Tim Horton, the legendary Maple Leafs defenseman, is indisputably the most famous name associated with both hockey and cuisine. As long as a sugary doughnut and hot cup of coffee are enough to quench the bitter chill of a Canadian morning, that isn’t likely to change.
For Jim Fox, Valeri Bure and Wayne Gretzky, that’s OK. Their post-playing passion runs more epicurean than everyman.
The three are believed to be the only retired NHL players who are actively involved in the winemaking business.
While practicing with a puck and pressing the perfect port seem to share little common ground, the career transition sounds perfectly logical when you listen to Fox and Bure tell their stories. (A spokesperson for Wayne Gretzky Estates did not return an e-mail request for an interview.)
Both players had the benefit of playing in two of the NHL’s more international cities – Fox in Los Angeles and Bure in Montreal. They made enough money to afford the good bottles and to visit the world’s best wine-making regions. Both settled in California, a land rife with optimal growing conditions and industry veterans who can explain the difference between Shiraz and Syrah.
Bure, the founder of Bure Family Wines, had just returned from a business trip to Japan when he recalled how his interest in wine was sparked.
“Montreal is such a mecca for great restaurants, food and wine in general, and a lot of guys I played with – (Vincent) Damphousse, (Mark) Recchi – enjoyed the wine,” said Bure, whose broke into the NHL with the Canadiens in 1995. “I got introduced through them. I fell in love with wine in general.”
Fox didn’t develop an interest in wine until late in his 10-year playing career (1980-90) with the Los Angeles Kings.
“There’s a little restaurant in Hermosa Beach called the Bottle Inn; been there forever, it’s an Italian restaurant,” he said. “I’d never really had wine before I started going there probably in the late 80’s.
“I started talking to the waitress and the staff, ended up going quite a bit and got to know them. Then they just started recommending things. That’s kind of how I got involved in wine.”
Their tastes expanded from there.
After more than a decade of recreational wine tasting and collecting, Fox is now six years into his journey into the business of winemaking. It has been, in essence, a crash course on how to start and run a very unique enterprise – all while (rather impressively) maintaining his day job as the Kings’ television analyst.
It is not convenient that his operation begins with grapes growing along the Sonoma Coast, roughly 450 miles north of his Redondo Beach home. But Fox said the occasional commute north isn’t his biggest challenge.
“The hardest part is putting together a financial plan that works, because in wine you always have a two-year drag,” Fox said. “Red wine, by the time you pick the grape to the time you have it in a bottle, is about two years. So you have all the expenses upfront and you don’t start generating revenue from that vineyard for two years. Then the next one is always two years behind. You’re wrapping your head and hands around the concept of that drag.”
Over the course of his world travels – including wine trips to France, Italy and Spain – Fox was introduced to a Northern California-based winemaker. That was the easy part; at one point Fox had to change his business plan rather dramatically.
“Initially we were talking about buying land, buying a vineyard,” he said. “Every time we did that it came with a house on the property, so it almost became more of a real estate play than a wine play. So then we started to scale down. We said, a lot of people start by just buying the grapes, building a custom press facility, and making it themselves. That’s what we did about three years ago.”
Fox, whose first cases of pinot noir are scheduled for release in March 2013, wants to wait a few months before disclosing the main details of his venture – including the name.
Bure’s first vintage was harvested in 2006. Like Fox, Bure was introduced to a Northern California-based winemaker (Luc Morlet) who helped him get started, but from there he had to weather the same growing pains that Fox is grappling with now.
“From harvesting to bottling – especially a cabernet sauvignon, the red grapes we’re working with – it takes 19 months before it goes to the bottle,” Bure said. “We usually (wait) six months to a year before releasing the wine. So it’s two to two and a half years before you’re releasing the wine.”
Bure said he commutes two to four days each week from his Southern California home to the Napa Valley during the harvest. Most bottles wind up on the shelves of Los Angeles-area restaurants; prospective patrons can also sign up to have wines shipped to them on the Bure Family Wines website. These bottles are not sold in stores and they don’t come cheap. Bure’s 2009 cabernet sauvignon, Thirteen, is priced at $135. Another 2009 vintage, Duration, costs $175 a bottle.
Both reds have been well-received by critics. Doug Wilder of the Purely Domestic Wine Report gave each bottle a 99-point score (on a 100-point scale), which Bure considers the ultimate reward.
“I absolutely love what I did in hockey, but at the same time I didn’t want to associate my past with my present or future,” he said. “People say, ‘Oh you’re another hockey player that makes wine.’ I don’t want to associate with that. I’m here now and we’re making some fantastic wine. Most of the time, the wines that I tried from any of the athletes in the past have not been what I consider top-tier wines. My goal was, and still is, to make the best possible wine out of California.”
Their stories, however, are the exceptions to the rule. The standard says that you must come from a winemaking family, a winemaking region, and/or possess a formal education in viticulture and enology, to market your own wine. (Fox said he took plenty of classes, at UCLA and on the internet, before starting his business.)
Bure knows that the odds are not in favor of ex-jocks, which only seems to draw out his competitive nature.
“It’s a fun little gig if you like wine and are able to produce your own stuff. It’s a lot harder to produce the best in the business,” Bure said. “We’ve been doing something for 30 years – for example, hockey – then jump into another field and be the best of the best? It’s difficult to do.”