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Trading touchdowns for tannins: star QB Drew Bledsoe finds similarities between playing football and making wine

UPDATED: Tue., April 3, 2018, 4:54 p.m.

On the surface, they don’t seem to share similarities.

Really, how much could wine and football possibly have in common?

The parallels, said former NFL quarterback-turned-winery owner Drew Bledsoe, “are everywhere.” And they start with work ethic and the simple beliefs that “you show up every day” and “you’ve got to have a great team around you.”

At Doubleback and Bledsoe Family wineries, which Bledsoe owns with his wife, Maura, “we’ve got a fantastic team, people with definitive skills who can really work together” – like, say, a football team.

Bledsoe, the special guest at this weekend’s inaugural Coeur d’Alene Resort Food and Wine Festival, will be talking about his transition from playing professional football to founding and operating a wine business in Walla Walla, where he grew up.

Festivities start Friday with an opening reception and continue Saturday with cooking demonstrations, wine sampling and opportunities to indulge in multi-course meals prepared by regional chefs. The sold-out Doubleback Wine Dinner caps the event with a six-course meal paired with Doubleback wines.

The 46-year-old Bledsoe, who lives in Bend, Oregon, said he’s looking forward to the festival and the chance to share the Doubleback story.

“I’ll talk two or three times during the course of dinner,” he said. “It’s generally an educational experience on top of just being a great dining and wine experience.”

Doubleback, founded in 2007, the year Bledsoe retired from football, specializes in premium reds. The name refers to Bledsoe returning home to Walla Walla to make wine after a 14-season NFL career.

“The story we want people to get is that a small-town kid from Walla Walla made good, then double-backed and made it home,” said Bledsoe, who spends “four or five” days a month in his hometown and “40 or 50” days a year on the road selling wine and making appearances at events such as this weekend’s first-time festival.

“You can’t just release a product and expect it to sell,” Blesoe said. “You have to tell the story. That’s what I do. Our hope is that when I show up, it’s a little more meaningful to people. It’s our winery, but I think people are sometimes surprised how really serious we are. There’s a stigma with celebrities or athletes who just slap their name on a project.”

This, Bledsoe emphasized, “is not a passing interest. It’s not a vanity project. It’s not a hobby.”

During the past decade, Doubleback has earned high scores from Wine Spectator as well as a spot on the magazine’s Top 100 list for its signature cabernet sauvignon, which sells for about $100 a bottle.

Doubleback’s sister project, Bledsoe Family Wine, launched last year, aims to offer high-quality wines at more approachable price points, or about half or a third of the price of the Doubleback brand.

“The overriding goal and mission is to make wines that have balance and elegance in addition to complexity,” Bledsoe said. “Thankfully, the Walla Walla Valley does balance and elegance extremely well. It starts in the vineyard with hot summers and cool nights.”

Bledsoe first bought vineyard land in 2003 during his 11th season with the NFL. He was still several years from retiring, and he was troubled by the stats.

“Professional athletes retire from their sport, and the statistics are pretty alarming,” Bledsoe said. “Somewhere around 70 percent of retired NFL football players have some sort of trouble with drugs or alcohol or depression within three years of retiring. It’s pretty scary stuff. I was worried about it. If you don’t have a purpose in life, it’s hard to feel like you’re a fulfilled person.”

Bledsoe was the star quarterback at Washington State University, where he played three seasons. In 1993, he was the top pick in the NFL draft, skipping his senior year to go pro and play for the New England Patriots. In 1997, he led the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI, where they lost to the Green Bay Packers. After an early-season, late-game, life-threatening injury in 2001, he was replaced by Tom Brady, then an unknown backup. That season would see the Patriots win their first Super Bowl, with Bledsoe relieving Brady in the AFC Championship Game. He left the Pats after that season, playing for the Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys before retiring.

“The guys that are successful in making the transition have something to apply themselves to, something to keep them busy,” Bledsoe said. “And my wife and I both have a shared passion for wine. The winery was something that we started thinking about and working on while I was still playing football.”

His childhood friend, Chris Figgins, whose parents started the famed Walla Walla winery, Leonetti Cellar, in 1977, helped him produce the first Doubleback vintage in 2007.

“I had the huge benefit of being able to work with Chris Figgins right out of the gate,” Bledsoe said. “The minute that Chris and I started working together, everybody knew I was serious. Chris wasn’t going to lend his name to something that wasn’t serious. That was a big jump start to us.”

Figgins’ protégé Josh McDaniels now serves as winemaker and general manager for both the Doubleback and Bledsoe Family wineries.

Doubleback’s cabernet sauvignon, aged on French oak, “is the main focus of everything we do,” Bledsoe said. It’s his go-to. “I always love our Doubleback cabernet.”

While Bledsoe is immersed in his second career in the wine world, he still remains connected to football.

“I keep in touch with some buddies that are still playing,” he said. “I keep in touch with the Patriots organization.”

He also has coached his sons’ high school team in Bend. He had three sons and a daughter, ages 20, 18, 17 and 14.

Coaching his own kids has been “really fun.” And the lessons he’s imparting to them and their teammates translate to life and work on and off the field.

“You have to have perseverance,” Bledsoe said. “You have to fight through the setbacks. You have to do all of the little things right before the big things are allowed to happen. That’s the same in football and in business. Every little details has to be right if you want to be competitive.”

The similarities between the vineyard and the gridiron don’t stop there.

“When you play football, you’re always planning. And then you have to go execute your plan. It’s the same with the wine business,” Bledsoe said. “We’re always planning three to five years out. And then we have to go execute our plan.”

On the web: www.doubleback.com.