Football history will always link former NFL quarterbacks Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer together. The wine business may link their future.
Taken as the first two picks in the 1993 NFL draft, the pair became friends during pre-draft workouts. The friendship would continue during the course of their playing careers to the extent their families would often spend time together during the off-season.
A common bond for both was an appreciation for wine. It's a passion the pair would develop during their playing days and would eventually become their life after football.
"Rick was somewhat instrumental in the development of my wine passions," said Bledsoe. "I went to Napa with Rick and his wife. We had a great trip and started to learn more about (the industry) and from there the passion grew and grew until we decided it was the business I wanted to go into when I retired from football."
Born and raised in Indiana, wine wasn't always on Rick Mirer's radar, but during the course of his 12-year career in the NFL, fate would position the quarterback near the heart of the wine industry, turning his interest into a passion and eventually his post-football pursuit.
Near the end of his career, Mirer spent two years in San Francisco with the Forty-Niners and in 2002 signed with the Oakland Raiders, a team which holds its training camp in Napa Valley.
"We were in the valley for three weeks a couple years in a row and it was just a totally different way of spending time there," he said.
Mirer had been to Napa Valley as a tourist, but his extended stay during training camp would give him a new outlook. The focus was still football, but the wine business was never far away.
"When you settle in for a little more time it felt really good. I got to meet a lot of people and try a lot of interesting wines or purchase wines to stash away," Mirer continued.
Mirer retired from football in 2004 and took time to focus on his family, but in 2008 he decided to get off the sidelines and into the wine business. He teamed with a wine industry veteran to start Mirror Wine.
Mirror's early production was 500 cases, which quickly became 1,000. The wines are typically priced between $75 and $90 a bottle. Mirer, who lives in Southern California but travels regularly to work with his Napa-based partner, hopes to grow the business to an annual production of two to three thousand cases.
"Fortunately this wasn't something I needed to support my family with. It's a small project that's going to grow and slowly develop its brand and we're just taking it one step at a time," said Mirer. "There's no super urgency to be a global brand."
Drew Bledsoe would spend 14 seasons on three different teams in the NFL. But even before his career was finished, he knew the wine business would be his next move.
So In 2003, while still playing, Bledsoe bought 80 acres of land in the Walla Walla Valley of his home state of Washington. Ultimately, he would spend nearly $1.5 million on 130 acres.
For Bledsoe, there was never any doubt that he would return home to build his wine business, hence the name of his wine company, Doubleback.
"For me it would have been really hard to go to the Napa Valley or Sonoma and make wine when my hometown was making wines of such high caliber," said Bledsoe. "It would have been difficult for me to go anyplace else with it."
Doubleback would make its debut at 600 cases. He expects to hit 2,000 cases this year with an eventual goal of 3,000.
"We're generally priced at $89 per bottle and we're going to stay there for the foreseeable future. At 2,000 cases, we're just at the slightly breakeven point," Bledsoe continued. "At 3,000 cases, we start to make a little bit of money and it turns from an expensive hobby to a real business."
Despite now operating their own separate companies, Bledsoe and Mirer originally considered entering the wine business together, and even at one point, thought about teaming up with fellow former NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and Damon Huard.
But the group ultimately realized that four former professional athletes used to being the leader and spread out in different parts of the country wasn't the recipe for success.
"In hindsight it's probably a good thing. Having four chiefs and no Indians was going to be a problem, particularly when we're all in different parts of the world," acknowledged Bledsoe.
Then there is the celebrity factor. Mirer and Bledsoe are both aware their football past can be a double-edged sword. While it helps to gain attention and generate interest, it can also damage credibility in wine circles. Bledsoe is among those admitting skepticism of celebrity wine.
"I figured if the wine is good enough than it shouldn't be about the endorsement," he said. "It's not a candy bar, it's not a soft drink, it's a luxury item that you have a great deal of expectation in terms of the quality you're getting for the price you pay."
The duo has spent considerable time showing wine aficionados that they are serious about their businesses and that they are authentic projects and not vanity plays.
"The nice thing is that once you get the wine in the glass and people can try it and compare it, they see we stack up really well against wines that they know," said Bledsoe. "Some of the most fun phone calls I've had is people I've known for a long time, teammates and so on, they buy the wine because we're friends and they call and say 'dude the wine is really good!'"
For Mirer, an entry into the wine business has also allowed him to boost his other post-football passion, the Mirer Family Foundation. Mirer and his wife founded and funded the foundation in 1996. The charity contributes to organizations such as the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation and has also endowed a scholarship fund at his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.
Mirer has found Mirror Wine to be an effective calling card and a helpful tool in raising money for the foundation.
"I have a problem asking people to just write me a check for my foundation, but now I can give them some wine and say 'write me a check' and that's a much easier ask," he said. "It's a little gift from us, and a real 'win-win' for everybody."
As for the future, the former quarterbacks are once again embracing their connection, as they have always done.
"Ultimately, we'd have to be termed as competitors in the wine business, but I think that our(personal) relationship and the relationship between our wineries is different than most in that I'm continually promoting Rick's wine and he's doing the same with ours," said Bledsoe. "There is some natural cross-promotion there and we've done a handful of events together. It works out really well."
"We're huge into supporting each other and sharing information," added Mirer. "We travel to Napa together and we appreciate each other's wines. We're always going to be linked in more ways than one."
-By Tom Rotunno, CNBC Senior Editor; Follow him @tomrotunno.
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