- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Aren’t athletes and adoring fans supposed to make beer their poison of choice? Then why are so many ex-jocks making, selling and presumably guzzling wine these days?

I know, I know - you’re not supposed to guzzle wine. I watched the great movie “Sideways” a few years back, and I know the way to enjoy the fruit of the vine is to sniff it, swirl it gently in the proper glass to admire the bouquet and ultimately sip it delicately just as though you had been brung up in high society.

What, that doesn’t sound like your average sports fan? TV has sold us on the idea, valid or otherwise, that you can’t enjoy a ballgame without a few good Buds at your side - both the human and sudsy variety.

And although you can buy wine at most newer stadiums these days, most of the imbibing you see involves tepid $8 brews. It just seems to go with the territory.

The latest former athlete to get involved with the grape, however, is Tom Seaver, the Hall of Famer who pitched the New York Mets to their first pennant in 1969, when he was merely 24. Seaver follows a path blazed, if that’s the word, by Greg Norman, Joe Montana, Mario Andretti and many others. (Former Olympic figure skating champion Peggy Fleming has her own brand, too, but you have to drink it on ice.)

I don’t know how connoisseurs will react to Seaver’s offering, which is called Nancy’s Fancy in honor of his wife and priced (gulp!) at $65 a bottle. It was released for sale this spring after sitting in oak barrels - the industry’s version of the minor leagues - for two years.

Seaver’s new occupation in some ways reflects his old. Once in a while, for instance, he uncorked a wild one. And now, you might say, he’s pitching grapes instead of sliders on the outside corner.

Tom is 63 now, hard as that might be for some of us to believe, but seems to be working as hard as ever. Since founding GTS Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley several years ago, he often rises at 6 a.m. to inspect the rows of cabernet sauvignon vines planted near his house. Nor does he leave all the manual labor to others, often doing some of the pruning and weeding himself.

“For me, sitting in front of a computer [in retirement] wasn’t going to do it,” Seaver told Bloomberg News. “I’m physical and hands-on.”

Nancy Seaver admits she “thought it was a whim, actually” when Tom quit a job as a TV analyst to face this new challenge. She learned otherwise in 1997, when the couple paid $510,000 for 116 undeveloped acres on Diamond Mountain in Napa Valley. Now Nancy runs the business along with her husband.

The Seavers have assembled what Tom calls “an all-star team” of real wine experts to direct their efforts, yet it took the company five years to produce a product suitable for premium use. Like ballplayers, you can’t rush grapes.

Bottles of Nancy’s Fancy pay appropriate homage to Seaver’s pitching career, during which he won 311 games for the Mets and three other teams from 1967 to 1986: Baseball stitching marks the foil that covers the neck. Too bad there isn’t a picture of the Orioles flailing helplessly at Tom’s pitches in the Mets’ amazin’ victory in the 1969 World Series.

Seaver doesn’t say how much money he has invested and doesn’t expect any profits for several years because “I’m a rookie in the clubhouse - you gotta earn your stripes.” And as anybody who has tried to pick a bottle of dinner wine at the state store knows, the market is as overcrowded as a major league clubhouse in spring training.

I wouldn’t bet against Seaver succeeding, though, because he’s always been a winner. And maybe his old baseball nickname will carry over to this endeavor. Can’t you just imagine the following dialogue at a wine-tasting party?

Seaver: “Well. Mr. Haughty Expert, what do you think?”

Haughty expert, smacking his lips appreciatively: “Tom, terrific.”

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