PASO ROBLES, Calif. -- Terry Hoage lowers his forklift and balances four bottles on one of the tines. It's a precarious tasting bar set up amid dozens of oak barrels inside the warehouse. Wood from reclaimed midwestern barns panels the exterior, almost camouflaging the serious winemaking that takes place here. Locked inside the cold air are the tiniest particles of bright fruit, jam, tobacco and vanilla.
He pours a grenache blend and gives it a quick swirl before taking a sip. "The Pick is developing really well," he calls out to his wife, Jennifer, who is barrel tasting several rows away.
After a 13-year NFL career, Terry Hoage has just one teammate now. He met Jennifer while playing for the Saints. She wrote the dining and entertainment section for New Orleans magazine. Nearly a decade ago, they began producing world class wines in California's central coast. But Terry Hoage Vineyards is the exception to the retired athlete wine making rule.
Dan Marino. John Madden. Ernie Els. Wayne Gretzky. Mario Andretti. Greg Norman. Jeff Gordon. Yao Ming. They are all on the long list of former athletes who have their names emblazoned on wine bottles. A few, like Drew Bledsoe, play a role in the process. But most are like Mike Ditka, who's probably come closer to shaving his mustache than taking a Brix reading.
Hoage is not simply lending his moniker. He's devoted himself to this pursuit from tractor to tasting room. Every drop that pours from one of his bottles is the result of decisions Hoage and his wife have made. Wine is not a side business. It is certainly not an easy business. There are more than 3,400 bonded wineries in the state of California alone. That represents a 321 percent growth from just 20 years ago. This surging number of vintners is vying for a piece of a relatively stagnant economy.
The Hoages' life is a gamble; their livelihood dependent on weather, pests, mold and rot. That's all just to grow the fruit, not taking into account the variables after harvest. Each year is very different, very uncertain from the next. They didn't choose this life because they simply enjoyed drinking wine or wanted to have their own label.
"I can't speak for other guys. I don't know why they do it," Hoage says. "For me, it was never driven by ego. I liked farming, and I found it was something that gave me a lot of pleasure."
But that wasn't always the plan. After he retired from football in 1996, Hoage interned at Merrill Lynch. He got his Series 7 and seemed to be headed for the financial world, but found out quickly it wasn't a good fit.
"I absolutely hated it," he says. "The coat and tie. Going to the office. It didn't fit my personality at all."
Next Hoage founded a construction company in Phoenix and built houses. But something still wasn't right. He and Jennifer believed their children, Christopher and Natalie, needed a change. That's when they moved to California's central coast, settling in Templeton. But the football life wouldn't let them get away that easily. Shortly after the move, Jeff Fisher called offering Terry a coaching position with the Tennessee Titans. He turned it down.
"I had no idea Jeff would go on to stay there for 13 years and become the longest tenured coach," he says, laughing.
Instead Terry got immersed in the social fabric of the area. He finished getting his pilot's license, played a lot of golf, and even volunteered with the fire department.
"I started farming a small piece of land and I really enjoyed it," he says. "I enjoyed being on the tractor and being outside. It reminded me of football. I stood outside my entire life."
But Hoage wouldn't get into the wine-making business for another two years, not until a great piece of property came onto the market a few miles north in Paso Robles. It had five acres of syrah grapes growing on it and a lot of potential. Hoage called in friend and winemaker, Justin Smith, to evaluate the land -- the equivalent of shopping for a computer with a young Bill Gates. (Smith would go on to found Saxum Winery and earn a perfect score of 100 for one of his wines, a very rare feat. In 2010, Wine Spectator named one of his offerings the Wine of the Year.)
Smith declared that the 26-acre parcel 1.2 miles down a dirt road on the west side of Highway 101 could make world-class wines. Hoage agreed and enlisted the winemaker to show him the ropes. To this point, the former football player was simply a farmer. This purchase, though, would open up a whole new world.
"The unique thing about farming grapes is at the end you can go through this amazing process and create another thing that people absolutely love and gives you a sense of accomplishment," Hoage says.
The only thing left was to come up with a name, but that wasn't as easy as it seems. Citing a lack of creativity, he admits it took a year to do. Terry and Jennifer first settled on Serine Cannnonau, which translates to syrah grenache, two of the Rhone varietals they planted. After hearing people call up and butcher the name, they went back to the drawing board. They looked at other possibilities in Latin, French and even Spanish, before deciding to use his name.
"Not because I was embarrassed," Hoage explains, "but because I was afraid people wouldn't take seriously what I was doing."
Instead they decided to embrace the fact that he used to play football. The connection is clearest in the names of their wines. Each is a double entendre, referencing something from Terry's gridiron past and his grape-stained present. Their first wine was called The Hedge, which is a pruning technique and the foliage surrounding Georgia's Sanford Stadium, where Hoage played for four years.
"I wanted to pay homage to the university and Coach Dooley," Hoage says. He also has a cabinet full of Bulldog memorabilia behind the bar in the winery's tasting room.
Terry Hoage Vineyards also produces another tribute wine in the 46. Buddy Ryan, who kept Hoage employed for eight of his 13 seasons, is widely known for the creation of a defensive scheme under the same name. 46 is also the number of the highway that runs into Paso Robles. Hoage presented his former coach with a large bottle of the vintage last year.
There is also a wine called Skins, a shout out to the team he won a Super Bowl with in 1992 and the skins of the grapes. 5 Blocks references the number of blocked field goals he recorded in college, and the section of grapes he uses to make the wine. Football fans don't also need to be oenophiles to understand the meaning behind The Pick.
"We can't make a whole lot more wines because I'm just not that creative," Hoage jokes.
He and his wife also don't plan on making that much more wine in general. They've capped their production at around 2,000 cases. The relationship with Justin Smith gave them "instant credibility" those first two years. Terry and Jennifer took over the winemaking in 2004 and never looked back. It hasn't always been easy on the winemaking or family front, but Hoage says everyone has found something that fits them because of their decision to move. Christopher, who turns 23 this month, has a good career in the computer industry not too far away in San Luis Obispo. Natalie, two years younger, is studying at University of California-Berkeley. In 2008, Wine Spectator named Terry Hoage Vineyards among the Top New California Wine Producers, and they sell out every year.
"It's nice in the wine industry that we're getting recognized for what we're doing in wine and not just because of the sports aspect," he says.
Having spent nearly as much time amid the vines as he did deep in the secondary, Hoage considers himself more winemaker now than anything else. It's a feeling that few, if any, former athletes know. It's a pride that those who just lend their names to a wine will never understand.
The adulation from his playing days is gone, but Hoage says he doesn't miss it. He has a new spotlight on him and his second career. His competitive side is still there though. He recently broke a finger in his weekly pick-up basketball game. It's one place where there's still a clear winner and loser. Winemaking doesn't have such a thing. Hoage says he is not driven by a goal of a 100-point wine. There is no holy grail, no Super Bowl in this life.
"In football, at the end of the day you know who the better team is," Hoage says. "In the wine world, that's impossible."
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