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  • Kavitha A. Davidson

Former NFL DB Will Blackmon’s foray into the wine industry isn’t just fun and games

After a decade in the NFL as a cornerback and safety, Will Blackmon will forever be able to call himself a Super Bowl champion. Now, he’s working on a different title: The Wine MVP.

Blackmon is one of a slew of athletes, both active and retired, who have developed a passion for wine in recent years. Dwyane Wade’s D Wade Cellars might be the most well-known athlete-owned label. Carmelo Anthony, the NBA’s unofficial wine ambassador, has a YouTube series called “What’s In Your Glass?” and graced the cover of last month’s issue of Wine Spectator magazine. Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Damian Lillard are also known oenophiles. Unlike their predecessors, this new generation of athletes isn’t satisfied with just slapping their name and face on the side of a bottle — they truly care about the grapes.

“Athletes are now diving way more into the details of what it means to make wine and grow grapes,” Joe Harden, a winemaker and former basketball player who is now a winemaker for Nickel & Nickel winery in Napa Valley, told The Athletic. “Especially when guys are retiring, they have that Type-A personality and I think there’s so many things that kind of tie in with sports and wine. There’s a grind that comes with winemaking and grape-growing that is very similar with high-pressure athletes and guys who perform at a certain level.”

But Blackmon’s commitment to wine has reached an entirely new level. He studied in Sonoma State University’s wine business program and achieved Level 2 certification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, completing the Level 3 course and achieving Level 1 certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He also founded The Wine MVP, a concierge service in which he curates bottle selections for clients.

“This is not a hobby, which is why I’m going full-fledged with this thing,” Blackmon told The Athletic. “I definitely want to keep going as high as I can to continue to teach wine at a higher level, but I also want to continue to educate myself as I continue to educate those who want to know more.”

He developed a taste for wine early in his NFL career and credits former Packers teammate Charles Woodson with inspiring him to pursue wine at a higher level. After retiring from football in 2015, Woodson started Intercept Wines in 2019. During their playing days, Woodson would take teammates out to dinner and teach them about the wines they ordered.

“He was one of the originals, in terms of football, who was doing stuff like that,” Blackmon said. “He’s someone I admired and looked up to as a player, and it was cool to see someone not only play football but also look like me ethnicity-wise who was into wine.”

Having someone like Woodson as a role model in wine was incredibly important for Blackmon, in both lifting the curtain from an industry that has been notoriously exclusionary and recharacterizing wine as a drink that’s not just for rich white women. “Football is known for beer, and a lot of guys drink spirits and stuff like that. No one really celebrated wine,” he said. “It was kind of looked at like a feminine drink or whatever. But I’m like, ‘Charles is drinking it, and no one’s gonna say shit to him.’”

A self-described football historian, Blackmon threw himself into learning as much about wine as possible — no easy task in a culture that hasn’t always been open to outsiders without preexisting knowledge of the industry.

“Beyond just the idea that wine is for rich people, there was a snobbery to it, where if you felt you didn’t know about wine, you’re kind of embarrassed for asking questions,” Jesse Katz, a Sonoma County-based winemaker whose Aperture Cellars and Devil Proof Vineyards have collaborated with athletes including Tony Hawk and Von Miller, told The Athletic. “Athletes play a big part in this because most of them have a kind of confidence and go into it like, I’m going to be that dummy and ask all those dumb questions, and then they share their exploration through wine.”

It’s not just athletes or other celebrities who are getting more into wine and asking the dumb questions. There has been a big push to make the industry more accessible and encourage millennial consumers with and without large bank accounts to explore wine, while also opening the space to Black and Brown consumers.

“If you can remove the stuffiness out of wine, that’s personally where I like to geek out,” Harden said. “At the end of the day, we’re making fermented grape juice. Now that these athletes are kind of opening the doors and introducing a whole new demographic and a whole new level of consumer, I think it’s great for the wine business. I think the more people opening bottles and popping corks and talking about it, talking about where the wine is from, they’re opening up doors that I think Napa specifically has really needed to open.”

Athletes are helping guide the wine industry toward different demographics, posting about their wines on Instagram and knocking down the cultural barriers that have long made certain people feel that wine isn’t meant for them. The financial barriers obviously matter, too: Blackmon, Katz and Harden all note that athlete-led bottles exist at a variety of price points. For example, while Wade’s cabernet sauvignon runs $95 a bottle, his rosé is a far more accessible $15. Blackmon’s subscription service at The Wine MVP charges $79.98 for two curated bottles per month.

Popular depictions of the wine industry have also helped to “demystify” wine to millennials, as Blackmon put it, most notably the “Somm” series of documentaries, which follows aspiring wine professionals as they prepare to take the Master Sommelier exam. “Those guys were younger. They were just regular dudes who went through it,” Blackmon said. “You got to see the vulnerability. And so that’s what made it cool.”

Watching “Somm” inspired Blackmon to learn more about the winemaking process. There’s also something about wine that inherently inspires passion; once you fall into this world, it’s nearly impossible to be just a casual wine drinker. “For me, it’s the stories. It’s the fact that a lot of history has been changed over a glass,” Blackmon said. “It’s a passport in a glass.”

Harden, meanwhile, grew up outside of Napa and was exposed to wine at an early age, with his dad working on the sales side of the wine business. As a 6-foot-7 sports-obsessed kid, he landed a basketball scholarship to Notre Dame but found the Indiana winters too harsh and eventually transferred to UC Davis, where he continued to play college hoops while earning his degree in viticulture and enology. Upon graduating, he got drafted by the Golden State Warriors’ D-League team, playing there and in Australia before returning to California to pursue winemaking. Like many athletes transitioning to a post-retirement career, Harden had to find another passion that could define him. “I was worried about what’s going to fuel that fire that I always kept going for sports, and winemaking is totally in line with that,” he said.

Hearing Harden talk about the physical and mental strains of the wine season evokes the same sentiment athletes use to describe the grind of the sports season. He describes his role as a winemaker as akin to a coach, with harvest as his playoffs. “We have our harvest season. We prepare all year for these four months,” he said. “There’s so many obstacles that potentially happen throughout harvest, whether it’s fires or earthquakes or not having enough labor. With athletes, you might get an injury or something might happen that you have to kind of overcome. You have to make sure all these people come together to kind of work together to create this beautiful wine.”

There also might be an overlap between sports and wine in the natural competitiveness of the players. While there’s a prestige element to athletes posting the rare, thousand-dollar bottle on social media, it’s not just about flashing money. “Anytime that you have athletes who usually make a good amount of money, there’s competitive elements there and there’s ego there,” Katz said. “I think they’re certainly trying to one-up each other on bottles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most expensive bottle — it might be a bottle that the others hadn’t heard of but blows the other ones out of the water.”

And then there’s the health aspect. With athletes investing more money and care into the commodity that is their bodies, a focus on what they put into them has emerged, with meticulously planned diets and supplement regimens. Beer might have been the libation of choice for the athlete of the past, but the sugar and empty calories have started to turn some toward wine. Two years ago, The Athletic’s Joe McDonald detailed this trend among NHL players with bigger contracts that allowed them to afford fine wine. In some circles of athletes, at least, the goal seems to be moving away from drinking as much as possible to get drunk and dealing with a hangover the next morning toward savoring higher-quality drinks that might be better for health.

The health benefits of moderate red wine consumption have been covered endlessly, from antioxidants to lower sugar content. A recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition pointed to the presence of polyphenols in grapes, which may help improve athletic performance and exercise recovery at the cellular level. (The study’s authors, however, are quick to note that the alcohol content of wine compared with the polyphenol content might not make wine the best way for athletes to get their recommended dose.)

“Ninety-nine percent of the wines out there have less than two grams of sugar for the whole bottle, per liter,” Katz said. “And there’s in particular red wine, then health benefits with minimal consumption. So I think people are really cognizant of that.”

In many ways, the trend of athletes breaking into high levels of wine connoisseurship can be seen as uniquely American, in terms of the social mobility a professional sports career can provide and the willingness, at least recently, for the industry to face disruption. European labels are highly generational, with vineyards passed down throughout a family’s lineage. “You go to some of these wineries out there and it’s generation after generation within their bloodline,” Katz said. “And so it’s really hard to break into that, unless you have an insane amount of wealth and you can buy into it.”

Athletes are wealthier than ever, and wine is certainly just one of many industries they’re choosing to invest in. But the passion is clearly there, and the trend of sports stars in wine doesn’t seem to be abating. “Whether it’s friends in the business or other winemakers who either have a winery or are making wine for a high-end company, I think everyone’s excited about the trend,” Harden said. “I think a lot of Napa Valley are huge sports fans, and it’s kind of a rising tide raises all ships.”

“If you don’t love it, you’re not gonna go for it,” Blackmon said. “I just learned that from life in general. There’s a lot of people who play football and don’t love it, but there’s a big reward for it.” Blackmon was decidedly not one of those guys; he had nine surgeries in 12 years (playing for three teams including the Jaguars and Giants) and did everything he could to remain in football, and he’s bringing that same fervor to wine.

“That’s kind of how the passion grows, almost like starting a fire,” he said. “You get a little bit of smoke and then the more you feed into it, the fire eventually grows.”

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