Dick Vermeil's new passion: Winemaking

Dick Vermeil (right) and vintner Paul Smith at Vermeil Wines in Calistoga, Calif., the town where the ex-Eagles coach grew up.
Dick Vermeil (right) and vintner Paul Smith at Vermeil Wines in Calistoga, Calif., the town where the ex-Eagles coach grew up.
Posted: September 02, 2009

CALISTOGA, Calif. - Neighbors in this alluring town at the northern tip of Napa Valley used to call the old barn behind his Washington Street bungalow the Owl Garage, because it wasn't unusual to see Louie Vermeil in there rebuilding a carburetor at 3 a.m.

Dick Vermeil, the former Eagles coach who pushed himself so tirelessly that he popularized the concept of burnout, was forged by the work ethic of the French-Italian father he described as "a very, very hardworking guy."

At nearly 73, his father dead for two-plus decades, his distinguished football career receding further into memory, Vermeil, allegedly retired but seemingly incapable of slowing down, has embarked on another path that would have pleased the unpretentious Louie Vermeil.

Last October, with friends and investors, he launched Vermeil Wines, a boutique winery here whose first and finest offering is the Jean-Louis Vermeil Cabernet-Sauvignon.

"I always thought that some day I'd like to put my dad's name and my great-grandfather's name - both Jean-Louis - on a bottle of wine," he said recently.

Pointing to the photo of an unsmiling, bespectacled auto mechanic he had just affixed to a wall here, Vermeil said his father was "an old-fashioned tough guy. There were no shades of gray. You weren't almost right or almost wrong. You were either one or the other. . . . Growing up, there were only three things we talked about - football, cars, and wine."

Now, 49 years after Vermeil left here for a coaching job at Delmar High School in San Jose, his life, consciously or not, remains an homage to those three great loves of a father whom his close friend, MarySue Frediani-Smith, called "extremely demanding".

Vermeil's football resumé is well-known. He won a Rose Bowl at UCLA, and in a long but famously interrupted NFL career reached two Super Bowls, losing XV with the Eagles in 1981 before winning XXXIV in 2000 with the St. Louis Rams.

Since stepping away after the 2005 season, he has rekindled his love for race cars. He helped get Calistoga Speedway, a dirt track that already hosts the Louie Vermeil Sprint Classic, renamed after his father. Recently, in the garage of his 114-acre Chester County farm, he finished a two-year restoration of his father's 1926 racer.

On a hot July afternoon in Calistoga, Vermeil was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a T–shirt as he hung old photos and helped transform a Lincoln Avenue candle shop into a wine store and tasting room. Since he had grown up just two blocks away, old neighbors ventured in to talk, as did an assistant trainer for the Rams who was on a wine vacation.

The business, like the shop, is still of youthful vintage. But already, the wine that bears his name - and whose labels include a California-artsy rendering of a football - has won high praise.

Robert Parker Jr., the renowned critic for the Wine Advocate, said Vermeil's first bottled effort was remarkably precocious by Napa Valley standards.

"His initial dive into the wine world is impressive," Parker said. "It goes against the rule of thumb that celebrities rarely achieve anything special in the world of wine."

Dive was the right word.

Despite 11 grandchildren, his car project, a busy speaking schedule, duties with several charities, and an ongoing role as the commercial face of several Philadelphia-area companies, Vermeil appears as devoted to this latest pursuit as he was in pushing the Eagles to a Super Bowl after Leonard Tose, impressed by the square-jawed confidence he saw in the young UCLA coach, hired him in 1976.

He understands that this is a risky moment to be launching such a dream. The economy is as sour as an immature pinot noir, and the production of both domestic and imported wine has exploded.

"This probably is not a real great time to be turning a hobby into a business," Vermeil said. "There is so much wine out there, and the economy is a mess."

Plus, several other sports figures - from Mike Schmidt and Bob Clarke to Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer and Mario Andretti and Joe Montana - have lent their names and, in some cases, cash to boutique labels.

Not uncharacteristically, Vermeil has been more than a figurehead in this "vino venture."

He has recruited former players such as Trent Green and Todd Collins to invest. He has met with the money and marketing people. He has sampled wine in France and Italy. He has worked the fall harvest, delivered the wine, and driven a tractor so he can be with the pickers early in the mornings.

"I'm learning what the tastes and smells are," he said. "I'm learning about what to spray to protect the grapes from mildew. I'm learning all the time."

If that sounds like a busy routine for a septuagenarian, his friends here look at it differently.

"I think that in a strange way, this wine thing is allowing him to relax and feel retired at last," said Frediani-Smith, who will run the Lincoln Avenue store. "He's really loving this."

The grapes grow on a neat but unpretentious 178-acre vineyard near the Silverado Pass, an area referred to as the "cork of the Napa Valley" because all the big-name wineries are located south of it.

"I'm a football guy, not a business guy, but anything we taste that doesn't fit the quality of what we want to sell, we're not going to bottle it," Vermeil said. "Not everything turns out perfect. We'd like to get our expenses back, make a little money, but we're not going to get greedy.

"We can put these wines up against any in the Napa Valley. Will it compare to Harlan Estates' $400 bottle? Probably not. Or the Bryant Family? Probably not. But it will be quality wine. It's just like football. You try to do it right. You try to win."

'The old-fashioned way'

   Vermeil's company leases the vineyard from longtime family friends the Fredianis, whose matriarch, Jeanne, was once the future coach's babysitter. Her daughter and son-in-law, MarySue and vintner Paul Smith, will supervise the day-to-day operations.

   Vermeil said Jeanne Frediani's husband has been dead since 1978. "She has no computer," he said. "She still keeps track of everything by hand in an old-fashioned ledger. It's a $35 million piece of land, a major business, but everything is done the old-fashioned way."

That's how it is in Calistoga, population 5,200. With its shady avenues and appealing main street, the Napa County town resembles a Disney Victorian-era village. Lately, the ex-coach has been spending considerable time here. But once the business is grounded, he expects to commute from Pennsylvania only four or five times a year.

Not surprising for a native of this lush valley, 70 miles north of San Francisco, Vermeil "grew up around wine."

The weather (wet winters, dry summers) and the ashy soil in the surrounding hillsides, where as a boy he would ride a bike with a shotgun strapped to its handlebars, were always kind to grapes. Sixty years ago, though, there were more prune and walnut orchards than manicured vineyards.

His wealthy great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant named Garibaldi Iaccheri, who served on the board of what became the Bank of America, had a vacation home here and briefly operated the Calistoga Wine Co.

Like many Italian immigrants in San Francisco, Iaccheri was drawn to the Napa area by a Mediterranean-like climate that reminded him of his birthplace in Lucca, Italy, and by its hot springs. Spas on Lincoln Avenue still offer mud baths, and Calistoga's name derives from its founders' desire to make it a West Coast version of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Iaccheri's daughter married a son of Jean–Louis Vermeil, a wine-loving California immigrant from Gattieres, France. Al Vermeil picked the grapes he used to make the family's dinner wine - which Dick drank throughout his youth - in the Fredianis' groves.

Eventually, Vermeil's parents moved into Iaccheri's house, where that wine was a staple at dinner and at the meals Alice Vermeil served her husband and his racing buddies on those rare occasions when they came in from the Owl Garage.

Their son earned money by working the harvests, though rather than grapes, he was more likely to be found picking prunes for 25 cents a box. "I frigging will never forget that," Vermeil said.

As the oldest son, he was assigned to help his grandfather make the wine. Whenever a frost was forecast, his father would send him up to the Fredianis' vineyard to help fire up the wind machines.

He carried an affection for the grape with him through his NFL career. In his last coaching stop, with the Kansas City Chiefs, Vermeil and his wife, Carol, hosted a weekly dinner for players, introducing many of them to wine.

"We taught all the kids there about it," he recalled. "Eddie Kennison and a lot of them had never tasted wine until then. We'd tell them what they'd be drinking, and when they tasted it, they'd say, 'Hey, that's not too bad.' "

Some, like Green and Kennison, became aficionados. Kennison, in fact, is now the part-owner of a Kansas City-area wine business, Cellar & Loft.

"I'm no expert," Kennison said. "But Coach helped me learn that wine is one of the good things in life, like family."

Once, when Vermeil's Chiefs were battling the rival Oakland Raiders, the coach promised kicker Morton Andersen, a devoted oenophile, a $500 bottle if he kicked a game-winning field goal.

Andersen made it, but the league nullified the deal, reprimanding Vermeil for violating its salary-incentive guidelines.

"I'm not a wine connoisseur, but I know what good wine tastes like," Vermeil said. "I can't break it down and tell you everything an educated palate can, but I'm getting better."

Starting small

Vermeil Wines is producing just 1,500 to 2,000 cases of upmarket wines this year - the trademark cabernet sauvignon, a sauvignon blanc, a zinfandel, a cabernet franc and a rare Charbono.

Most of it, he said, will be sold via the Internet or in the store. He's also been in negotiations with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to get the wine into State Stores in his adopted state, where its importation is otherwise forbidden.

"We're still small, but hopefully we'll be in a position to do more," he said. "If things go well, the plan over the next five years is to increase to maybe 10,000 cases of wine a year."

Vermeil will return this weekend for the Louie Vermeil Classic at the dirt track that bears his father's name. The Owl Garage was torn down long ago. The boyhood bungalow has been converted into a medical clinic.

But, as this latest venture illustrates, there's still a big piece of Dick Vermeil in Calistoga.

"He didn't even finish high school," Vermeil said, getting characteristically misty-eyed as he looked at the old photo of Louie Vermeil. "But he was quite a guy."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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