Inside Hall of Fame coach Dick Vermeil's second act

Christie Hemm Klok for ESPN

IT'S 6:30 A.M., and the first light has not yet popped up over the Mayacamas Mountains as Dick Vermeil climbs into the seat of a tractor.

On this September day in California's Napa Valley, it is harvest season. Vermeil is hauling petite sirah grapes from the fields to a collection point, where they will be taken to the winery for conversion into one of Vermeil Wines' 11 varietals.

Vermeil watches the frenetic pace of the workers around him. Seventeen years removed from his career as an NFL coach, the 86-year-old Vermeil still thinks and sounds like one. He spends his time studying the 12 workers and notes how each goes about the business of trimming the grapes off the vines in a slightly different way.

Vermeil nods at one and calls him "my first-round draft pick."

"He stands out, but they all work hard. There isn't one guy I would cut from the team. But I rank them and I'm picking him in the first round. "

Vermeil, who won 120 games as a coach for three NFL teams and a Super Bowl championship in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, isn't the only Pro Football Hall of Fame member with his name on a winery. Mike Ditka, for instance, is another.

But Vermeil didn't just lend his name to the winery. He works it, too. He lives on the other side of the country, on 100 acres outside of Philadelphia, but said on most days he still does something for the wine business.

As a coach, Vermeil was known for his intensity and demanding style. He often worked 20-hour days that would end with him sleeping in his office, and he would require the same from his assistants. He would conduct long, physical practices that sometimes led his players to revolt.

Ever the football coach, Vermeil attends the wine company's annual meetings armed with notes that resemble one of his voluminous playbooks.

"The preparation he puts in for those meetings, it is like a game plan in football," said Michael Azeez, one of the lead investors in Vermeil Wines. "He writes everything down on a pad of paper. He's got a whole list of things for us to consider, whether that's coming up with a better way of doing something or making some different wines or how we're selling them.

"That quality of challenging people comes through in our management meetings."

Making wine isn't a replacement for coaching in terms of the rush it provides. But there is fulfillment nonetheless. Vermeil says he gets satisfaction out of seeing people enjoy his wines.

And though it wasn't his idea to turn Vermeil Wines into a business, he says it is a lot like running a football team.

"You'd better have good coaches," Vermeil said. "In the wine business, you better have great people in position to make the wine, people who know what they're doing."

Vermeil Wines isn't a major producer, turning out about 2,500 cases per year compared to the largest U.S. producers that turn out tens of millions of cases annually. But the wines frequently receive high ratings, with several topping 90 on a 100-point scale from Wine Advocate. Vermeil has a cabernet sauvignon coming out in 2024 to honor his 2022 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Harvest season notwithstanding, Vermeil is mostly involved with the marketing part of the business. He frequently travels around the country selling wine.

"Major corporations or country club golf courses, if they can get Dick Vermeil to come out and make a wine presentation, whether it's a wine dinner or a wine tasting, that usually stimulates some pretty good sales," said former Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson, who owns 15% of the winery. "He's willing to do that with his time. He's been the catalyst, no question about it.

"We went 14 years in the red, and the last two years have been in the black. We're making money. Not a lot, but we don't have any more capital calls. On top of that, we're making some really great wine. We think that's directly related to Dick's involvement. It's Dick and the emphasis he puts on it."

VERMEIL GREW UP in Calistoga, California, on the northern end of the country's most famed wine-producing region. His great-grandfather Jean Louis Vermeil, originally from Tuscany, came to the United States and settled in the San Francisco area. The Napa Valley reminded him of home, so he started buying property, vineyards and fruit orchards.

The Vermeils made wine with their grapes on a small scale, mostly for family consumption. Even when he was as young as 6 or 7 years old, Dick was assigned to help on the grape crusher by twisting the press and received his first exposure to the business.

For meals on special occasions, his parents would give Vermeil a glass of half wine, half water.

"Wine was always a big part of holiday meals," Vermeil said. "We would open my grandfather's new vintage and the adults would discuss it. I would sit there and listen to every word. I was fascinated by it.

"It left an image to me, how important this product was to our family and to a lot of families."

It took some years before Vermeil got into the wine business. Coaching came first, initially in high school in California, then college at UCLA and finally 15 years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Chiefs. His time in the NFL was interrupted by a 14-year hiatus, during which Vermeil felt he needed the break to combat stress, making for a most unconventional Hall of Fame coaching career.

Toward the end of his career, Vermeil wanted to honor his great grandfather by putting his name on a bottle of wine. He mentioned this to a Napa Valley friend who made wine out of his home, and a couple of hundred cases honoring Jean Louis were made.

When he was coaching in Kansas City, the last stop of his career, he would distribute bottles as Christmas presents to members of his staff. Friends came to him after he retired from coaching for the last time in 2005 with the idea of turning this wine hobby into a business.

Vermeil agreed, becoming a 15% owner in the operation. The group of investors bought a small winery in 2007, and by the next year put Vermeil's name on the label.

Their first bottle was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petite sirah called simply XXXIV for the number of the Super Bowl won by Vermeil and the Rams over the Tennessee Titans, and there are still a few hundred cases of XXXIV produced every year.

TODD COLLINS WAS summoned to his coach's office after an offseason Chiefs practice. The backup quarterback immediately figured he was headed for bad news.

"He just wanted to know if I wanted to go to a wine tasting in Kansas City with him that night," Collins remembered. "With Dick, he wasn't shy about sharing his affection for wine with some of his players."

Vermeil's influence on his former players when it comes to wine is considerable.

Running back Tony Richardson collects wine, which he keeps at home in a cellar he calls "the Vermeil Room."

A number of Vermeil's players with the Chiefs are involved in wine in one way or another. Collins and another of Vermeil's quarterbacks, Trent Green, each own 1% of Vermeil Wines. A third quarterback, Damon Huard, runs a winery in Washington state with Dan Marino called Passing Time. Former wide receiver Eddie Kennison once owned a wine shop in Kansas City that he sold when he moved home to Louisiana, but he recently said he plans to open another there.

"We would be out to dinner at training camp, just the quarterbacks, and all of a sudden a bottle of prime merlot would show up at our table," Huard said. "The server would say, 'Coach Vermeil wanted you to have this.' He certainly taught me the appreciation for food and wine. When I was younger, I might drink a glass of wine more as a cocktail than anything. He was more about how it paired with food to enhance the experience.

"He was a big supporter for Passing Time when we first got it started by buying a lot of our wine. Even today, he'll give me advice on how to run the business."

Vermeil's love of wine once got him in trouble with the NFL. Before kicker Morten Andersen attempted a late field goal that would give the Chiefs a win in a close game against the Raiders one season, Vermeil promised Andersen a bottle of Bryant Family Vineyards cabernet sauvignon, priced around $500, if he made the kick.

Vermeil talked afterward about his planned gift to Andersen, but the league said it would have been in violation of salary cap rules.

Vermeil and his wife, Carol, would hold dinners at their Kansas City condo for groups of players. The building initially had a rule about no grills on the decks but relented for the Vermeils so they could cook for the players.

"Dick and Carol mentioned they had done so many of those dinners," Collins said. "They did them when Dick was coaching in high school, coaching in college, coaching in the NFL. They said they didn't know how many of them they had done, but it had to be hundreds and hundreds of them. The wives came, the girlfriends. It was a great team-building thing.

"We would eat steak that Dick cooked on the grill. We had salad and vegetables. And we always had some wine. The thing about Dick was you'd never see him drink too much wine. He would always say that when he was a kid wine was on the dinner table just as salt and pepper were. It was an essential part of the meal because it enhanced the meal. It wasn't there to drink to excess.''

VERMEIL EVENTUALLY FINISHES his day in the fields but not before taking a call from another Super Bowl-winning coach, former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who was providing Vermeil an address for wine intended for Coughlin's upcoming charity event.

Later, at the Vermeil Wines tasting room in the city of Napa, Vermeil serves wine to customers from behind the bar. He talks with one customer who lived in Philadelphia when Vermeil coached the Eagles 40 years earlier. The fan's wife then approaches Vermeil, telling him Vermeil had delighted her husband by saying hello.

It's all in a day's work for the Hall of Fame coach.

"It's not a big money deal, but at least we're paying all of our bills and making excellent wines," Vermeil said. "I'm not a real knowledgeable wine guy. I know some basics. I don't pretend to be an expert. I don't have a sophisticated palate. I know what I like. I know what tastes good to me, and if it tastes good to you, it's good wine no matter what you paid for it."