A few years back,Chris Hinton encountered a fawning fan at an Atlanta grocery store. "You'rethat guy!" she squealed. Sure of what was coming next, the 6' 4" hulktried to help the woman out. "Yeah, I played a little bit of football,"Hinton said with a smile. Indeed he had--13 years as a tackle with the Colts,the Falcons and the Vikings. Hard-core NFL fans will also remember him as the1983 first-round pick out of Northwestern whom the Broncos packaged to theColts for the draft rights to John Elway. But pigskin wasn't on the woman'smind. "You're that wine guy," she said. Surprising as that might havebeen to hear, it was a defining moment for Hinton, 45, who recalls thinking,"I guess I'm not a football player anymore."
These days he'sthe unassuming owner¬†of Hinton's Wine Store, a sprawling 6,400-square-footshop in Alpharetta, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. Hinton spends 55-hour weekspatrolling the floor and dispensing advice on what goes well with what. Heleads well-attended tastings in his adjoining bar, Bin¬†75, named for hisnumber in the NFL. He has even made a few trips to France for research."Being able to tell a wine's story--that's romantic," Hinton explains.Further proof of his commitment lies in the new $40,000 toy in his bar: a24-bottle Enomatic dispenser that can auto-pour a glass of wine with the swipeof a credit card. "It's the only one in Georgia," he says, beaming.
The big man fromthe Chicago suburbs had never tasted wine before he reached the NFL. But a loveof food prompted him to develop his palate, and soon he was stopping atspecialty wine shops on road trips. He found a fellow enthusiast in Bearssafety Dave Duerson, with whom he once shared a $3,000 Chateau Latour. During adetour to Napa Valley on one of his six trips to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl,Hinton started stocking his own cellar, shipping home thousands of dollarsworth of wine. After his playing career ended and with "no work experiencebesides knocking people down," as he puts it, he opened the store with hiswife, Mya, in 1999.
Now Hinton isamong a growing number of athletes in the wine trade. With wine consumption onthe upswing in the U.S., he isn't surprised to see more players gettinginvolved. "The lifestyle these guys live, they're drinking more wine,"Hinton says, "and it isn't just the old guys."
Hinton likens thetransition from consumer to seller to learning a new football position. "Iplayed outside linebacker one year in college," he says. "The next yearI played tight end, the exact opposite position. It made me a better tight endto have played linebacker, and I think I'm a better retailer because I was aconsumer for so long. When I'm picking out wines for customers, I'm not talkingover them, but to them."
Hinton had "no work experience besides knocking people down" before hebecame a connoisseur.