Vermeil doing just vine nowadays

Thursday May 8th, 2008

Dick Vermeil was concerned. He had gotten off to a good start with his 2003 vintage Charbono, a dark, stylish wine that is made only in California. It was a correct wine, mixing the dark brooding touches of this exotic grape with a clean taste of berryish fruit, but then the next vintage, the 2004, had shown an overripe, spirity quality that puzzled a few of the tasters in the room.

And the Charbono entries from 13 other wineries were closing fast, six vintages of Sally Ottoson's Pacific Star Winery north of Fort Bragg, America's westernmost wine outpost, overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific, the rare and wildly expensive Turley Charbonos, with entries going back 16 years, almost the compete roster of prestige names dedicated to this little known but dearly loved grape.

They were gathered at Felidia's Restaurant in New York for the monthly luncheon and tasting of the NY Wine Media Guild on Wednesday. Never had so many of the mysterious and little understood Charbonos been collected under a single roof. And now Vermeil, who had taken the Rams and Eagles to the Super Bowl, was down to his last shot, the 2005 vintage, Frediani Vineyard, from his Calistoga winery, On the Edge, and some of his old fans in the room wished him luck.

The wine didn't need it. Charbonos can run the gamut from stylishness to the brutal wallops of alcohol and tannin, which made the old Inglenooks of 50 years ago so famous. But Vermeil's On the Edge, Frediani, was a mirror of the way he coached in the NFL for 16 years. A great sense of class and style and elegance, but with surprising effectiveness as well. Just think back to his 1999 Super Bowl champion Rams, the Greatest Show on Turf, and the way they moved down the field with Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce putting on that masterful display of offensive artistry. Put that stylishness in a bottle and you've got On the Edge.

People congratulated Vermeil afterward, myself included. No scores were kept ... this wasn't a judging, after all, but everyone had his or her favorite, and Vermeil's 2005 was mine.

"It really was good, wasn't it?" he said in that almost boyish way that he used to describe a particularly memorable play on the field.

At 71, Vermeil has made his peace with the world, and that world is the haut monde of elegant wines. The unbearable pressure of the NFL, which once threatened to tear him apart, has been replaced by a life in which competitors root for each other and actually compliment their fellow winemakers on notable efforts. He has hooked up with an old Calistogsa buddy, Paul Smith, the majority owner of On the Edge and a winemaker whose credentials include a major role in the famous Mondavi-Mouton Rothschild creation, Opus One.

Is Vermeil happy to be looking at the NFL through rose-colored glasses? You bet.

"What did you think of the Super Bowl?" I asked him, just to let him know that I hadn't entirely abandoned the NFL.

"You know something? I was fishing that day," he said. "And that's the truth."

Vermeil grew up in Calistoga, the northernmost outpost of the Napa Valley. He worked in his father's auto repair shop. Best of all, he was a cellar rat who knew how to work a harvest.

"I helped my grandfather on the French side of the family make the wine," Vermeil said. "Gene Frediani, who owned the vineyard, and I would truck the grapes to my grandfather, and he'd leave my younger brother and me to make the wine.

"I had wine with dinner as far back as a 10-year old. My dad, who was French-Italian, was sent home from elementary school one day because he had wine in his thermos bottle."

On the Edge produces the usual run of Napa Valley varieties: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah. The grace notes are the Charbono and a special estate Cabernet called Jean Louis Vermeil, with a picture of his great grandfather's town in France on the label. It is a silky, elegant wine, a beauty, as is the Charbono. Vermeil has worked the grapes from Gene Frediani's vineyard all his life. Frediani's widow, Jeanne, still owns it.

"It's 170 acres and she runs it on a ledger," Vermeil says. "She's 78. Ask her how the crop was in a certain year, who bought the wine, and she knows, even without looking at the ledger. Gene leased the land, then he worked it, then he bought it. In 1965, when I was working at Napa Junior College, Gene called and said he had a chance to buy 48 acres of vineyard land for $45,000. He was all excited, he wanted me to go in with him.

"I was making $6,500 a year. I would have loved to, but ... you know. He found a way to buy it himself."

And now Vermeil is in the business himself as a part-owner.

"This goes back to 1999," he says. "One day I came to Paul Smith and said, 'You know, I'd really like to make some wine. What we have now are 10,000 cases of wine labeled Frediani and 200 cases of Jean Louis Vermeil. It used to be a love affair. Now it's also a business.

"This is my heritage. I made a living trying to coach football all those years. Now I try to coach wine."

The inevitable question: Does he miss it, the big arena, the game, the tremendous highs and lows?

"What I miss most are the relationships," he said. "The actual work of coaching became difficult. It takes so much energy and there's only so much to give. I had a terrible habit of giving more than I had.

"But the relationships always were the wonderful part of it. I still see so many of my old players. Very few weeks go by that I don't hear from kids I coached. Just heard from the captain of my high school team. Someone else sent me a bottle of 1937 Beringer Cabernet, with that deep maroon label. He said, 'Here's a wine for your birth year.' The trouble was that I was born in '36."

There is a famous story about how, when Vermeil was coaching the Chiefs, and his kicker Morten Andersen, was about to go out for a game-winning field goal.

"Make it and you've got a bottle of Bryant Family Cabernet," Vermeil told him. Andersen, a high living Dane, was into wines. He used to tell people, "Tonight we're going out to drink some Louies," Louie being Roederer Crystal, first name Louis, a $200 champagne. He made the kick. Paul Tagliabue and the heavies in the league office heard about the deal and came on strong. No bounties. No payoffs. Verboten. Pas permitte.

"Too late," Vermeil said. "I'd already given Morten the bottle."

I remember reading about it at the time and sending Vermeil a note. "Wrong wine. You should have given him the Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet. We both know it's better."

"I keep in touch with friends through wine," Vermeil says. "Tony Richardson, my fullback at Kansas City, now has a cellar he calls the Vermeil cellar. Tony Gonzalez is into it. I learned from my parents, who lived to give away wine. It became a symbol of friendship.

"I'm not in this for the money. I love giving bottles away. It helps me keep up the relationships I miss so much. You give people some wine, you wind up getting invited to their house for dinner. It's a nice way to live. There seems to be someone in every city. In St.Louis, for instance, there's the Bryant family from the Bryant Family Wines."

His home base is Chester, Pa., 45 miles outside of Philadelphia. Sprawling acreage, front porch that looks out on rolling hills and herds of deer. And across the country there's Calistoga and On the Edge and the elegant Cabernets and Charbonos, with frequent tastings in which to show them off.

It's a nice way to live. It's pretty nice to get to taste them, too.

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