- The most important member of USC's defense was also the most surprising tour guide at Melville Winery in between seasons in which he led the Trojans in tackles. Now he's honing his wine palate and his NFL draft case.
LOS ANGELES — Cameron Smith closes his eyes to shut off one of his senses and enhance another, then takes a sip and swirls it around, like a seasoned expert instead of the novice that he is.
Standing nearby, winemaker Chad Melville watches Smith transfer that sip from one side of his mouth to the other, fascinated that this is the same person who spends Saturdays in the fall violently hunting down ballcarriers.
“It’s funny when you go back to the size of him,” Melville says. “This massive young man loving delicate wines.”
Smith can tell you if a pinot noir is fruity or oaky, if a chardonnay is full- or light-bodied. He can tell you whether a red is tannic or a white is crisp. He can also tell you how to adjust a defensive formation to a two–tight end set, how to attack a counter trey and how to defend the slip screen.
He is both an aspiring NFL linebacker—a preseason All-America candidate months away from selection in the draft—and an aspiring wine steward who spent last summer interning at Melville Winery in Lompoc, Calif., a valley town 150 miles up U.S. Route 101 from Los Angeles. To USC coach Clay Helton, Smith is “a Renaissance man,” a 6'2", 250-pound middle linebacker with a growing wine collection, a budding palate and a vital role in the Trojans’ 2018 season—even more so now that standout outside linebacker Porter Gustin will miss most of the preseason and possibly the first weeks of September with a torn meniscus.
Smith leads one of college football’s most talent-rich defenses after bypassing mid-round NFL draft grades to return for his senior season in hopes of accomplishing a goal he’s yet to achieve: be an All-America selection. “I’m not really done,” Smith says, shrugging off his gaudy stats as a three-year starter: 273 tackles, six forced turnovers and a rookie-season pace that, if not for a knee injury, might have made him the first true freshman to lead the Trojans in tackles since at least as far back as 1954.
In the offseason between the 2016 and ’17 seasons, both of which ended with Smith leading the team in tackles, he worked for three months in Lompoc for the Melvilles, who are farmers turned grape-growing winemakers. Ron Melville and his son Chad run a quaint seven-employee, 120-acre vineyard, which produces as many as 12,000 cases of wine (about 145,000 bottles) each year. They specialize in pinot noir, a more medium-bodied red that’s less vigorous than, say, a cabernet. Pinot noirs just so happen to be Smith’s go-to wine, and the reason has little to do with the taste.
“It’s fascinating with how much effort you have to go through to make it, how finicky the grape is,” Smith says. “Takes a lot of effort for the winemaker to produce something special. A lot of people love cabernets, but it’s very easy to manipulate them. I like pinot noir, needs to be pretty much perfect to produce a good bottle.”
Smith does not drink wine during the playing or training season, leaving parts of the spring to indulge in the fruits of his former employer’s labor. Smith is more enamored with the farming side of wine-making, anyway. His internship with Melville was split into three components: the vineyard, where the grapes are grown; the wine cellar, where grapes ferment in barrels before they are bottled; and the tasting room, where the finished product is sipped and discussed.
The biggest adjustment for Smith, a naturally shy person, was the final phase of those three, where he was exposed as a 21-year-old attempting to talk wine with people three times his age. “It got really awkward,” he says. “I can talk to anybody about football, but when it’s something you don’t know about, it’s just kind of … you’re halfway bulls----ing.”
The Melville Winery tasting room is focused on education, and guests are allowed five tastings as part of a package deal that includes a tour through the facility. And yes, Smith gave tours. “People were like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ He towered over all of us,” says Valerie Wood, the winery’s tasting room manager for the last 12 years. “It was a lot of curiosity from people. ‘Why’s he here? How did he get interested in this?’”
Because his girlfriend’s father works for Tito’s, Smith developed a fascination for the process of distilling vodka. That grew into an interest in the brewing process of beer and, finally, the fermenting process for wine. It was former USC quarterback Sam Darnold who first connected Chad Melville and his close friend Smith at a Trojans practice.
“Sam told me, ‘Cam is a pretty shy person and he doesn’t like to talk a lot, but since working at the winery, he won’t shut up,’” Melville says. “For the first time in his life, he’s doing something other than football. Before this, all he did was lift weights, eat, practice football, play in games. Football, football, football. This was the first flavor in his mouth that wasn’t football.”
This fall, Smith will be the vocal leader of a defensive squad that many believe will be the Pac-12’s best. He enters 2018 with hopes of improving a mid-round draft grade last off-season (third to fifth round) that irked him. Smith says those grades are based solely on his film, whereas the strength of his game is the mental side, which would come out during interviews with pro teams, when he can scribble plays on a white board and diagnose offenses on a projection screen. As a junior, he handled the on-field calls for Clancy Pendergast’s defense last season. He and his defensive coordinator don’t sit around discussing the differences between a shiraz and a malbec. “He’s all ball when he’s around me,” Pendergast says.
Smith sits behind a small handful of talented linebackers in way-too-early 2019 NFL draft position rankings, but “he’s not one of the NFL-or-bust guys,” Helton says. Along with his interest in becoming a full-fledged winemaker, Smith wants to fight fires, too. “That’ll be the only firefighter-winemaker that you’ll ever see,” Helton chuckles.
Meanwhile, Smith’s wine collection continues to grow, with pointers from Melville. He’s up to about 25 bottles, some of which he plans to individually gift to his coaches. Melville saw his intern’s passion during the linebacker’s time at the winery. His schedule was a grueling one, weaving his four workdays per week at the winery around team workouts a three-hour drive away at USC, Monday through Friday from 6 to 8 a.m.
Unlike Melville, Wood is not a football fan, but she tuned in to a few USC games last season after connecting with Smith in the tasting room over the summer. Knowing both sides of one of the Trojans’ most important players makes her laugh. “He’s crushing players in a game,” she says, “and then afterward swirling and sniffing a nice pinot.”