Philadelphia Eagle owner Norman Braman converted the swimming pool at his Miami Beach house into a 4,000-bottle wine cellar. Former Eagle coach Dick Vermeil keeps records of every wine he tastes on four-by six-inch index cards; he has hundreds of them. Miami Dolphin tight end Greg Baty and his wife, Kathleen, spend the off-season touring "little sleeper vineyards" in northern California's wine country. Former Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro wideout Lynn Swann worked last fall's crush at Trefethen Vineyards in the Napa Valley. That's right, he was out there picking grapes. Joe Montana wants to own a vineyard someday.
This is the NFL's wine fraternity, a tightly knit band of devotees of the grape. On Sundays they hit people for a living, or tell other people to. On Saturday nights they may toast each other with Latour or Lafite, or maybe a nice fat California Chardonnay.
"The first time I tasted a 1967 Ch�teau d'Yquem Sauternes...glorious, like god's nectar," says Los Angeles Ram linebacker Mel Owens. "I said, 'I will never be the same.' I was on a quest."
Rich boys' toys? Well, maybe, but there were wine lovers in pro football's ranks back when nobody made much money. Former Oakland Raider All-Pro defensive tackle Tom Keating, an occasional buyer at Christie's and Sotheby's London wine auctions, often toured the California wineries with his buddy Steve Mirassou, former vice-president for sales at San Jose's Mirassou Vineyards. Keating sent an SOS telegram to his girlfriend in Alameda, Calif., after he was traded to Pittsburgh in 1973: JOIN ME HERE QUICK STOP BRING MIXED CASE MIRASSOU WHITE BURGUNDY AND PETITE SIRAH STOP CAN'T BUY HERE STOP HURRY EMERGENCY.
From 1967 to '73, Danny Abramowicz was a sure-handed receiver for the New Orleans Saints, but he says he was never as nervous as the day he tasted a glass of 1961 Ch�teau Lafite.
"My hands were shaking, sweating," he says. "I had to hold the glass with both hands—I was afraid I'd drop it."
The names of some of the NFL's oenophiles might surprise you. Pittsburgh coach Chuck Noll, with his finely developed palate for top-of-the-line California cabernets, is the wine king of the NFL's coaching fraternity. But how about Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, the noted hard guy from Aliquippa, Pa.? He personally selects the wines for his two Chicago-area restaurants.
"Just had a Ravenswood merlot that was impressive," he says. "It'll have to go on the list. Or in my cellar at home."
And how about the late George Allen, former coach of the L.A. Rams and the Washington Redskins? Milkshakes, right? They were his trademark. But early in his career Allen learned to appreciate a fine bottle, thanks to his wife, Etty, whose father was a wine exporter in Tunisia.
"Once, I saw a banner in the stadium that said, THE REDSKINS AGE LIKE FINE WINE," says former Skins guard John Wilbur, who was the leading oenophile on the team. "So I created my own wine award. I'd choose my personal MVP for a game and present him with a bottle of wine.