In August of 2014, Jim Fox was attending the University of California, at Davis, taking an extension course in winemaking, when he felt the first tremors. Fox was born in Coniston, Ont., but has lived in Los Angeles since 1981, when he first turned pro with the Los Angeles Kings. Not quite a native Californian, Fox has lived there long enough now to know what a major earthquake feels and sounds like – and this was big, 6.0 on the moment magnitude scale (MMS).
"My first thought was, 'if this was San Francisco, they are in big trouble' – because it was rocking," Fox said. Soon after, he learned that the epicentre of the quake was near the West Napa Fault, where the entire vintage of his 2012 Patiné Cellars pinot noir was being stored. Patiné is a boutique wine project that Fox and his wife Suzie run in conjunction with noted winemaker Mike Smith. From vineyard to retail outlet, the process of making a fine wine takes years and involves endless hours of sweat and toil. To potentially have the whole inventory lost in a quake gave Fox one long uneasy night – until he found out his wines had come through nearly unscathed.
"The warehouse where they stored our wine I estimate would house at least 100,000 cases, if not more, and they only lost 20 cases total," Fox said. "To lose only 20 cases at the epicentre of an earthquake is, I assume, good planning, good storage – but also good fortune. You cannot get earthquake insurance, so if we had lost it, we would have lost it."
Fox, now a broadcaster with the Los Angeles Kings and for a couple of years a teammate of Wayne Gretzky's, is one of a growing number of hockey players involved in the wine industry. Valeri Bure, formerly of the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, makes a high-end cabernet sauvigon in St. Helena, Calif., that is so popular that you'll need to spend two years on a waiting list just to get a chance to buy one of the 700 cases Bure Family Wines produces every year.
For years, fellow Russian Igor Larionov was heavily involved in the wine trade, producing wines in both California and Australia. Although Larionov has switched his full-time focus to becoming a player agent, he still produces small batches of a high-end cab for his own consumption and to give to friends. As recently as this past February, visitors to Russia for the Sochi Olympics could drink the last of Larionov's shiraz's at Coffeemania, a Moscow airport restaurant. The Hall of Famer Gretzky produces wines in both the Okanagan Valley and Niagara regions and boasts, among other brands, a couple of high-end ice wines. Mario Lemieux essentially is the most noteworthy figure in the hockey world associated with wine, not as producer but as a collector. Lemieux's extensive stash, housed in his Pittsburgh home, has spun off an interest in wine in former teammates Ron Francis, Mark Recchi and his former basement tenant, Sidney Crosby.
There is a celebrity element to the wine-making world, with famous movie producers, film stars, musicians, golfers and entrepreneurs developing an interest in the art and science of winemaking. Some are vanity projects. Others just license their names. Still others, such as Fox and Bure, become so immersed in the process that ultimately they want to make a career out of it.
Fox said he "knew basically nothing about wine" when he first arrived to play for the Kings in 1980-81. But living in Hermosa Beach near a restaurant called the Bottle Inn, he would taste and try different types of wine, recommended mostly by the service staff. Suddenly, the study of wine intrigued him. At the same time, he was developing a circle of friends in the L.A. area, some of them collectors with their own cellars.
"I was fortunate to be able to taste some world-class wines, due to my friends' generosity," Fox said. "That in turn sparked an interest in, 'how can this juice be so darn good?' So I started to take some classes and see if I could learn more and increase my tasting abilities. Then Suzie and I started to travel around wine regions – to Tuscany, Bordeaux, Burgundy – along with some of the easy ones here, which are Napa, Sonoma and the Santa Ynez Valley, which is where Sideways was filmed. Basically every trip we took was based on wine.
"The final step was when a friend of mine asked me, 'What would you like to do?' I said, 'I'd like to make a wine.' He said, 'Why aren't you?' I said, 'I didn't want to invest that much money into it. So he said, 'Okay, here's the money.' That was the trigger."
While Fox is still trying to get a toehold in the wine business, Bure – younger brother of Hall Of Famer Pavel Bure – has created a niche for himself in the collectible cabernet market. After Bure retired in 2005, he met winemaker Josh Peeples and decided to create his own label. The Bure family emigrated from Switzerland to Russia, where Val's great-grandfather was a watchmaker to the Russian czar. The label for Bure Family Wines is a slightly amended version of the family crest, which features a bird with a hockey stick in its talons.
"The goal for Bure Family Wines was to create something exceptional, something in the boutique, collectors-item category," Bure said. "It was modelled after the watches that my great-grandfather used to make. They were special pieces, given away as medals, etc. It's the same thing with this label. We are trying to create a collectible. I want people to enjoy it but I don't want it to be in every wine shop or restaurant."
Like Fox, Bure's goal is to some day develop enough of a personal expertise that he can be his own winemaker.
"The wine-making process is easy," Bure said. "If you and I would go and pick the grapes and let them ferment, we're going to make wine. How good of a wine we're going to make is a different question. To make an exceptional wine is an art. I'm learning that art from one of the best in the business and it just takes time. I'm patiently learning and getting my hands dirty and starting to understand a little bit of the nuances, but it's a never-ending learning process and that's what's exciting about it.
"Every year is different. Every harvest is different. Every wine is different. Every barrel is different. So there are so many questions you can ask as you continue to learn – and you'll never have all the answers."
Bure's interest in winemaking started during the early days of his career in Montreal, where his palette started to evolve and his collection began to grow – "from a few bottles in a little fridge into a walk-in fridge to a cellar to a winery."
Larionov, by contrast, spent the first 30 years of his life living mostly in a dormitory playing for the Russian Red Army team – until he and teammate Slava Fetisov were able to force the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation to let them pursue a playing career outside of Russia. Accordingly, his interest and expertise developed much later.
"My exposure to wine came when I was 33 years old when I took a year off and went to Lugano, Switzerland, and started to appreciate that lifestyle, cuisine and red wine," said Larionov, a player nicknamed the Professor, who often credited his longevity in the game (he played until he was 45) to drinking a glass of red wine every night. "Now, with the Internet and all the information that players can read, they know what wine's all about – the quality of the product. To me, it's normal – for the mature guys, 22, 25, 27, they're making a lot of money and they want to drink some good wines too.
"It's like the difference between a five-star hotel and a Motel 6," Larionov added. "As soon as you start to realize there's so much great wine, it's hard to go back to drinking Two Buck Chuck."
Celebrity's name can be a mixed blessing
Great wine and great wealth make a potent combination, according to Robert Taylor, assistant managing editor with the Wine Spectator, who says: "With most professional athletes, drinking and having a good time is part of the culture.
"At some point, when they start making some money and enjoying the better things in life, a lot of them gravitate towards wine, especially once the partying slows down, but you still want to relax with a nice something at the end of the night. With hockey in particular, Mario Lemieux really seems to be the one that brought so many other hockey players into wine. There's so many now. You don't get a lot of hockey players coming out of California, but you do get a lot out of Canada, which has a lovely and ever-growing, ever-improving wine industry."
According to Taylor, having a celebrity's name associated with a wine label can be a mixed blessing.
"There's certainly a novelty appeal for fans. If your grandmother loves Wayne Gretzky, that might be a reason to bring a bottle over. For sophisticated wine drinkers, it's going to be almost the opposite – they're going to eye that with suspicion.
"The variation in quality between celebrity and athlete wines is as broad as the variation in the quality of Two Buck Chuck and a first growth Bordeaux. There are athletes who make incredibly great wines and are really devoted to the craft and go out and spend the money to hire top-notch wine makers. [Former NFL quarterback] Drew Bledsoe is one."
Bure said having a famous name did him little good in the beginning.
"I was travelling and presenting the wines and everybody was saying, 'Bure Wines? Never heard of it.' It took me five or six years so that now, when I arrive somewhere, people say, 'Okay, we know what it is.' It just takes time to build the brand."
Bure's wines are now so wildly popular, with limited supply and great demand, that they allocate their wines to mailing-list-only clients.
"The only chance you're going to get to try Bure Family Wines is you come out and get together with us and we'll let you open a bottle," he said. "I do give a few cases to British Columbia, so there are a couple of restaurants up there that have them. Most of our clients are from California, New York and Texas."
Ultimately, Bure Family Wines remains a boutique operation because, according to Bure, "I have more control over 700 cases than I would over 5,000 cases. Quality control – we're talking about 30 or 40 barrels in our red blend. So it's tiny but if I don't like one or two of the barrels, they're just not going to make the blend. That's what creates a better wine – and was my goal from the beginning."
Understandably, there is a difference between appreciating wine and taking it a step further and getting involved in the industry. For a time in the mid-2000s, winemaking was one of Larionov's primary occupations – producing wines in both California and Australia under the names Hat Trick, Triple Overtime and Slapshot, some of them very highly rated. In the three years he spent living in California, Larionov said he and Fox constantly discussed the winemaking process.
"I'd go to watch a Kings game and go upstairs to the press box and see Jimmy and Bob Miller and all we'd talk about is the wine, not the hockey," Larionov said. Nowadays, Larionov says he makes wines "for myself, but not for resale, because I'm heavily involved in hockey and it's taking all my time. When you're in the wine industry, you have to really be behind the project. I was heavily involved when you start your label – you have to go promote your product and go talk to the people at different functions.
"I really enjoyed it and I met a lot of different people – Jerry Bruckheimer, drinking a glass of wine with him three years ago at his movie premiere in Moscow. A few years back, I gave Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits one of my bottles. Mark was in town and we chatted for 45 minutes before a show and I gave him a bottle of my wine."
Once you make the decision to invest, you are faced with two basic choices, according to Fox.
"One is buy your own land, buy your own winery, buy your vineyards – or you can do a custom crush, where you buy the grapes and go to an existing winery and use their equipment and end up with a finished product."
Fox said he spent about three years looking for the right property, but: "Every time I looked, there ended up being a 10,000-square-foot house on the property, so it ended up being more a real estate play than anything else, so we elected to go with the custom crush."
Fox met his winemaker, Mike Smith, through a mutual friend and after tasting some of Smith's wines, decided this was a relationship that would work. They are currently producing two different varietals, one called Gap's Crown from the Sonoma Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area), the other from the Sun Chase Vineyard in the same AVA, but about 800 feet higher than Gap's Crown, which brings it above the fog line, and usually allows the grapes to ripen more quickly. The net result is two distinct wines, even though they're grown close to each other. Last year, they added a third vineyard, (Soberanes in the Santa Lucia Highlands) and hope to introduce one more in 2015 and then stop at four. Recently, Smith received a 99 rating from the noted wine critic Robert Parker for a 2010 Carter Cellars Cab and a 100 in a 10-year retrospective testing Parker for a 2002 wine from Carter Cellars. So for now, Fox is in good hands with Smith as his winemaker.
Making wine appeals to Fox largely because of the way it differs from his NHL playing experience.
"Pro sports is always about the final score and there is a black and whiteness to that which, when I was an athlete, was extremely attractive to me," Fox said. "I loved knowing at the end of the day how you did, and the score told you.
"Wine gives me almost the opposite feeling and it's probably something I was looking for subconsciously. Wines are scored too, but more than with hockey, it is about the process. There is an artistic element to wine. There is a chemistry element to wine. There is a terroir element to wine. There are so many different elements and I felt that that combination of all those things was so intriguing to me. It really made me expand the way I thought about a lot of things."
Beyond the challenge of making wine, Fox is learning there's a second part to the equation – getting the product to market. Ultimately, he would like to sell Patiné wines in Canada.
"The big challenges there are the taxes, which increase the cost of the wine to the consumer," he said. "When people see our packaging and labelling, I think they're going to like it. The wine speaks for itself, and there is a hockey theme to it.
"But we're very small. We don't have budgets for advertising and marketing. We rely on word of mouth and social media to get our message out."
In the meantime, Fox is going back to UC Davis next summer for more instruction and hoping there are no earthquakes this time around.
"I've taken many courses before and I've been in the winery along with Mike, hands-on, doing most of the necessary tasks to produce a wine, but I felt I needed a textbook experience – and that's what UC Davis provided," Fox said. "My No. 1 goal here was to be able to converse with Mike and not only just nod my head in agreement, but to understand what he says and then be able to ask pertinent questions.
"Most people will tell you this about winemaking: When you first start studying the process, you realize how much you don't know. But the first conversation I had with Mike after Davis, I understood about 90 per cent of what he said. That doesn't mean I'd be able to do it, but I could understand the whys and the how and all the steps involved. And that's the first step."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Robert Taylor as Robert Walker. This has been corrected.