A few years back,
Chris Hinton encountered a fawning fan at an Atlanta grocery store. "You're
that guy!" she squealed. Sure of what was coming next, the 6' 4" hulk
tried 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 the
1983 first-round pick out of Northwestern whom the Broncos packaged to the
Colts for the draft rights to John Elway. But pigskin wasn't on the woman's
mind. "You're that wine guy," she said. Surprising as that might have
been 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's
the unassuming owner�of Hinton's Wine Store, a sprawling 6,400-square-foot
shop in Alpharetta, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. Hinton spends 55-hour weeks
patrolling the floor and dispensing advice on what goes well with what. He
leads well-attended tastings in his adjoining bar, Bin�75, named for his
number 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: a
24-bottle Enomatic dispenser that can auto-pour a glass of wine with the swipe
of a credit card. "It's the only one in Georgia," he says, beaming.
The big man from
the Chicago suburbs had never tasted wine before he reached the NFL. But a love
of food prompted him to develop his palate, and soon he was stopping at
specialty wine shops on road trips. He found a fellow enthusiast in Bears
safety Dave Duerson, with whom he once shared a $3,000 Chateau Latour. During a
detour 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 dollars
worth of wine. After his playing career ended and with "no work experience
besides knocking people down," as he puts it, he opened the store with his
wife, Mya, in 1999.
Now Hinton is
among a growing number of athletes in the wine trade. With wine consumption on
the upswing in the U.S., he isn't surprised to see more players getting
involved. "The lifestyle these guys live, they're drinking more wine,"
Hinton says, "and it isn't just the old guys."
Hinton likens the
transition from consumer to seller to learning a new football position. "I
played outside linebacker one year in college," he says. "The next year
I played tight end, the exact opposite position. It made me a better tight end
to have played linebacker, and I think I'm a better retailer because I was a
consumer for so long. When I'm picking out wines for customers, I'm not talking
over them, but to them."