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A Big, Bold Finish

One of many former jocks who've found a second career in wine, this 13-year veteran of the NFL trenches proves that size doesn't preclude sophistication

A few years back,Chris Hinton encountered a fawning fan at an Atlanta grocery store. "You'rethat guy!" she squealed. Sure of what was coming next, the 6' 4" hulktried 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 the1983 first-round pick out of Northwestern whom the Broncos packaged to theColts for the draft rights to John Elway. But pigskin wasn't on the woman'smind. "You're that wine guy," she said. Surprising as that might havebeen 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'sthe unassuming owner of Hinton's Wine Store, a sprawling 6,400-square-footshop in Alpharetta, Ga., 25 miles north of Atlanta. Hinton spends 55-hour weekspatrolling the floor and dispensing advice on what goes well with what. Heleads well-attended tastings in his adjoining bar, Bin 75, named for hisnumber 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: a24-bottle Enomatic dispenser that can auto-pour a glass of wine with the swipeof a credit card. "It's the only one in Georgia," he says, beaming.

The big man fromthe Chicago suburbs had never tasted wine before he reached the NFL. But a loveof food prompted him to develop his palate, and soon he was stopping atspecialty wine shops on road trips. He found a fellow enthusiast in Bearssafety Dave Duerson, with whom he once shared a $3,000 Chateau Latour. During adetour 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 dollarsworth of wine. After his playing career ended and with "no work experiencebesides knocking people down," as he puts it, he opened the store with hiswife, Mya, in 1999.

Now Hinton isamong a growing number of athletes in the wine trade. With wine consumption onthe upswing in the U.S., he isn't surprised to see more players gettinginvolved. "The lifestyle these guys live, they're drinking more wine,"Hinton says, "and it isn't just the old guys."

Hinton likens thetransition from consumer to seller to learning a new football position. "Iplayed outside linebacker one year in college," he says. "The next yearI played tight end, the exact opposite position. It made me a better tight endto have played linebacker, and I think I'm a better retailer because I was aconsumer for so long. When I'm picking out wines for customers, I'm not talkingover them, but to them."

Tasting the Field

Hinton's breakdown on the offerings of eight renownedsports figures turned winemakers

BEST ON A BUDGET

WINE Greg Norman Estates 2005 Limestone Coast Shiraz,$14.99
WINEMAKER Greg Norman, 52, two-time British Open champ
HINTON SAYS "The typical bottle purchased in the U.S. ages on the drivehome and is consumed within 48 hours. Shirazes are so popular because they'reready to go. This one would be appealing both to a wine geek and to yourAverage Joe because it also has a lot going on. It's very fruit-driven, commonfor Australian Shirazes."
PAIRING "Let's go with a grilled ribeye--something flavorful."

WINE Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery 2005Victories Rosé, $20
WINEMAKER Peggy Fleming, 59, Olympic figure skating champion (sidebar, page87)
HINTON SAYS "It has a very pleasant nose, and finishes dry and clean. It'shard to fess up to being a rosé lover. A lot of guys will say, 'Naw, I don'tdrink rosés.' But there's a woman at my store who writes a wine newsletter, andshe likes to say, 'See, Chris Hinton drinks rosés!' "
PAIRING "Great over the holidays with a ham or as an alternative to red inthe hot summer if you want a little more expressiveness than a white."

WINE Childress Vineyards Victory Cuvée Sparkling Wine,$24.99
WINEMAKER Richard Childress, 61, NASCAR driver turned owner
HINTON SAYS "I haven't had much experience with Carolina wines, but this issurprisingly good. I like the flavor profile: very citrusy with a hint oflemon. People associate champagne or sparkling wines with celebratory events. Ilove sparkling wines, but I was never in a locker for a champagne bath. Youhave to win a big one."
PAIRING "As an aperitif or with something lighter, like shellfish."

WINE Andretti Winery 2004 Merlot, $33
WINEMAKER Mario Andretti, 67, Indianapolis 500 and Formula One champ and racingpatriarch
HINTON SAYS "The color is light, and it's pleasant if somewhat plain andsimple, with a little of a merlot's telltale plum. Merlots can be all over theboard--some can be really big. This one doesn't have a whole lot going on. Itwon't set any records on the Indy circuit."
PAIRING "A good wine if you're grilling and don't want to feel like you'rebreaking the bank. Serve it with some brats and burgers."

WINE Terry Hoage Vineyards 2005 The Hedge Syrah,$45
WINEMAKER Terry Hoage, 45, 13-year NFL defensive back (sidebar)
HINTON SAYS "I like Terry's wines because they're very fruit-forward. Infootball terms, this one is a defensive tackle. You line up and say, 'Go thatway.' It's a big brute, a full-bodied wine with a lot of dark berry fruits andplum through it. It has a lot going on, but it's not completely complex. It'svery in-your-face."
PAIRING "Something really tasty, a peppered steak with a lot of flavor. Orsomething gamey. Maybe venison."

WINE Frediani Vineyard 2002 Jean Louis Vermeil CabernetSauvignon, $55
WINEMAKER Dick Vermeil, 70, Super Bowl-winning NFL coach
HINTON SAYS "Very pleasant with a good fruit to it, leaning towardblackberries with a little plum. I know Vermeil once offered a placekicker a$5,000 bottle of cabernet sauvignon if he made a kick. That's what we call a'cult wine'. This isn't one of those, but you can drink this while waiting foryour $5,000 bottle to mature."
PAIRING "Needs a flavorful dish--rack of lamb off the grill withasparagus."

WINE Ernie Els Wines 2003 Stellenbosch, $69
WINEMAKER Ernie Els, 37, winner of three golf majors
HINTON SAYS "If you had to make a wine and put [Els's] name on it inrelation to his swing, this would be the one. They call him the Big Easy, andthat's what this is--it has the elegance and fluidness of his swing. But it haspower too, like a smooth drive that goes 300 yards. It's very balanced. It hasage-ability."
PAIRING "A standard rib roast, medium rare. Nothing too fancy. You want tobe able to appreciate this wine."

HINTON'S FAVORITE

WINE Lewis Cellars 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon,$125
WINEMAKER Randy Lewis, 61, retired Indy car driver
HINTON SAYS "Head and shoulders above the rest. It has the brute strengthand size of a defensive lineman but the brain of a left tackle--the ChrisHinton of wines. Its flavors are very pronounced, leaning toward dark fruits,but it has layers. [Customers] are always looking for gifts; this is the typeof wow! wine I would suggest."
PAIRING "Calls for a steak, perhaps. With a wine like this, the aciditycleanses your palette."

PHOTO

GREG FOSTER (WINES)

Grape Expectations

Hinton had "no work experience besides knocking people down" before hebecame a connoisseur.

PHOTO

MICKEY PFLEGER (ACTION)

[See Caption Above.]

EIGHT PHOTOS