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Golfers Uncorked

Many world-renowned present and past tour professionals have invested heavily in the world of wine and are turning out top-quality wines
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Paul Giamatti, January/February 2011

It was more than a bit ironic and just a touch comical that Jack Nicklaus found himself in a wine facility in the Napa Valley in 2009, a table filled with hundreds of wine glasses before him. Nicklaus, the greatest player of all time, had never been much of a drinker during his championship career.

He wasn’t really drinking this day, either. He was tasting blends of what would become his own wine label. “I had to spit it all out or I would have been looped,” says Nicklaus.

Bill Terlato, the Golden Bear’s partner in the venture and the Terlato Wine Group’s president and CEO, insisted that Nicklaus be involved in the winemaking from the outset. “It was Jack, [sons Jackie and Gary], me, my father, Tony, and brother John,” says Terlato. “We did the tasting of the blends. There was a great photograph taken where there is like 50 wine glasses in front of each of us, hundreds of glasses on the table. Somebody took a picture and sent it to [Jack’s wife] Barbara, who couldn’t believe it.” It was only a matter of time before Nicklaus jumped into the vats with both feet. He did just that in 2010 after the wines created that day were finally ready for the market.

From rolling vineyards to rolling fairways, from restaurant to clubhouse, from the first tee to the first sip, wine and golf are a natural pairing with their common links to the earth, or terroir. Golf and wine each depend on land, and the people who shape it and take sustenance from it. A natural association. And over the last two decades, those golfers with wine affiliations now take up more than one tee time, or even two.

Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player—the greatest threesome in history—each has his own wine label. Greg Norman has long had his own label as part of his vast Great White Shark business empire. David Frost was born to the vineyards in South Africa. Fellow South Africans Ernie Els and Retief Goosen have their own wines, and like Frost, their own vineyards.

Six-time major champion Nick Faldo has a wine from Australia. The greatest player in the history of women’s golf, Annika Sorenstam, is producing wine at the boutique level. So is Luke Donald as is Fred Couples. And Mike Weir, Canada’s best player, is turning out wines from the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario.

More than a few have ended up with the family-owned Terlato Wine Group. Bill Terlato is a good player himself, and really got started by working as an advisor to Donald whose wines are produced by his company. Terlato’s company also imports Ernie Els’ wine to the United States.

“Certainly in the brand recognition area they had lots of offers flying around out there, but they all wanted their names attached to a quality wine,” says Terlato. “They think that having a high-quality wine fits with who they are as persons, and fits their brand.” For Nicklaus, who introduced his wines in June, it was about capitalizing on his name while also realizing that there was a great deal of joy in the process. It didn’t hurt that Bill Terlato was a member of Nicklaus’ The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida.

“When we first came together I sort of tried to talk him out of it,” says Terlato. “I told him that it wouldn’t be a case of just finding a commercial wine to slap his label on because we aren’t the right sort of people for that. I said you need to be involved, need to know about the wine, participate in the tasting and blending, understand where it came from, the vineyards and the lots. He was all okay with that.”

The wine business isn’t just for fun. For legends such as Nicklaus, Palmer and Player, wine offers them an opportunity to expand their profile, both from a business angle and a personal angle. They can put their own labels in the clubhouses of courses they design and on the corporate tables of companies they represent.

But for some of the golfers, their efforts in the wine world include a pure joy about creating something they can be proud of, something that fits in with the casually sophisticated lifestyle of the game and the life they lead.

“It was never really a business for me,” says Ernie Els. “It was my friendship with Jean Englebrecht [the winemaker and his original partner]. Jean talked me into buying this beautiful piece of land. It started as a hobby, really. Maybe not ever looking at it as a business, but just what it was like to be involved with the winemaking, the growing.”

In finding out what was involved in the growing and the winemaking, Els found out something else, something the others have discovered to various degrees.  “After a while I realized the connection between wine and the land, and between golf and the land,” says Els. “They are very much related.”

So here are the players, in alphabetical order, and their wines, their reasons and their expectations.

Fred Couples

When Fred Couples’ people were looking for a winemaker to produce a quality wine under Couples’ name, they were told that Mitch Cosentino of Cosentino Vineyards in Napa was their man.

“I told them I make high-quality, small-quantity production,” says Cosentino, a pretty fair golfer himself. “They said Fred wants everything high quality. They flew out in November of 2008 and tasted a bunch of wine. That’s when I met Fred . . . He said he wasn’t real knowledgeable about wine, but that it was part of his lifestyle. We did some barrel tastings.  He and I meeting was very important. We got along right away.”

The ultimate product of that meeting was wines bottled under the label of Couples & Co (for Cosentino). Cabernet, Sangiovese and Chardonnay are being offered. There was a soft release of his Cabernet at the Presidents Cup at Harding Park last year, where he was the captain of the U.S. team. He gave a magnum of the Cabernet to each of the International team players.
According to Jim Nylen, a partner in the Purecru wine company which is producing Couples’ label, 520 cases of 2006 Cabernet, 1,050 cases of 2006 Sangiovese and 622 cases of 2009 Chardonnay have been produced. 

Luke Donald

The fates conspired to bring Luke Donald into the wine world. Growing up in England, Donald often watched his parents enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. As a blossoming junior player, Donald chose to attend Northwestern University in Chicago, where as a three-time NCAA All-American player he met Bill Terlato of Terlato Wine Group.

“I started playing golf with Bill in about 1999 and I became interested in his work,” says Donald, twice a winner on the PGA Tour, three times a winner on the European Tour and a member of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team this past October. “We became good enough friends to try doing a wine together.”

The friendship turned into a partnership for a Luke Donald wine label, the initial offerings being a 2008 Claret-style wine sourced from the Rutherford and Stags Leap appellations of the Napa Valley, and a 2009 Carneros Chardonnay. Both are limited releases of about 1,000 cases.

“I have always liked the Bordeaux style of wine, they are earthier than most American style wines,” says Donald. “I like the blended style. My Claret is 44 percent Cabernet, 43 percent Merlot, 12 percent Cabernet Franc and one percent Petit Verdot. It’s marketed a little toward the younger generation. It has my initials on the label, not a picture of a vineyard.  I think younger successful people are into wine.”

Donald has about 800 bottles of wine in the cellar of his Chicago home. A renaissance man of a sorts, Donald is also a fine artist and a world traveler.

“I play a sport where I’m free to compete as long as I want,” says Donald. “Wine is a hobby now and I have a lot to learn. In my late life I would love to shift gears more toward making wine.”

Ernie Els

By 1999, Ernie Els had twice won the U.S. Open championship and had been traveling the world, embracing its joys. Among them was a good glass of wine.

“I always enjoyed a nice glass of wine, had a lot of good wine in my travels,” says Els. “I know the wines I like.”

Fortunately and coincidentally, Els is a South African, from a country that produces high-quality wines and high-quality golfers. Among the friends Els gathered along the way was Jean Englebrecht, a renowned South African winemaker. It was through that friendship that Els came to form his own wine label in 1999. By 2004 Els had bought his own vineyard on the slopes of Helderberg Mountain in the vineyard-rich Stellenbosch region of South Africa. There Englebrecht and Els established a winery and produced well-rated wines under Els’ label and that of Englebrecht Els.

As a world-class golfer, Els knew what he wanted from the game. When he came into the wine business, he knew what he wanted from the wine, a Bordeaux style with a certain velvet quality.

“I have a free-flowing swing, but I’m quite tough on myself. Personally I’m relaxed, laid back, but on the golf course I’m quite intense,” says Els. “That’s sort of how I look at the wine. There’s a certain style in my wine that matches my personality. It’s smooth tasting but strong. It’s not for the fainthearted.”

Under the supervision of winemaker Louis Strydom,  Els’ wines have won gold medals in South African competition and his 2005 Signature Blend was tasted at the recent Wine Spectator’s New World Wine Experience in Las Vegas. The Signature Blend is comprised primarily of Cabernet and Merlot, with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  Though he’s had the opportunity to taste the best of wines in the best of circumstances, Els says his favorite wine experience is being on his farm and watching how it all comes together.

“I try to be at the farm when we do the picking in March,” says Els. “End of summer is the most beautiful time there, when the farm really comes alive, everything there is buzzing. I just love it.”

Nick Faldo

Wine is a bit of fun for Nick Faldo. The six-time major champion wore what he called an Iron Chest when he was a player, putting forth a tough- as-steel persona that seemed unapproachable.

But now he’s retired from the competitive game and become like a decanted wine: He’s opened up nicely.

“I’m not a connoisseur of wine,” says Faldo, now a very full-time television commentator and an active golf course designer around the world. “I like fruity, velvety stuff. Stuff you can drink now.”

On a visit to Australia in 2002, he hooked up with winemaker Wayne Stehbens of the Katnook Estate, part of the Wingara Wine Group based in the Connawarra wine region.  They tried a few blends of various varietals, and eventually Faldo settled on his own label of wines, of Shiraz, Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc.

“I go by my Wine 101 taste buds,” says Faldo.  “Make about 20–30,000 cases. I thought the wine thing went well with the entertainment side of my golf course design business. You know, have it in the clubhouses of the courses I’ve designed.” And as for his personal tastes, Faldo says: “I drink a little more now that I don’t play on the tours. I like reds because they are less calories, have the antioxidants. Medicinal, you know.”

David Frost

David Frost has wine in his genes. “I am the third generation of my family in the wine business,” says Frost, another South African who is a winner on the PGA and European Tours, and now at age 50 a winner on the Champions Tour.

In 1994, he set about to find his own vineyard and ended up buying 300 acres in the Paarl wine region. But at first it wasn’t about the wine.

“My brother [Michel] looked around, found a vineyard that had both table grapes and wine grapes,” says Frost. “I was originally interested in the table grapes, but moved it more into wine grapes. I bought the vineyard just before Mandela was elected. I was trying to be optimistic about the future of South Africa.”

By 1997, with Michel supervising the operation, Frost gave wine-making a shot. He produced 2,000 cases of Cabernet from grapes in his own vineyard.  Excited about the prospects, in 1998 he brought in a winemaker from the Napa Valley, Jason Fisher.  “I wanted a wine that more acceptable to the American palate,” says Frost. “French-style wines, like a lot that were produced in South Africa, are earthier. American wines are more fruit forward.”

He is most proud of a blend that was first created in 2002, his Par Excellence, from grapes on his estate. All his wines are currently made from his own grapes and he turns out 8–9,000 cases annually. But there is a chance he will expand if a deal with the noted American grocery-store-cum-wine-merchant Trader Joe’s is fully realized. “I have a deal with Trader Joe’s for less expensive wine, from 5,000 cases to maybe 30,000,” says Frost. “We’ll see how that works out. The way to make money on this is in quantity.”

And if this all works out, Frost, who lives in Dallas, is open to taking in a partner. “I’m trying to find a partner in South Africa,” says Frost. “Someone who might takeover supervising the business. It’s tough for me living in America.”

Retief Goosen

South African Retief Goosen, like so many other players, gained an appreciation of wine during his world travels. The two-time U.S. Open champion has partaken of the finest of vintages on every golf-playing continent, so when a friend suggested a wine company partnership, Goosen was ready for it.

But how is this for a delicious coincidence. Goosen’s partner is Morné Jonker, owner of a vineyard in the Upper Langkloof Valley in the Garden Route region of South Africa. The name on the title deed for the property is Ganzerkraal, which means “goose closure” or  “goose enclave,” so called because of the flocks of geese that often gathered there.  From his The Goose Winery, Goosen has released three wines, the 2005 The Goose Expression, the 2009 Gander Shiraz and the 2009 Gander Sauvignon Blanc.  “I’m quite fussy with my wine,” says Goosen. “I like a good aftertaste. I don’t like a dry mouth. I like the New World–style, I guess you would say. Our wine isn’t cheap or expensive. Around $25 a bottle.”

Goosen says his farm is harvesting about 100 tons of grapes annually and making about 100,000 bottles.

“It takes time to get your feet on the ground, getting your wine accepted,” says Goosen.  “We are in the Wentworth Golf Club restaurant, in the Old Course Hotel at St Andrews, in the Turnberry Hotel.  We have gotten our wine on South African Airways. We have won medals.”

Like golf, the wine business can be demanding. “Unfortunately because of my playing schedule I can’t always be at the farm when I would like to be,” says Goosen. “I’m pretty much paying the bills. But I want people to enjoy my wine. That’s the bottom line.”

Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus likes to tell this story on himself: “I used to get also sorts of great wines given to me. Cliff Roberts [legendary ruler of the Augusta National Golf Club] gave me great French Bordeaux, cases of it. I had all sorts of good stuff, but I really wasn’t a drinker and Barbara didn’t drink much either . . . It used to give me headaches. We served it at dinner parties at home, that’s about it. Anyway, I didn’t have a proper wine cellar then. One day I discovered it had all gone bad. That was shame.”

Jack Nicklaus, golfers uncorked.

Nicklaus told this story during the launch of his two labels this spring, a 2007 Cabernet and 2007 Private Reserve. It occurred to Nicklaus a few years ago that a wine label could serve him well in the golf course business, getting it into the clubhouses of the courses he designed, and he’s designed more than 300 courses worldwide. “It just made sense to have a wine in the business I’m in,” says Nicklaus. “It’s a very nice thing to have a quality wine with your name on it. I’m not expert on it, but I do know what I like.”

It appears that Jack’s wine will be a success.

“The 2007 vintage, which was a small production, was basically sold out in Ohio and Florida and a few other places,” says Bill Terlato, whose company produces the wines.  “The 2008 vintage, which will be released in January of 2011, we will make about 15,000 cases. We already have a firm order for 6,000 cases from China and are about 70 percent sold in advance.”

Greg Norman

You might guess that Greg Norman is the giant among golfers with their own wine labels. He’s been involved in wine since the mid ’90s, and his Greg Norman Estates produces more than 200,000 cases annually of wine from Australia and California that span a broad range. Shiraz, of course. Cabernet, of course. Several other varietals, and a sparkling wine. The two-time British Open champion has had an outsized business career under the umbrella of Great White Shark Enterprises. Golf course design, real estate, turf development, golf event management, clothing, Wagyu beef purveying are part of his empire, and his wine is part of an across-the-board branding effort, as well as fulfilling a passion.

“I’ve always had a deep passion for wine as I was introduced to it early in my career traveling on the European Tour,” says Norman. “I saw there was an opportunity for me to venture into my own wine. I knew I had a great partnership with Fosters which I felt confident would result in a strong business. I’m very proud to say that not only has Greg Norman Wine Estates grown into a strong wine company, it has also been a strong business venture.”

From the outset, Norman was often involved in the winemaking, approving the blends and the vintages. But most of that is now done by his daughter Morgan-Leigh, who oversees the business.

“I’m my father’s eyes, ears and taste buds. I’m a trained chef and I do winemaker dinners,” says Morgan. “I’m involved from the grapes on the vines to the retail purchase. Three years ago my dad asked me to take over this part of his business. But he’s still involved in all the major decisions.”

As for the wine experience itself, Norman says he prefers to keep it simple. “I truly think that any memory where I am sharing a bottle of wine I love with family and friends is truly one of the best,” says Norman. “That is what wine is all about, the simple moments when you can sit back, relax and spend time with those you love while enjoying a glass of wine.”

Arnold Palmer

When Arnold Palmer played in a tournament in France in the 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for him to stop at a restaurant along the way and have wine with dinner. It was something that made the trip extra special. “I gained an appreciation of wine back then, not that I could drink very much of it,” says Palmer.

That appreciation of wine, and his friendship with Mike Moone, founder of Luna Vineyards in the Napa Valley, led to Palmer’s producing his own label in 2003. Currently Palmer’s wines include Cabernet, Reserve Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Arnold Palmer, golfers uncorked.

“He comes out about every other year to taste the blends at the winery, but we bring him wine to his home in The Tradition [La Quinta, California] where I have a home,” says Moone.  “He does like to taste the wine and if he doesn’t like it he’ll tell you, believe me.” Currently the winery puts out about 25,000 cases a year with the Cabernet and Chardonnay priced at a modest $15 a bottle. The Reserve Cabernet is $100. “We made 200 cases and it’s very good stuff,” says Moone.


The wines are featured at the Arnold Palmer Restaurant in La Quinta and his Bay Hill Club outside of Orlando, Florida, as well as the clubhouses of courses he has designed.  “It just made sense to have my own label there,” says Palmer. “It’s nice to have your name on something that brings enjoyment.”

Gary Player

Gary Player, nine times a major champion and for 50 years the golf world’s champion of physical fitness, now has a wine label, and that may come as a surprise. Player has hardly had a drink of anything alcoholic in his life.

“It was my idea to extend our brand and honor my father with this wine,” says Player’s son Marc, who came up with the idea while running his father’s business operations. “My father is an international spokesman for companies, he designs golf courses, he has equipment and clothing lines. We have our own brand of tea, Rooibos (Red Bush) herbal tea. My father is certainly no drinker. A beer at a BBQ, maybe a yearly scotch. I wasn’t going to try to convince anyone that my father went from being a teatotaler to a connoisseur of red wine. So the wine honors my father’s major championships.” Of course the wine is South African, made in a Burgundy style. “A good friend of ours runs the Quion Rock winery and he said why don’t we try to do a deal,” says Marc Player. “There was reluctance on my part, but I felt that it could extend our brand, honor my father and we could have fun with it. And I certainly didn’t want to put out plunk in a bottle.”

So far two vintages have been released, the first to honor Player’s first major triumph at  the 1959 British Open and another honoring his second major at the 1961 Masters. South African artist Athol Moult created the labels and winemaker Carl van der Merwe created the blends.

“We have done 30,000 bottles,” says Marc Player. “It might take nine years to issue it all or it might take 50. We aren’t under any pressure to do so and will only do it when we are sure it’s the wine we want to put out there.”

Annika Sorenstam

Annika Sorenstam is the greatest female player in history. Among her 72 LPGA victories are 10 major championships. She’s now retired, married and has her first child. She’s actively involved in the business of golf, and passionately involved with making her own wine.

Sorenstam got into the wine thing when in 1990 she codesigned a golf course with Greg Norman at the Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley of California. She had enjoyed wine, but as a major championship winner could never drink too much of it. But she knew what she liked, and when she met winemaker Karl Wente, it was a perfect match.  “As an athlete I didn’t drink very much, but had sips here and there of very good wines, had friends who were into wine and I gained an interest in it,” says Sorenstam.  “And I really got into cooking as well. I went to the Wente Vineyard and met Karl and was really sort of turned on by the experience and came away with this little vision of making Annika Wine.”

Eventually that vision came true, with the release of 600 cases of 2006 Syrah, which was followed, by another small release of 2008 Chardonnay.

“I was at the tasting from the beginning. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to blend wine to get to that place, so Karl was obviously instrumental in getting me there,” says Sorenstam. “I told him I wanted full-bodied wine, something really meaty, a bottle you can drink socially without having to have food with it. I wanted it smooth with some fruit but not too much, some oak but not too much.

When I take the last sip, I want it to be there but not too strong. I told him what I was tasting and he knew how to get what I wanted.”

So Annika Wine was born.

“On special occasions it’s really nice to open a bottle of Annika for family and friends,” says Sorenstam. “The Wentes are first-class people. I’ve put my name on wines I am very proud of.”

Mike Weir

When Canadian Mike Weir won the 2003 Masters, it meant that he would be the host of the Champions’ Dinner the following year at Augusta National. He insisted that the wines for the dinner come from the Niagara Peninsula wine region of Ontario, Canada. After that dinner he got a slew of offers from the various winemakers of the region to put his name on a label.

In 2004 Weir started his Mike Weir Foundation, which aids disadvantaged children across Canada. He thought that it might be a good idea to sell wine with all the proceeds going to the foundation. Weir’s wines are produced by Chateau des Charmes and about 30,000 cases of several varietals are produced annually. There is a Cabernet/Merlot blend, a Pinot Noir, a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Rosé and a sparkling wine.

“I had no intention of getting into the wine business before I was approached by our former partners as a way to make money for my foundation,” says Weir. “It really started with the foundation component. We do a lot with the Children’s Miracle Network in hospitals across Canada.”

Weir’s grandfather was Italian and made his own wine. Weir has enjoyed wine throughout his career and has a small vineyard at his home in Utah where his wife and children recently made the first harvest of Sangiovese grapes. He hopes to make a few cases from them. And he definitely likes being in the wine business.

“I definitely taste the wine,” says Weir. “I leave the winemaking to the professionals, but I taste from the barrels and give my opinion.”

And when he’s not playing, he and wife Bricia enjoy wine when they go out to dinner.  “I take a picture of the label with my iPhone so I can remember it,” says Weir.

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.

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