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Legendary race car driver and now car-owner Mario Andretti watches his team's car run practice laps for the XM Satellite Radio Indy 300 auto race in 2007, in Homestead, Fla. (Terry Renna/Terry Renna/AP Photo)
Legendary race car driver and now car-owner Mario Andretti watches his team's car run practice laps for the XM Satellite Radio Indy 300 auto race in 2007, in Homestead, Fla. (Terry Renna/Terry Renna/AP Photo)

Mario Andretti driven to produce wine Add to ...

What’s it like to sit down and open a bottle of wine with your name on it?

1978 Formula One world champion Mario Andretti snapped the answer without hesitation: “Cool as hell.”

Seeing the Andretti name on a wine might be satisfying but the racing legend is also quick to point out that he would never have discovered that joy if it weren't for late F1 team owner Ken Tyrrell.

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Andretti’s first step toward owning a vineyard came when Tyrrell chastised him for ordering French wine instead of a local Napa Valley offering at a restaurant in Long Beach, Calif., during the 1976 U.S. Grand Prix weekend. The rest, as they say, is history.

“At the end of the season, I made my first trip to Napa Valley and we did a pilgrimage every year after that and that’s how this all developed,” Andretti said.

“I got into almost by accident, there was no calculated plan or strategy it just happened back in 1994. I always say it was a weak moment in my life that took me in that direction.”

Today, Andretti is one of several racing drivers to have vineyards or wines that sport their name.

Lotus F1 driver Jarno Trulli’s Castorani vineyard produces several different types of wines, including Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, Trebbiano D’Abruzzo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Barolo, Grappa, and Prosecco. He has a couple of wines available in LCBO and Vintages outlets in Ontario and almost a dozen different products available in Quebec’s SAQ stores.

The racer from the Western Italian city of Pescara was introduced to winemaking by his grandfather who produced small batches of “vino rosso” for the family table.

“I come from a region where there is a long tradition and culture around it, so it was quite obvious,” Trulli said.

“We have a large estate now, producing 800,000 bottles per year and we are an established name in the wine business. It’s a family passion for the moment — I can’t say it’s my next career but I do enjoy doing it in my free time. Being from Abruzzo, wine was always important. As a region, I think it is the second largest producer of grapes, so it’s quite big.”

And while many might imagine Barolos, big Tuscans and Chiantis when they think of Italian wines, Trulli feels his region’s Montepulciano D'Abruzzo offering is ready to shine.

“Things are getting interesting,” he said. “Unfortunately in the past, Abruzzo has been known more as a grape producer rather than a wine producer and Montepulciano used to be seen as a cheap table wine. But now we have a lot of good producers who make very good wine. We are working hard and people are starting to discover and appreciate Montepulciano. Obviously, we had to start from the bottom and climb up.”

Now, being an F1 driver doesn't automatically get your wine into the exclusive Paddock Club where the glitterati hang out to see and be seen, but it does help him piggyback business onto his racing travels.

“It gives me the chance to promote my wine around the world and have contact with lots of people who can get to know my wines,” he said. “I am extremely lucky to be able to travel around the world.”

Like Trulli, Andretti was introduced to wine long before he became famous, seeing it on the table at every meal as a kid growing up in Italy. At the time, the future world champion was far from a connoisseur, usually diluting the wine served at the dinner table with water. And frankly, he admitted, he would have given anything to have a Coca-Cola instead. But after the nudge from Tyrrell, that changed.

“My appreciation for good wine grew as I travelled around the world,” said Andretti whose career in F1 allowed him to visit some of the world’s top wine countries, such as Argentina, Australia, France, Italy, and South Africa.

“It’s certainly not just a hobby, it’s a serious business because you have a lot of skin in it financially, but there’s also something that replenishes my spirit just being at the winery and that’s worth a lot to us.”

Andretti has several different wines selling under his labels including Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, and Super Tuscan.

Personally, Andretti prefers the Bordeaux grape in a red wine, specifically the Cabernet Sauvignon, while he will gravitate to the Chardonnay in white.

Jeff Gordon

And should Andretti want an award-winning Chardonnay, he might want to ask four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

The No. 24 Chevy driver’s interest in wine began much earlier, as he grew up close to the Napa Valley in Vallejo, Calif. When the family drove to racetracks in the area, Gordon often found himself staring out the car window at the vineyards.

“I was always fascinated by how beautiful they were,” he said. “Obviously, I had no idea what wine was or anything like that but when you drive through Napa, it’s like you’ve gone another world.”

The boyhood interest turned to a pastime later when Gordon started to appreciate finer wine as one of the perks of being a successful racing driver. After several discussions with Ron Miller, chairman of Performance PR Plus, which handles the No. 24 Chevy driver’s media relations, the idea of a wine with Gordon’s name germinated.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Gordon said. “I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a connoisseur — I’m really only a connoisseur of one thing and that’s racing — so what I do outside of any business outside racing is to tread lightly and learn what I can with the time that I have.”

Gordon's offerings, including a Chardonnay and a “Joie de Vivre Blend” named after his daughter Ella, have won awards in several competitions in the past few years. He also has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir in his line-up.

So far, Gordon’s wines are not available in Canada, but the plan is to get them north of the border sometime soon.

Right now the No. 24 Chevy driver’s involvement with wine is more about having a good time while building a business that might grow into something bigger down the road — and possibly into a second career once Gordon hangs up his driving gloves.

While he’s got a label, unlike Andretti and Trulli, Gordon doesn’t have his own vineyard — yet. Gordon’s wine is produced by August Briggs Winery with input on the production of the product from the driver on the taste he wants to the design of the bottles. But a vineyard looks to be in the plan soon.

“It’s certainly something we are interested in,” he said. “Once you get into it, you become passionate about it and it’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work and it’s not cheap.”

The cost hasn’t dissuaded several other drivers from getting into the business including former IndyCar drivers Scott Pruett and Jimmy Vasser and ex-F1 racer Stefan Johansson. Pruett sometimes combines his racing and wine-making, as he did last year when he produced a limited-edition Cabernet Sauvignon to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500. Pruett was the 1989 Indy 500 co-Rookie of the Year, an honour he shared with Bernard Jourdain.

While running a vineyard and winery definitely puts a dent in your pocketbook, it’s also an extremely rewarding pastime, especially when others get pleasure from your work, Andretti insisted.

“There’s nothing more delicate than your palate, so if I get a smile or a compliment on my wines, that’s the ultimate satisfaction,” he said.

“Your name is on a shingle and you carry that responsibility. It’s like any other intense business, you are judged every day but the rewards are there if you do your job properly.”

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