Owning a vineyard and making your own wine is a dream shared by people in all walks of life, including pro athletes. These seven sports superstars—a Formula One world driving champion, Heisman Trophy-winning Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, four-time NASCAR Cup champion, Hall of Fame pitcher who led the New York Mets to their first World Series title, a Rose Bowl and Super Bowl-winning coach, another race car driver and an elite PGA golfer once ranked No. 1 in the world—have turned their dreams into a reality by establishing wineries or wine collections.
Despite their varied backgrounds, all share one thing in common: a love of wine. Known mainly for their sports achievements, they would also like to be known as the makers of excellent Cabernets.
Mario Andretti looks every inch the consummate winemaker: hale, hearty, in robust good health. If you did not know better you would not suspect he was one of the fastest men to ever drive a racing car, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One world racing crown, among many other titles. Long retired from racing, the 74-year-old oversees a Napa Valley winery that goes by his name. Andretti Winery's Montona Reserve wines are named after the area in Italy where he was born and raised before immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. Tastings and tours are available.
Oakland Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Michigan before moving on to a stellar All-Pro career with the Raiders and Green Bay Packers. It was at a Napa Valley training camp in his 1998 rookie season with the Raiders that he discovered the pleasures of wine. He is now the owner of TwentyFour Wines, which is named after his jersey number in Oakland. Based in Napa, it uses grapes grown in a vineyard near Calistoga. Tastings only through appointment.
Jeff Gordon is a multiple winner of the Daytona 500 and NASCAR Cup Series. While celebrating his first NASCAR Cup victory in the mid-nineties, he ordered a bottle of fine wine that triggered an interest in grapes and winemaking that led to the creation of the Jeff Gordon Collection. It makes Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines harvested from vineyards in Napa and Sonoma, which Gordon knows very well. He grew up and started racing cars as a boy in Vallejo on the edge of northern California wine country. His company does not have a winery, nor a tasting room. You can, however, buy his wines, as is true for all the others mentioned in this article.
Some baseball fans might ask, “What? Why is Tom Seaver involved with wine?” But before he became a three-time Cy Young Award winning pitcher and Hall of Famer for the New York Mets, Tom Terrific grew up in Fresno in the heart of California’s farm country in the Central Valley. After retiring from the game and living on the East Coast for many years, he and his wife Nancy returned to California where they bought land on Diamond Mountain in Calistoga and have turned it into Seaver Vineyards, where they make Cabernet Sauvignon. Not open to the public for visits, tours or tastings.
Dick Vermeil’s roots are solidly anchored in Napa Valley, where he was born in his great grandfather’s house in Calistoga. He attended Napa Junior College and San Jose State before beginning his storied coaching career. After leading UCLA to the Rose Bowl title, he joined the Philadelphia Eagles and took them to the 1980 Super Bowl, which they lost. Twenty years later, after a successful stint as a broadcaster, he corrected that gap in his resume by winning the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams. Known for his energy and work ethic, the 77-year-old is still working the land at Vermeil Wines, which has tasting rooms in Calistoga and Napa. Its tasting room in Calistoga features some of the coach’s football memorabilia.
What is it about racecar drivers that propel them to make wine? Add the name of Randy Lewis to this high speed list. A veteran of Indianapolis 500, Can Am and European racing, he runs Lewis Cellars in Napa. One of the wines it makes is called “Race Car White,” which the winery describes as “high octane with a polished smooth chassis that smokes the competition.” Open for visits and tastings.
Greg Norman won two British Opens and more than 90 professional golf titles while becoming known for his aggressive style that earned him the nickname of “The Shark.” Now, as chairman and CEO of Great White Shark Enterprises, he oversees Greg Norman Estates, which makes wine from vineyards in central California, Argentina and his native Australia. Fittingly, the brand’s logo is a shark and consistent with Norman’s image as a hard-charging golfer and adventurer, it calls itself “the official wine of adventure.” It is a subsidiary of Treasury Wine Estates, an Australian-based company with an office in Napa.