Vermeil doing just vine (cont.)
"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.