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(Jeff Pappone for The Globe and Mail)
(Jeff Pappone for The Globe and Mail)

Motorsports

From fast cars to slow growing: Retired drivers turn to wine making in retirement Add to ...

While the rest of the paddock looked for hotels during last weekend’s race in Sonoma, retired racer and IndyCar team co-owner Jimmy Vasser got to spend a bit of time at his home away from home.

The GoPro Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Calif. gave the KV Racing Technologies co-owner and 1996 Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) champion a chance to sleep at his vineyard, which is about a 30-minute drive from the track.

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Perched near the top a slope with a view of his vineyards and the Napa Valley below, Vasser’s modest winery home doesn’t really get used that much, so he relishes the time he spends communing with his grapes.

“We travel around the world and are on the road something like 200 days a year and for me it’s been a really good balance when I go to the vineyard,” said Vasser, who lives in Las Vegas.

“We are in a fast pace in a fast life, and you have to slow down – nobody is in a hurry in the wine business.”

And while it’s been more than two decades since Vasser was a racing rookie, he still feels like one when it comes to wine.

Vasser purchased the Chevrolet and Toyota dealerships in Sonoma in the late 1990s and went looking for a residential property, which he bought from Robert Mondavi’s grandson, Rob, a couple of years later. The former racer sunk a pile of cash into the 45-acre property as well as fended off some opposition to the blasting he needed to do to get the fields ready for planting. So far, only eight acres on the estate have vines and his production is just a bit more than 200 cases of wine.

“It wasn’t initially my intention to plant vineyard there,” he said. “When I did the analysis to see how it would be, I was told it would be difficult because of all the rock and if I did go ahead it would be expensive but it would give fantastic fruit. And you need good fruit to make great wine.”

He’s also not opposed to using a bit of stealth to do market research. Vasser has been known to invite people over for parties and serve his wine in “shiners” – bottles without a label – for some blind taste testing to get honest feedback on his products.

The first vines went into the ground at Vasser’s property at the beginning of 2005, with the first harvest in 2008. The first vintage was ready for sale in 2012. His 2009 wines went on the market this year, just as the 2010 wine was put in bottles for its final aging.

Not far from Vasser’s place is the winery of racing legend Mario Andretti, who bought his vineyard the same year Vasser won his CART title. If Vasser, 47, is the rookie winemaker in the IndyCar paddock, Andretti is easily the veteran.

After getting turned on to California wines by late Formula One owner Ken Tyrrell, Andretti went looking for a vineyard in Napa. Two years after he retired from IndyCar competition at the age of 54, he bought a property that was used to grow grapes to sell to other wineries in the area.

Once he owned the 53-acre property in Oak Knoll district north of Napa, Andretti, who is the only person to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and a F1 world championship, tore down the existing split-level house to built a Tuscan-style villa.

Although they are at different points in their wine making careers, like Vasser, Andretti gets the same pleasure out of spending time at his vineyard in Napa.

“It’s like an oasis – when I am there, it just replenishes my spirit there’s something about it that makes you feel so good spending time there,” said the 73-year-old Andretti who drives the IndyCar two-seater at several races during the season.

“We like people to come in there for a few hours and have a nice experience and sit back and relax and maybe sit outside and just enjoy the fresh air.”

Unlike Vasser’s operation, visitors to Andretti’s operation can try his vino in a spacious tasting facility and even sit outside and enjoy his offerings on a small patio. Andretti often has artists display their works in the apartment next to the tasting room that can also be used for private functions. Behind the tasting room, there is a barn-like structure where the barrels are stored and next to it are crushers which deliver the raw materials to Andretti’s wine makers.

Although wine making is a completely different game than racing, Andretti sees similarities in his roles as driver and winery owner.

“The parallel is like this: In racing, when the work was all done on the car, I was the one who got to enjoy it as the driver,” he said.

“It’s the same thing in the wine business: You surround yourself with the best people you can find – my engineer is the winemaker – and then when everything is ready in the bottle to be poured, I get to enjoy it.”

While he doesn’t purport to be an expert in the field, Andretti likes to be part of the discussions about styles and vintages.

The veteran’s vineyard, with its sophisticated feel and polished look, is quite opposite of Vasser’s operation, although the younger upstart has just completed a tasting facility with a barrel room that he plans to open next year. Then again, people wanting to sample his offerings might have trouble finding Vasser’s vineyard. Getting there can be a bit of a challenge since the property is hidden on the top of a hill off a non-descript, twisty road a few kilometres outside the town of Napa.

It’s also a family affair, with one of the driving forces in Vasser’s vineyard being his sister Victoria Vasser Kleis, who runs the operation day-to-day and keeps things rolling while he’s travelling with the KV Team.

And just like a rookie on track who needs to make sure not to try too hard and overdrive the car, Vasser insisted that as an early stage winemaker he has to his “patience pants” securely buttoned at all times.

“It’s probably not the smartest thing I did with my money,” he added. “It is really front-loaded – it’s not a great return on investment because of the time it takes and the outlay of cash in the beginning. But I became passionate about wine over time. It’s just a great process of learning and it’s going to take a few years to get it where I want it to be.”

Although Vasser said he’s “certainly enjoyed Mario’s wines over the years” and they have talked about the business, he hasn’t really asked Andretti for advice. The same goes for former CART racer Scott Pruett, although the Rolex Sports Car Series driver has tried to convince Vasser to sell him grapes. Pruett has a vineyard in Healdsburg, about 60 kilometres north of Sonoma.

Like Andretti, Vasser got the wine bug from an owner. When Target Chip Ganassi Racing clinched its first few championships at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway, they went go to a restaurant in nearby Carmel that had an extensive wine cellar. His team owner, Chip Ganassi, would spring for some pricy and delicious burgundies, which whetted Vasser’s palate and made his start thinking about how to enjoy wine more.

And now that he has his own wine making operation, Vasser sees the work ethic and approach that brought a title on the track can also help make his vineyard successful.

“You always want it to be the best and you are always striving to make it better: You are testing and blending different percentages of the different clones and the testing the different barrels and wood,” he said “It’s not as complicated as engineering a racing car, but it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. There are so many things that can go wrong.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone

Twitter: @jpappone

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