into a race car, Jarno Trulli knew how to make wine. “My wine experience isn’t huge, but it is definitely long,” says the former Formula One driver. “I grew up with my grandfather when I was young; he was making wine in his garage and that was one of the first things I can remember.”
Those early experiences in the western Italian city of Pescara, watching his grandfather produce small batches of wine for the family cellar, stayed with him. “As I started racing go-karts, I lived in a different way,” he says. “But when I had the chance to restart the family business, I took it.”
That opportunity came in the late 1990s in the form of Podere Castorani, a 30-hectare estate in Italy’s central Abruzzo region, where the red Montepulciano grape variety thrives. Tucked away in the foothills behind Pescara on the Adriatic coast, it has been described as the heart of Italy’s winemaking culture. The 18th-century estate had been abandoned for many years before Mr. Trulli, then in his 20s, along with his father and Formula One manager Lucio Cavuto, set about restoring its vineyards.
“The wine world is totally different to Formula One because everything takes a long time, but the passion is exactly the same because it is the same fundamentals as when I was racing,” says the 38-year-old, who recently retired from racing. “We have to be passionate and pay attention to all the details and make sure the wine is being made and aging in the right way.”
He says he has very little to do with the actual winemaking—leaving that to his winemaker, Angelo Molisani—but he is heavily involved in marketing the product. “When I was racing, I used to spend the first half of the week meeting people and promoting the wines,” he says. “I have never been a huge drinker. One glass will always be enough….When we were approaching the weekend, we would never touch alcohol. But after the race, it was always nice to celebrate.”
The former English cricket captain discovered his love of New World wine when he was touring Australia and New Zealand in the late 1970s. “It all started when we were playing in Australia and we didn’t like the ordinary beer they served in Adelaide,” says Ian Botham. Winemaker Geoff Merrill, who would later go on to work for Hardy’s before setting up his own label, suggested to the fast bowler and his teammate Bob Willis that they should come and “try our wines,” Mr. Botham recalls.
From that meeting, the seed was sown. Mr. Botham, who had been educated to appreciate the delights of fine wine (mainly French) by the late cricket commentator and writer John Arlott, began a love affair with Australian wine. “The more I visited vineyards on my travels and got to know the wine growers and the regions, the more disillusioned I became with French wine,” he says. “I used to bring a lot of wine back from Australia for John Arlott to try. In the early days, he would dismiss [them] but toward the end, he saw that their styles were changing and he mellowed a bit on it.”
In 2001, Mr. Botham joined with Mr. Willis to launch a Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz made by Mr. Merrill’s winery in the McLaren Vale. A Chardonnay followed a year later. “We are very much hands-on and involved,” says the 57-year-old, now a sports commentator. “What we haven’t tried to do is go down the route where Geoff has a vat of Chardonnay that he can’t get rid of so we put our names on it and flog it. That’s not what we do.
“I taste the wines,” he adds. “I have some 2001 Shiraz that I will be opening, some ’05 Chardonnay, which is quite a butch Aussie Chardonnay with a bit of oak on it. We actually toned it down from previous vintages because of peer pressure from the girls.”
These days, Mr. Botham’s cellar is filled with the sort of award-winning bottles that have put Australia on the wine map: Penfolds, Hill of Grace by Henschke, Merrill’s Henley Shiraz and Moss Wood. “If I was given the choice between a Montrachet from France or a Western Australian Chardonnay like Leeuwin Estate Art Series, there would be no contest,” he says.
When Mr. Botham heads to New Zealand to commentate on England’s three-match series next month, he plans to “hit the road” to discover some new wines. “I like to just pull in and have a sandwich and a glass of wine at a local place,” he says. “One of those is Cabbage Tree vineyard in Martinborough, on the southern tip of the North Island, which is always one of my first ports of call when I am in New Zealand. The more you explore, the more you find these little gems.”
It was a first date that introduced the South African golfer to the delights of fine wine. “I grew up in Johannesburg, which is not in the wine region of South Africa, but Liezl was from Stellenbosch, so I took her to a friend of mine’s winery near there,” recalls the 43-year-old pro, who has twice won both the U.S. and British Opens. “That was my first experience.”
Since that visit, Ernie Els has married his sweetheart and his interest in wine has flourished. “My palate is one that I love the red wines of Bordeaux,” he says. “But living in America now, I have got to like classic Napa wines such as Harlan family and Bryant family. But obviously good, quality, aged Bordeaux is still my favorite.”
In 1999, he teamed up with Rust en Vrede’s Jean Engelbrecht and respected winemaker Louis Strydom to create their own wine: a Bordeaux blend. The first vintage was 2000, created from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. A range of robust reds followed, as well as a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chenin Blanc.
“For marketing purposes it helps that I am golfer,” Mr. Els says. “But as you know, whatever the brand is, if it’s not quality, people are not going to buy it. So we needed to have a proper wine in the bottle.” He remains in constant touch with Mr. Strydom, who runs the wine operation, and tastes the wine as much as possible.
“We are really in the business,” he says. “I have a winery and a 75-hectare estate near Stellenbosch. We produce the wines on the farm. We don’t just put my name on the label. I taste the wines all the time. When we are down there we try and change things around a bit with the varieties and the blends.”
Mr. Els currently splits his time between homes in Florida and the U.K., with visits to South Africa, but he says that when his golf career is over, he will live on the estate and develop the wines full-time.
The former San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback caught the wine bug after meeting Ed Sbragia, one of California’s most talented winemakers.
Joe Montana, who led the 49ers to four Super Bowl victories, teamed up with Mr. Sbragia in 2000 at the Napa Valley wine auction.
Mr. Sbragia, who made his name producing world-class Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays at Beringer Vineyards, worked with Mr. Montana, now 56, to create a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based blend produced from fruit from Beringer’s vineyards in the Howell Mountain region.
Their first vintage, a 1997 called “Montagia,” was auctioned for more than $200,000, with proceeds benefiting a number of Napa Valley health charities.
Each successive vintage has also been sold for charity. In 2007, production moved to Mr. Sbragia’s Sbragia Family vineyards.
The former French playmaker may be from Provence, but it wasn’t until he was playing soccer for Paris Saint-German in the 1990s that David Ginola was truly introduced to his country’s great wines.
So when he retired a decade later, having crossed the Channel and established himself as a popular Premiership player in England, it seemed only natural for Mr. Ginola to turn to the wine-producing villages of his native Provence.
Though he tried his hand at a number of ventures, including acting and advertising L’Oréal shampoo, the 45-year-old ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United player decided the life of a vigneron appealed. In 2007, he invested in Coste Brulade, a cooperative wine estate in the village of Puget-Ville in the Var, promising to make typically Provençal wine that was as “pale” and “sexy as possible.” A blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah, the Coste Brulade 2007 Rosé won a silver medal in 2008 in the International Wine Challenge in London.
Gérard Basset, the master sommelier who co-founded the U.K.’s Hotel du Vin chain, regularly shared a glass with Mr. Ginola when he stayed at his hotel while playing for Aston Villa. “He was a great listener and was naturally very interested in wine,” Mr. Basset recalls. “Of course he loved red Bordeaux, but I thought he was very broad-minded and would often try new wines or something a little different.”