Vahe Gregorian

Football behind him, former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil finds sense of purpose in wines

Dick Vermeil talks about his wines and California tasting room

Dick Vermeil talks about his wines in one of his tasting rooms in Calistoga, Ca.
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Dick Vermeil talks about his wines in one of his tasting rooms in Calistoga, Ca.

Nearly 82 years old now, Dick Vermeil still possesses that commanding Buzz Lightyear voice, ageless aura of vitality and … sheer need to work.

So walk into Vermeil Wines’ Calistoga Tasting Room during the harvest season, and chances are you’ll be greeted by its namesake. Because Dick Vermeil is Dick Vermeil, he isn’t merely lending his name to some detached celebrity wine operation.

The now 10-year-old business is a direct reflection of the former Eagles, Rams and Chiefs coach, after all, so as ever he is compulsively obligated to focus on the details.

Part of that is being an amiable host, albeit one who jokes that he’s a terrible businessman in one sense: “You wouldn’t believe how much wine I give away,” he said, laughing.

Much of that generosity goes toward charity fundraisers, but some of it takes place on the premises. An instant after you enter, you might suddenly have in your hand a pour of, say, Jean Louis Vermeil Cabernet Sauvignon, named in honor of both his father and great-grandfather.

(Obliged to partake for crucial column research, it can be said with conviction — but a perhaps unsophisticated palate — that this and other samples were tremendous).

Vermeil first bottled the JLV Cab with On The Edge Winery in 1999, when wine-making still was a hobby as he was about to coach the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. The two distinct adventures in his rich life remain entwined here: The walls are adorned with memorabilia from his ancestry on these very streets — and abroad — and his coaching life.

At any given time, someone will wander in from places he coached, and sometimes he’s asked, “You’re not related to Coach Vermeil, are you?”

On this day, as it happens, former Royals great George Brett is here with his childhood buddy Jim Obradovich, a former NFL player. Brett called just that morning to say he was in the area with his wife and friends. Nevermind that the tasting room was closed that day, Vermeil said come on over … and then kept the door open for anyone else who approached, too.

After Vermeil showed Brett his Chiefs wall, he was back behind the counter playing sommelier as Brett went into endorsement mode as if filming a commercial: “Dick, we’ve been to some really expensive vineyards, and your stuff’s just as good as theirs at one-third the price! This is unbelievable!”

Soon, a group enters and tells Vermeil it’s from Philly, where he is forever revered for taking the Eagles to the 1981 Super Bowl. Moments later, in comes another group including a man wearing a Chiefs cap. As Brett welcomes them with tomahawk chops before heading over to shake hands, Vermeil asks, “Come on in. What would you like?”

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Never know who might stop by the ol’ vineyard. Last week, Royals legend George Brett, left, paid Dick Vermeil a visit with childhood friend and former NFL player Jim Obradovich. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

You could see a similar scene, reflecting Vermeil’s sphere of influence, a night later in the Napa Tasting Room filled with visitors from Philly, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Vermeil’s guests here include Geri Walsh, the widow of Vermeil’s friend and coaching great Bill Walsh — whom Vermeil says would have entered this enterprise with him. Also on hand is former Chief and current wine concierge Eddie Kennison, who is here conducting “R&D,” as he put it on Twitter.

Like some other Chiefs of that era, Vermeil and his wife, Carol, “stimulated his interest” in wine at meals they hosted for players.

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George Brett, a man who knows a thing or two about championship hardware, kisses a Lombardi Trophy Vermeil won after leading the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

Sharp as ever

Maybe Vermeil could pass for 20-plus years younger even without this in his life.

He is as sharp and quick as ever, and even with two artificial hips he is in constant motion and hasn’t lost any strength in his weight-training regimen since he retired from the NFL for the (presumably) last time with the Chiefs in 2005.

But he undoubtedly is stimulated by the business, a reminder of the importance of engagement as we get older. And while he and his wife live most of the year outside Philadelphia, he basks in these weeks he spends in the homeland that still courses through him.

“You just get that inner feeling, ‘This is where you belong, that’s where your roots are,’ ” said Vermeil, who grew up in the house he was born in — which had been the summer home of his great-grandparents and formerly where novelist Robert Louis Stevenson lived.

So you could say he’s aging like a fine wine. But the cliché isn’t true of all wines any more than it’s inevitable for any person, especially one so defined by a career that both exhilarated and consumed him. Instead, this time and place in his life reflects a unique blend: his heredity and heritage of generations of family-made wines, his singular persona and simple human nature.

We all need a reason to be, what the French side of his French-Italian ancestry would call raison d’etre, and some of us more than others.

So Vermeil is immersed in this and as in his element as he ever was in football, which is why at times this labor of love echoes his coaching work ethic more than Carol might prefer.

“This is a marvelous sense of purpose for him, and he needs it — we all do when we step away from these vocations,” said former Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson, one of Vermeil’s four principal partners in an organization that includes limited partners in former Chiefs Trent Green and Todd Collins and childhood friend Don Luvisi — from whose vineyard Vermeil Wines makes a zinfandel.

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Vermeil, right, chats with a worker amidst the grapes that will produce one of his future vintages. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

Noting Vermeil’s infectious enthusiasm as he travels the country doing wine tastings and wine dinners, Peterson added, “He needs this to take some of the energy that he has so much of … I analogize it to (that) he’s coaching again.”

Serious about wine

As such, Vermeil is the face of the operation made by co-winemakers Andy Jones and Thomas Brown — in whose presence at the Tamber Bey winemaking facility the other morning Vermeil called “the Tom Brady of the Napa Valley.”

“I’ll take it,” Brown said, smiling.

Working for many Napa Valley wineries the last 16 years, according to Town & Country magazine, Brown has produced more than 25 wines that have received a perfect 100 score from such prominent judges as wine critic Robert Parker and Wine Spectator.

Having Brown and Jones join a label that already has distinguished itself with various awards and grades, Vermeil said, “tells people that are serious in wine that you’re serious.”

Before heading to Tamber Bey, which last year was within a quarter mile of the most damaging wildfire in California history, Vermeil had been at Frediani Vineyards near daybreak.

He can be found here many mornings this time of year, absorbing what he calls an ongoing education from forever friend Jim Frediani as Frediani oversees the family livelihood begun more than 100 years ago.

“I learn something different every day I’m out here,” Vermeil said.

Vermeil being Vermeil and wanting to be hands-on, sometimes he’ll drive a tractor to help move the boxes of picked grapes with VERMEIL stamp on them.

Vermeil being Vermeil, once ranked by the NFL Network as the second-most inspiring coach in league history behind Vince Lombardi, he’ll greet several pickers by name.

“You’re getting stronger, Marcelino, you’re getting stronger,” he tells a man who has worked here some 35 years as he hoists and lugs a 40-pound box and hurries to get on to the next.

Vermeil being Vermeil, he gets sentimental about the influence of Frediani’s parents in his life and his relationship with Frediani, whom he used to babysit. And the two share the laughs that time-honored friends know best.

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Crates to hold grapes destined for Vermeil’s winemaking operation bear his name. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

“People ask, ‘Do you own a vineyard?’ No, but I’m part of one,” Vermeil says riding alongside Frediani on the site where Vermeil’s great-grandfather once owned 40 acres.

A lot like his dad

Most of what people know about Vermeil’s origins center around the fiendish work ethic infused in one way or another by his father, Louie, a mechanic and sprint-car racer who once told Sports Illustrated of his fascination with the idea of working 24 hours straight — and fulfilling it.

Louie Vermeil’s penchant for working into the wee hours in his backyard auto-repair shop compelled Frediani’s father, Gene, to dub it the “Owl Garage” — where for a time a caged owl served as a mascot.

Vermeil often helped in the shop, learning to do tuneups, brake jobs, rebuilding engines, etc.

Along the way, he became skilled enough to do mechanic work in the summers when he was a high school coach and able to restore race cars — something he took on anew when he retired from the Chiefs.

Along the way, he was both blessed and burdened by how his father drove him while seldom offering praise.

It’s not hard to trace that to Vermeil’s trajectory in a coaching life marked by how demanding he was of players as well as the deep relationships he had with many. Not to mention his frequent shedding of tears before his teams and in public.

Vermeil took over woeful Philadelphia in 1976, when the Eagles had traded numerous prime draft picks for the next three years, but coaxed the team to the Super Bowl in his fifth season.

And then he retired two years later, citing the then-newfangled term of burnout.

“I made that word popular,” he said. “I allowed my passion for the game to become kind of an obsession. I just couldn’t turn it off. It was ridiculous, but that was just me: OCD and compulsive guy. …

“I always sort of felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job, so you keep pushing yourself harder. … I allowed it to overpower me.”

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Vermeil greets visitors to his tasting room. Behind him is an assortment of memorabilia from his Chiefs days, including a life-size cutout of himself. Vahe Gregorian vgregorian@kcstar.com

After more than a decade in broadcasting, Vermeil felt called to coach again when the Rams reached out in 1997. He whisked an organization that had 36 wins in the seven years before he took over to a Super Bowl victory three years later … and retired again days later.

He had done what he always wanted to do, after all, and his kids wanted him to step down and come home. But … he was back in the game a year later with a man he couldn’t turn down, Peterson, with whom he had worked from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.

His 2003 Chiefs went 13-3 only to lose one of the organization’s patented playoff heartbreakers, 38-31 to Indianapolis.

Beyond the postseason debacles ahead for the Chiefs, that 2003 season also offered a harbinger of what was to come for Vermeil: When Morten Andersen “looked a little nervous” to Vermeil as he prepared to try a late 35-yard field goal against Oakland, Vermeil pulled him over and said, “Morten, you make this thing, I’ll give you a bottle of my Bryant Family Vineyard (that are) impossible to get.”

Andersen made the kick for a 27-24 win to earn the approximately $500 bottle of wine. But the NFL interceded, saying that performance bonuses outside of contracts weren’t kosher. Proprietor Don Bryant called Vermeil later that week, thanking him for the kind of marketing he’d never been able to get before.

Two years later, after a 10-6 team failed to make the playoffs, Vermeil retired from football for the final time as he came to feel “dull” when fatigued.

“The only regret I have in my career,” he said, “was I wasn’t able to hand the Lamar Hunt trophy to Lamar Hunt.”

Still, Vermeil retains a connection to the Chiefs. He is close to Andy Reid, whom Vermeil recommended to owner Clark Hunt in 2013 and nudged to take the job when Reid asked his advice. Like about everyone else, he’s intrigued with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“You can tell he has all the tools,” he said. “But what you don’t know is how he will be under the gun throughout the entire game, 16 games in a row, under pressure.”

Back to the vineyard

With the pressure of football behind him, Vermeil’s wine-making roots soon beckoned in a new way.

Not that Vermeil didn’t have plenty to enjoy otherwise, with 11 grandchildren and projects like taking more than a year to restore his late father’s 1926 sprint car to feature at the Calistoga Speedway (aka, “The Home of Louie Vermeil”). Then as now, he had a heavy motivational-speaking schedule and was deep in charitable work and endorsements.

All the while, though, he was gravitating toward the passion he’s sure he would have shared with his father if he were still here. It began with a trickle before Vermeil says he was convinced to go all-in in 2008 by Peterson, John Scarpa, Michael Azeez and family friend and winemaker Paul Smith and his wife, Mary Sue Frediani.

The venture brought him full circle back home, where wines were a vital part of the community and as much a part of talk around the home with his father and mother, Alice, as football and cars and never-ending work.

In Vermeil’s case, the vines went back at least this far: His Italian immigrant great-grandfather, Garibaldi Iacherri, served on the board of what became the Bank of America and founded one of the first local wine companies after feeling practically called to Napa for its resemblance to his home of Lucca, Italy.

Iacherri’s daughter married Albert Vermeil, the son of Jean-Louis Vermeil, a wine-lover himself who immigrated from France.

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Grandfather Vermeil made wines from Frediani grapes, and blends and aromas and vintage were prime conversation pieces for as long as Vermeil can remember.

In time, Vermeil developed a keen interest as he’d pick grapes and help his grandfather in the processing in the basement, where he moved wine from barrel to barrel based on the moons.

Take a tour of the Frediani Vineyard in Calistoga, Ca. with former Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil and vineyard manager Jim Frediani to see where the grapes that make Vermeil Wine are grown.

Vermeil probably had his first sips of wine when he was about 7 or 8 years old, he said, and in the past he’s said he had a choice between wine and milk as a child.

To this day, he consumes wine less for its alcohol than its taste and as simply “part of the meal, what you’re supposed to do.”

A little like football

Like coaching football, it turns out, this is what Vermeil was supposed to do. As he sees it, there are at least some parallels.

It’s all about surrounding yourself with good people and working hard and not being embarrassed to say “I love you,” as he’s quoted saying on his Vermeil Wines bio page.

Moreover, even if he’ll tell you he’s no wine expert, he trusts his instincts to distinguish what’s special from what’s not. Sort of the way he did in picking quarterbacks — including Green, whose injury in St. Louis led to the improbable story of the much-doubted Kurt Warner.

As he considered the similarities between choosing wines and quarterbacks, Vermeil thought of a story Warner likes to tell from one day at Rams Park just before Green was hurt.

“ ‘Kurt, there’s something about you that I like. And I can’t wait to find out what it is.’ ” Vermeil recalled telling him. “That’s why he made the team; there were some coaches who wanted to let him go. I didn’t want to let him go.”

Like sensing a good wine, he thinks he just had a nose for it.

“I don’t consider myself bright, but I’ve always been able to say, ‘This is my guy,’ ” Vermeil said. “Why, I have no idea. You could call it luck. But some guys would say you’ve got a feel for it.”

Meanwhile, just like he always felt like he had to work harder to compete with the names in the game, he would never tell you “our wine is better than anyone else’s” but still plan to contend.

“If it tastes good, and you like it, it’s good wine,” he said. “And I don’t know if I’ve ever poured our wines for somebody who didn’t really respect it.”

Enough of resting on his laurels, though. Which is why as they try to grow, one aspect of the plan is to move away from what he calls the “Vermeil World” décor in Calistoga to the more well-appointed look in the Napa setting.

While his name and football-oriented logo certainly have attracted visitors and business, Vermeil believes some of the imagery creates the perception their wines aren’t high end.

“And they are. To this day, they are,” Vermeil said. “But you have to prove it.”

Same as it ever was … at least speaking for himself.

Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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