Many professional athletes return to their hometowns once their playing days end to run a business or to pursue other opportunities. Few actually use the land on which their hometown rests as a conduit for their post-career life. Count Drew Bledsoe as one who does just that.
The former NFL quarterback, who spent 14 seasons on the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys, embarked on his new career while he was still in his old one. Instead of directing an offense, he's calling the shots for his Doubleback wine label in his hometown of Walla Walla, located in southeast Washington.
Bledsoe, 39, snapped up his first piece of property by purchasing 80 acres of land just outside Walla Walla Valley in 2003 while he was in the middle of his three-year tenure with the Bills. (He played for the Patriots from 1993 to 2001 and for the Cowboys from 2005 to '06.) His interest in wine had been burgeoning since the beginning of his NFL career. Yet it wasn't until he recognized when he would likely retire that he began seriously considering opening a vineyard. It seemed like a natural fit for Bledsoe's competitiveness and work ethic.
"When you look at facing retirement in your mid-30s, and all of a sudden the outlet for that passion and work ethic goes away, you can't just sit back in a rocking chair and be retired at 35," Bledsoe said. "I'm not a good enough golfer to play golf every day."
An English major at Washington State University, Bledsoe didn't obtain a conventional education in wine making or agronomy. Growing up in Walla Walla, a town of little more than 30,000, he was surrounded by the kind of farmland that's ripe for growing grapes. Ironically enough, it was the parents of Bledsoe's childhood friend and neighbor, Chris Figgins, who established Walla Walla's first modern vineyard -- Leonetti Cellar. Figgins joined Leonetti in 1996 and, unknowingly at the time, eventually would play a significant role in Bledsoe's wine making career.
"It was the one that put Washington red wines on the map," said Bledsoe, who currently lives in Bend, Ore.
As Bledsoe's interest in wine swelled during his NFL career, he and his wife, Maura, decided to go all-in. They made that 80-acre purchase for $400,000 and planted 50 acres at $20,000 per acre without a winemaker, label or name. "We took a ready, fire, aim approach initially," Bledsoe said of the foray initiated by the land purchase.
The decision to start the vineyard in that section of the country comforted Bledsoe. What makes southeastern Washington such good wine country is its terroir (pronounced "tay-wah") -- a combination of the region's soil, climate and other environmental factors that make it optimal for growing grapes.
"We're phenomenally blessed in the Walla Walla Valley," Bledsoe said. "We have great, complex soil that's nutrient-rich but fairly porous." That latter description indicates the ability for water to move down the various soil zones from the surface. Good soil porosity is critical for a winery, Bledsoe explained. Too much water held near the surface encourages grapes to grow too large, giving them less flavor complexity than if they grow to a medium size.
The region's climate also is ideal. Temperatures average in the high 80s and low 90s while dropping to the low 60s at night during July and August. "You want those big [30- to 40-degree] swings," Bledsoe said. "You want hot days to get your fruit ripe but then you want it to cool off nicely at night so that the grapes stay on the vine longer and develop complexity."
Yet Bledsoe wasn't close to producing his vineyard's first bottle when he bought his first plot of land in '03. Although he wasn't looking for a business partner -- he prefers taking a financial hit in order to make the highest-quality wine rather than lower the quality to meet an earlier profit -- he understood he needed a winemaker to help his growth.
Enter Figgins, who in 2006 began talking more seriously with Bledsoe about a possible working relationship. A mutual friend of the two was advising the four-time NFL Pro Bowler as Figgins assessed the degree of Bledsoe's commitment to the vineyard. "I had to step up my game a little bit and convince him that I was serious about making really great wine," said Bledsoe, who also runs a capital group that invests in emerging technologies, such as water purification.
He succeeded, as Figgins officially became a consulting winemaker to Bledsoe's emerging vineyard in 2007. The addition represented a turning point, as Bledsoe calls Figgins a "rock star in the wine world."
Leonetti Cellar was gaining steam toward becoming an estate-grown winery, meaning it would produce all its fruit without purchasing it from local growers. Bledsoe had been doing just that for his 50-acre vineyard until hiring Figgins. That enabled him to form a contract to purchase fruit from Leonetti. Rather than let his vineyard's fruit mature and wait until 2013 to produce a bottle, Bledsoe said, the purchased fruit from Leonetti dramatically sped up Doubleback's opening date. (The label's name references Bledsoe "doubling back" to Walla Walla after his NFL career.)
That enabled the first vintage, a 2007 edition with a 75.5 percent cabernet sauvignon blend, to debut last year in 600 cases. Another 400 cases for that vintage didn't meet Bledsoe's standards; he used his power as the company's owner to keep the quantity at 600, rather than sell more with a lower quality. "Our very long-term prospective hinges on making the best possible wine we can," said Bledsoe, who acknowledged his investment in the vineyard is "significantly into the seven figures."
The 2008 vintage, an 86 percent cabernet sauvignon blend, was produced in 900 cases. Bledsoe hopes to grow that to 1,500 cases for the 2009 vintage and 2,000 for the 2010 edition, eventually reaching 4,000 to 5,000 cases per year. "At 4,000 cases, it turns into a good business where you can actually make money at it," he said, noting that 1,500 is a likely break-even point.
At $87 per bottle and with a modest bottle count, Doubleback retains an aura of exclusivity to its customers, 65 percent of whom buy from the website. The other 35 percent goes to restaurants and high-end wine shops in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Texas and Massachusetts.
Bledsoe has planted 16 acres of his current 50-acre vineyard, all of which is located in the Walla Walla Valley. (The 16-acre breakdown is 11 acres of cabernet sauvignon, three acres of merlot and two acres of petit verdot.) He ended up selling that first plot he bought in '03 because it was located outside the valley. He wanted to ensure his customers know all the fruit used to make each bottle comes from a valley that produces wine on caliber with that of California's Napa. Bledsoe described a two-pronged approach to his travels around the country to promote Doubleback: One is to market his label. The other? Bledsoe said it doubled back to his hometown. "We're trying to raise awareness of wine in the Northwest."
Kyle Stack is a freelance writer in New York City who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine.