RALEIGH, N.C. — The recommended temperature for cellaring wine hovers around 55 degrees, but Cam Ward sets his thermostat to 62 so guests will feel comfortable. Renovated from an old car bay at his family's suburban home, the dimly lit space is ringed by craggy stone walls, cork-filled crates and a bench made out of used barrel wood. The ceiling-high racks hold some 1,000 bottles—18 high and three deep, not counting several alcove shelves for stocking magnums—though only about one-third are occupied this weekday afternoon. As the Carolina Hurricanes goalie explains, stepping inside, “My inventory is rolling because I like to consume.”
Plenty of professional athletes harbor deep avidity for vino. Some might even feel similarly inspired to design swanky private cellars. Nothing novel about these details. On the other hand, how many *connoisseurs* visit Napa Valley each summer and help hand-pick grapes for their winery’s latest vintage? *Uncorking a bottle, Ward begins to pour. The selection is* a house blend in the most literal sense.;
On today’s tasting menu: a 2014 V36 cabernet sauvignon, aged two years in French oak, featuring notes of dark currant and black raspberry. The ivory label is shaped like an ice rink, decorated with subtle skate mark patterns. After Ward and former Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason founded Vineyard 36—an amalgam of Ward’s No. 30 and Gleason’s No. 6—they worried that too many hockey references might put off customers. “You don’t want to be classified as a hockey wine,” Ward says, swirling and sniffing a stemless glass. “You want to be taken seriously. You don’t want to be average. You want to make something that’s great, that you respect.”
The 33-year-old goalie began taking grapes seriously as a rookie during the Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup run in ‘05-06, noticing how veteran winger Ray Whitney commanded the wine lists at team dinners. His eyes opened to different varietals, colorful worlds beyond simply red and white. He doesn’t consider himself a collector of anything else—framed Ron Francis, Mario Lemieux and Drew Brees jerseys hanging upstairs might disagree—but soon Ward began hunting hard-to-find vintages for friends and family to enjoy over dinners in the cellar. “Passion becomes contagious when it is shared,” the Vineyard 36 motto says. This explains its co-owner’s rolling inventory.
Speaking of which … here, sit down. Grab a glass. Sip, savor, chat. Wine brings out stories, after all, and the Hurricanes' longest-tenured player has some to share.
From a rack near the door, Ward fetches a 2009 cabernet sauvignon with an inscription on the label: It all started one night at Keens Steakhouse in NYC. 7 bottles later, it became a reality.
Part of a three-barrel trial vintage, this particular bottle was conceptualized between Ward, Gleason and Jason Earnest, the founder of Napa's Tobacco Road Cellars who had met Ward at various tasting events around Raleigh. When the first batch was finished, the wine was shipped to Florida, where the Hurricanes were facing the Panthers. “My dad has a boat,” Earnest says. “We took the boat out for a cruise, opened the wine for the first time. I’ll never forget, to see if we were really going to do this or chalk it up to having a bunch of wine. Tim looked at me after tasting it and said, ‘I guess we’re doing it, huh?’”
Earnest handles day-to-day business, but Gleason and Ward still play key roles for Vineyard 36. (The label was initially called Cane Estate until another winery, Cain Five, complained about trademark infringement; evidently oenophiles are confused by homonyms.) “Every athlete has slapped their name onto wine at some level, it seems,” Earnest says. “That’s not what this is. These guys are super involved. It’s not just lending their name to it.”
Indeed, they attend tasting events, test blends for future vintages, coordinate with winemaker Keith Emerson, meet distributors, decide whether smoked or tinted glass best suits their bottles ... Last summer Gleason and Ward learned how to operate an optical sorter programed for selecting the best grapes, though everything was still plucked from the vines and dumped onto the conveyor by hand. “I got hooked on that stuff,” Ward says. “It’s taught me a lot of patience. I didn’t have patience before. It’s hard when you pick grapes and you want to see it in the bottle immediately. You pay up front basically two years in advance. You don’t get instantly rewarded.”
Only now are the—ahem—fruits of their labor being truly realized; last year Ward estimates that Vineyard 36 produced between 22 and 25 barrels per vintage, the equivalent of more than 20,000 bottles, distributed to nine states and two Canadian provinces. A new vintage is due out soon, assembled from the vineyards of Andy Beckstoffer, who both Ward and Earnest describe as “the Michael Jordan of grapes.” The Hurricanes haven’t made the playoffs since ‘08-09 but Vineyard 36 wine has been slurped from the Stanley Cup for four straight years, poured by NHL colleagues ranging from former Penguins Ron Hainsey and Matt Cullen to Chicago’s Brent Seabrook and Los Angeles’s Alec Martinez.
The entire endeavor is infused with a personal, puck-centric touch. The interlocking 3 and 6 on the V36 bottle symbolizes the friendship that Ward and Gleason developed over nine seasons in Carolina together. The Foundation cabernet sauvignon features a silver logo on the label, nodding to the silver medal that Gleason won with Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The UnMask red blend (40% petite sirah, 40% syrah, 20% zinfandel for last year’s vintage) displays a profile shot of Ward, goalie cage raised onto his head. That was created in conjunction with the picture embossed onto Cross Check (40% cabernet, 40% merlot, 20% zinfandel), which Ward had snapped of a bloodied Gleason after the blueliner caught a stick above the eye, received several stitches and didn’t miss a shift.
“The perfect photo of Tim looking like a badass,” Ward says. “He was like, ‘if I’m going to be on a label, then you are too.’” Feel the bottle? The stitches are embossed.
Behind Ward sits a six-liter magnum of merlot, far too massive for any of the normal racks. Gifted by fellow Hurricanes when he reached 500 career NHL games in '14-15, the congratulatory bottle is a reflection of Ward's atypical longevity in Carolina; among active goalies, only Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury have appeared more times for a single franchise than his 656 (and counting).
It was also an extremely predictable present. Now almost a full decade inside the wine business, capable of dropping such terms as terroir (environmental conditions) into idle table conversation, Ward has replaced Whitney as the Hurricanes' resident sommelier. “If we pick something bad, we’ll never hear the end of that,” says defenseman Justin Faulk. “We let him handle it and we can’t go wrong.”
Given how often hockey players find themselves requesting for the wine menu at dinner, this knowledge frequently comes in handy. When a waiter tried pushing a subpar vintage onto the group during a team outing in Calgary this season, Ward delivered a classic goalie stonewalling. ("They were trying to move inventory. That’s like open season for them.") And he seethed with embarrassment upon learning that a Winnipeg restaurant was selling Vineyard 36 wine at almost triple markup. ("It's enough to drive you nuts.")
Fortunately, teammates have noticed a happier Ward these days. “I feel like he’s a little more relaxed, really enjoying what he’s doing out there,” center Jordan Staal says. “Definitely can see the lighter side of him as of late. He’s been more himself.” This is understandable. Heading into the second and final year of Ward's contract, the Hurricanes had acquired the rights to restricted free agent Scott Darling, who promptly signed a four-year extension that solidified him as their goalie of the future.
“Early on, I was like, ‘I get it. I’ve had a really good run at being a No. 1 for over a decade now,’” Ward says. Except the reserve life didn’t last long. He played twice in October and four times in November, but began receiving regular action after Darling allowed eight goals during a pre-Christmas loss to Toronto. Since then Ward has posted a .913 save percentage and 11-6-3 record, helping the Hurricanes keep apace toward ending their playoff drought. (Through Tuesday, they were one point behind Columbus for the Eastern Conference's second wild card.)
“It’s been good in a way,” Ward says. “I think I appreciate the game a lot more now, maybe than I used to. My parents always told me, the more fun you have, the better you do. I admit that there’s times when, man, I was miserable just from the years of losing. It wears on you. You kind of carry that burden as a goaltender. Not that I thought it was directed on me, but you feel like it sometimes.
"So you put your priorities straight. You put things into perspective more, what’s really important to you.” Balance comes from various sources. A relative who recently underwent open-heart surgery. A morning visit to the Hurricanes’ team chapel. Or a daily tradition with his wife, Cody: Before dinner, after their two kids settle down from school, they head into the wine cellar at 5 p.m. and share a glass.
Surely Ward will find NHL work when his contract expires, regardless of whether a Carolina tenure that began with a Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup as a rookie reaches its conclusion this summer. But no doubt Napa Valley beckons further down the road. “I’d love to do that full-time,” Ward says, corking the V36. "There’s no end game, really. I’d love to keep going the way we’re going and have fun with it. I say it about hockey: When I stop enjoying it, that probably means it’s time to not do it anymore. It’s probably the same thing with wine. I envision doing this for a long time."
Then again, how could he leave here?
“I’d be jealous of selling this house and someone’s in my cellar.”