Adam TeicherESPN staff writer8 minutes of reading
IT’S 06:30, and the first light has not yet appeared over the Mayacamas Mountains when Dick Vermeil climbs into the seat of a tractor.
On this September day in California’s Napa Valley, it’s harvest season. Vermeil hauls small sirah grapes from the fields to a collection point where they will be brought to the winery for transformation into one of Vermeil Wines’ 11 varietals.
Vermeil sees the frantic pace of the workers around him. Seventeen years removed from his career as an NFL coach, the 86-year-old Vermeil still thinks and sounds like one. He spends his time studying the 12 workers, noting how each one goes about trimming the grapes from the vines in a slightly different way.
Vermeil nods to one, calling him “my first-round pick.”
“He stands out, but they all work hard. There’s not one guy I’d cut from the team. But I rank them and I pick him in the first round.”
Vermeil, who won 120 games as coach of three NFL teams and a Super Bowl championship in 1999 with the St. Louis Rams, isn’t the only Pro Football Hall of Fame member with his name on a winery. Mike Ditka, for example, is another.
But Vermeil didn’t just lend his name to the winery. He does it too. He lives on the other side of the country, on 100 acres outside of Philadelphia, but said most days he still does something for the wine business.
As a coach, Vermeil was known for his intensity and demanding style. He often worked 20-hour days that would end with him sleeping in his office, and he would demand the same from his assistants. He carried out long, physical drills that sometimes caused his players to riot.
Ever the football coach, Vermeil attends the wine company’s annual meetings armed with slips of paper that look like one of his voluminous playbooks.
“The preparation he puts into these meetings is like a game plan in football,” said Michael Azeez, one of the lead investors in Vermeil Wines. “He writes everything down on a piece of paper. He has a whole list of things that we have to consider, whether it’s coming up with a better way of doing something or making some different wines or how we sell them.
“This quality of challenging people comes through in our management meetings.”
Making wine is not a substitute for coaching in terms of the busyness it brings. But there is fulfillment nonetheless. Vermeil says he gets satisfaction from seeing people enjoy his wines.
And while it wasn’t his idea to turn Vermeil Wines into a business, he says it’s a lot like running a football team.
“You better have good coaches,” Vermeil said. “In the wine business, you better have good people able to make the wine, people who know what they’re doing.”
Vermeil Wines is not a large producer, producing about 2,500 cases a year compared to the largest US producers who produce tens of thousands of cases annually. But the wines often get high marks, with several topping 90 on a 100-point scale from Wine Advocate. Vermeil has a cabernet sauvignon coming out in 2024 to honor his 2022 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Despite the harvest season, Vermeil is most involved in the marketing part of the business. He often travels around the country selling wine.
“Bigger companies or country club golf courses, if they can get Dick Vermeil to come out and do a wine presentation, whether it’s a wine dinner or a wine tasting, that usually stimulates some pretty good sales,” said former Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson, who owns 15% of the winery. “He’s willing to do it with his time. He’s been the catalyst, no doubt about it.
“We went 14 years in the red, and the last two years have been in the black. We make money. Not a lot, but we don’t have more capital calls. On top of that, we make some really good wine. We think it’s direct related to Dick’s involvement. It’s Dick and the emphasis he puts on it.”
VERMEIL GROWS UP in Calistoga, California, at the northern end of the country’s most famous wine-producing region. His great-grandfather Jean Louis Vermeil, originally from Tuscany, came to the United States and settled in the San Francisco area. The Napa Valley reminded him of home, so he began buying property, vineyards and orchards.
The Vermeils made wine with their grapes on a small scale, mostly for family consumption. Even when he was as young as 6 or 7 years old, Dick was assigned to help with the grape crusher by turning the press and got his first exposure to the business.
For meals on special occasions, his parents gave Vermeil a glass of half wine, half water.
“Wine was always a big part of holiday meals,” Vermeil said. “We’d open my grandfather’s freshman year and the adults would discuss it. I’d sit there and listen to every word. I was fascinated by it.
“It left an image to me of how important this product was to our family and to many families.”
It took a few years before Vermeil entered the wine business. Coaching came first, first in high school in California, then college at UCLA and finally 15 years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and Chiefs. His time in the NFL was punctuated by a 14-year hiatus, during which Vermeil felt he needed the break to combat stress, creating a highly unconventional Hall of Fame coaching career.
Towards the end of his career, Vermeil wanted to honor his great-grandfather by putting his name on a bottle of wine. He mentioned this to a friend in Napa Valley who was making wine out of his home and a few hundred cases were made in honor of Jean Louis.
When he coached in Kansas City, the last stop of his career, he handed out bottles as Christmas gifts to members of his staff. Friends came to him after he retired from coaching for the last time in 2005 with the idea of turning this wine hobby into a business.
Vermeil accepted, and became a 15% owner in the operation. The group of investors bought a small winery in 2007 and the next year put Vermeil’s name on the label.
Their first bottle was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petite sirah called simply XXXIV for the number of the Super Bowl won by Vermeil and the Rams over the Tennessee Titans, and there are still a few hundred cases of XXXIV produced each year.
TODD COLLINS WAS summoned to his coach’s office after a Chiefs offseason practice. The backup quarterback immediately figured he was headed for bad news.
“He just wanted to know if I wanted to go to a wine tasting in Kansas City with him that night,” Collins recalled. “With Dick, he wasn’t shy about sharing his love of wine with some of his players.”
Vermeil’s influence on his former players when it comes to wine is significant.
Running back Tony Richardson collects wine, which he stores at home in a cellar he calls the “Vermeil Room.”
A number of Vermeil’s players at the Chiefs are involved in wine in one way or another. Collins and another of Vermeil’s quarterbacks, Trent Green, each own 1% of Vermeil Wines. A third quarterback, Damon Huard, runs a winery in Washington state with Dan Marino called Passing Time. Former wide receiver Eddie Kennison once owned a wine store in Kansas City that he sold when he moved back home to Louisiana, but he recently said he plans to open another one there.
“We’d be out eating at training camp, just quarterbacks, and all of a sudden a bottle of prime merlot showed up at our table,” Huard said. “The server would say, ‘Coach Vermeil wanted you to have this.’ He definitely taught me the appreciation of food and wine. When I was younger, maybe I drank a glass of wine more as a cocktail than anything else. He was more about how it paired with food to enhance the experience.
“He was a big supporter of Passing Time when we first got it going by buying a lot of our wine. Even today he will give me advice on how to run the business.”
Vermeil’s love of wine once got him into trouble with the NFL. Before kicker Morten Andersen attempted a late field goal that would give the Chiefs a win in a close game against the Raiders one season, Vermeil promised Andersen a bottle of Bryant Family Vineyards cabernet sauvignon, worth about $500, if he made the kick.
Vermeil spoke afterward about his planned gift to Andersen, but the league said it would have violated salary cap rules.
Vermeil and his wife, Carol, would host dinners in their Kansas City apartment for groups of players. The building originally had a no-barbecue rule on the decks, but relented to the Vermeils so they could cook for the players.
“Dick and Carol mentioned that they had made so many of those dinners,” Collins said. “They did them when Dick was coaching in high school, coaching in college, coaching in the NFL. They said they didn’t know how many of them they had done, but it must have been hundreds and hundreds of them. The wives came, the girlfriends It was a great team building thing.
“We ate steak that Dick cooked on the grill. We had salad and vegetables. And we always had some wine. The thing about Dick was you’d never see him drink too much wine. He always said that when he was a kid wine was on the dinner table like salt and pepper were. It was an essential part of the meal because it enhanced the meal. It wasn’t there to drink too much.”
VERMEIL FINALLY ENDS his day in the fields, but not before taking a call from another Super Bowl-winning coach, former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who gave Vermeil an address for wine intended for Coughlin’s upcoming charity event.
Later, at Vermeil Wine’s tasting room in the city of Napa, Vermeil serves wine to customers behind the bar. He’s talking to a customer who lived in Philadelphia when Vermeil coached the Eagles 40 years earlier. The fan’s wife then turns to Vermeil and tells him that Vermeil had pleased her husband by saying hello.
It’s all in a day’s work for the Hall of Fame coach.
“It’s not a big money deal, but at least we’re paying all our bills and making excellent wines,” Vermeil said. “I’m not a really knowledgeable wine guy. I know some basics. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I don’t have a sophisticated palate. I know what I like. I know what tastes good to me and if it tastes good to you, it’s good wine, regardless of what you paid for it.”