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The NFL has gourmets who appreciate great grapes as much as great games

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‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢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‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢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.

"When we beat Dallas for the NFC championship and went to the Super Bowl in '73, I awarded the best bottle I ever gave in my life, a 1928 Pommard Rugiens, to George."

"Finest wine I ever tasted," said Allen.

When Noll was a young and underpaid guard for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s, he used to keep a case of Great Western Sparkling Catawba in the trunk of his car at all times. "In the winter I'd always have a chilled wine on hand," he says.

The Browns used to hang out in a Shaker Heights tavern called The Wagon Wheel. In the basement was a French restaurant, Louie & Etienne's. "We'd be drinking beer and playing cards, and all these people in fancy clothes would have to walk by us to get downstairs." Noll says. "One night I heard a lady say, 'This is going from the ridiculous to the sublime.' So we just decided to see what the restaurant was like, and ever since my first meal there, my first bottle of fine wine, I was hooked."

During the '77 season, Noll complained to me that he couldn't get his favorite wine, Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—particularly the fine 1974 vintage—in Pennsylvania.

"It's selling for 10 bucks a bottle in New York," I told him. "I'll get you all you want."

"Get me a case, and I'll pay you for it," Noll said.

So on my next trip to cover the Steelers I brought along a case of the 74 BV. I tried to carry it onto the plane. Allegheny Airlines had other ideas. I begged, whined, pleaded. No dice. It had to go with the baggage.

At the baggage pickup in Pittsburgh I smelled the wine before I saw it—the telltale spreading stain. Oh, god. Noll opened the case after practice as I apologized profusely. Watching our little show was Jack Hart, the Steeler field manager, a crusty guy who didn't much take to this kind of nonsense.

Noll got the case open. Only one bottle was broken, praise be. He pulled out a healthy bottle, held it to the light and smiled.

"That's it," he said, "Private Reserve."

"Eleven bottles Private Reserve," Hart muttered. "One bottle injured reserve."

What do the oenophiles drink the night before a championship? When the San Francisco 49ers beat the Dolphins in the '85 Super Bowl, Bill Walsh scripted his plays on Saturday night, accompanied by a 1980 Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üet & Chandon Brut Impèrial Champagne, courtesy of the Amfac Hotel, in Burlingame, Calif. Two years later, when the Niners met the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., in the NFC playoffs, the Sheraton Meadowlands supplied Walsh with an '85 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay-not bad, but certainly no Brut Impèrial. A bad omen. The Giants beat the Niners 49-3.

Walsh, a serious member of the northern California wine set, got into it through his friendship with Vermeil, who comes from Calistoga, at the northern tip of the Napa Valley.

"In '65 we were all assistants at Stanford," says L.A. Raider quarterback coach Mike White. "We used to go up to the Napa Valley all the time. At first we were kind of wild and unruly. We'd go to the mineral baths at Calistoga, and we'd be diving in and doing handstands. All the people who were there for medicinal purposes would stare at us.

"Then we started learning a little. We started picking up the buzzwords of wine, like acidity and tannin and balance. Bill loved that. He'd go back and use the right language and have 'em all buffaloed."

The Napa Valley grapevine has recently been abuzz with rumors of Montana's entry into the profession. He looked at some vineyard property last year and then decided to hold off on entering the business until his playing days were over. But he still enjoys trips to the valley with his wife, Jennifer, and the kids. "Always very quietly, though," says his buddy, Tom Rinaldi, the winemaker at Duckhorn Vineyards in St. Helena. "He doesn't want to make a circus out of it."

Some of the NFL's wine aficionados have gotten into the game through their families. A few years ago I was shopping at Calvert Woodley Wine & Spirits in Washington, D.C., when the manager came over and asked if he could be of assistance. I checked him out—gigantic frame, little Kewpie-doll face. I had seen only one person in my life who looked like him.

"Are you related to Steve Ortmayer, by any chance?" I asked him. Steve was the general manager of the San Diego Chargers and is now with the Raiders.

"He's my brother," said Marc Ortmayer, who has since begun a Burgundy importing business and has made wine lovers of Steve and his wife, Merilee.

Giants kicker Matt Bahr's father, Walter, is marketing consultant for the Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery near Penn State. "I'll be there next year to help out with the picking and crushing," Matt says. "My favorite wine? Well, I love the Nittany Mountain white we make, but if I had to pick one, it would be a Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teauneuf-du-Pape from France."

Swann's venture into the fields of Trefethen was part of a piece he did for The Home Show, a daily talk-and-information program on ABC-TV. "I've just built a new house with a wine cellar," he says. "I've got room for a ton. My 50 cases won't even make a dent.

"What got me into wines? A 1971 Graacher Himmelreich Auslese Eiswein of J.J. Prüm. I bought a case in a store in the Crown Center on a football trip to Kansas City. I got it real cheap, too. The guy didn't know what he had."

"My chiropractor got me into really fine wines," says the Rams' Owens, who's on injured reserve with a bad back. "He has a deep, deep cellar. I had dinner at his house and he said, 'You're into wines? I'll bring out the wines of the century.' We had a 1953 Lafite and Latour, 1961 Latour, 1975 Bollinger R.D. Champagne, 1967 Yquem, 1945 Le Montrachet, 1875 Sercial Madeira and a 1975 Pinot Blanc from Chalone in Soledad.

"After that dinner I was hooked. I went to the Christie's auction in L.A. I didn't have the long cash, but I bid on and got a case of '79 Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau Cos d'Estournel and a case of '78. I got them for $360 each, a good price. My strategy is to bid on stuff after other people tire out."

Which is when the tough get going and pay the price and give 110%. All to be part of a glorious little group that savors the finer things in life.



Old King Noll reigns over other connoisseur coaches by virtue of his most sensitive palate.