Drew Bledsoe may be best remembered by Washington State fans for what he accomplished on a snowy day in November 1992.
And while visions of Bledsoe, receiver Phillip Bobo, and a snow bank are foremost in their memories, these days, Bledsoe wants Cougar fans to know him not only for great plays but for making great wine.
“It is very important for me that people know that this is a true passion of mine,” he says. “We are very committed to producing only the best wine that we can.”
On a sweltering July day in Walla Walla, Bledsoe’s passion is on display.
This day marks the bottling of Bledsoe’s first vintage of Doubleback, a Cabernet Sauvignon which will be released in 2010, and he is not just an observer in the process. He and his family, including wife and co-founder Maura and their four children, are unloading boxes and setting bottles on the assembly line, where, once filled and corked, they will eventually be sealed and numbered.
“It’s been a labor of love and very much a group effort,” Bledsoe says during a rare break. “To see it come to fruition is really exciting.”
For Bledsoe, the name Doubleback symbolizes his journey taken from his football life to post-football life.
“I grew up in Walla Walla, left, and lived this big other life playing professional football then double-backed and came back to Walla Walla,” he says. “Being able to come back here and have a presence with a wine project is really damn exciting.”
Well before his retirement from a 14-year NFL career in 2007, Bledsoe realized the importance of planning for when his playing days were over.
“Fairly early on in my career I started to recognize that when I was done playing football I wasn’t going to be able to sit back and play golf every day,” he says, “I knew when I was finishing up with football that if I didn’t have something to apply that passion to I would end up in trouble.
“You make that transition from this super-intense profession where you are just daily and weekly on the firing line; you step away from that and if you don’t have a place to apply that passion, you see a lot of guys end up in trouble. To be able to come back to my old hometown and partner with my childhood friend, Chris Figgins, it’s a confluence of events that makes it a fun and cool story.”
Figgins was exploring a transition as well. Already well-established in the Walla Walla wine industry as CEO and winemaker of Leonetti Cellars, Figgins was looking to branch out into consulting. He learned of Bledsoe’s interest in wine, and became interested in partnering with his childhood friend and fellow Coug (Figgins graduated from WSU in 1996). But he needed to know just how serious that interest was.
“We sat down for lunch and five minutes into the conversation I realized I was being interviewed,” Bledsoe recalls.
“We hadn’t been in contact at all during his career,” Figgins says, “and sometimes, money changes people, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a giant ego coming back. It was really cool to see the same guy, still rock solid. I started to quiz him on wines he liked, and I came to appreciate his palate and what he was after in the wine. I realized philosophically we were aligned.”
“He was peppering me with questions: What I like? How I view the industry? Why get into it?” Bledsoe remembers. “I quickly recognized that I better answer these questions the right way. If I can get Chris Figgins to be my winemaker, I am ahead of the ball game in a huge way. If I can pick any winemaker, Chris would occupy the first three spots. We get along great, and it has been a really great relationship.”
In a way, Bledsoe is a student once again. But instead of being in a WSU classroom, or a film study room, his new classroom is his McQueen Vineyard, overlooking the Walla Walla Valley.
Walking through the vineyard, Bledsoe explains the process of caring for his vines.
“If you starve them for water, make the roots really dig, and then thin them out, the grapes that are left really develop some nice complexity and depth,” he explains.
“It’s almost like you treat them how you would treat a little kid. If you give them everything it wants, then it grows up spoiled with no depth to it. If you make it work for it, teach your vines some work ethic, they got to work for it. If they do then you end up with some great fruit.”
The art of planting and caring for vines is just one of the aspects that attracted Bledsoe to the discipline.
“The whole process intrigues me from being able to start with a piece of dirt and end up with a work of art in a bottle,” he explains. “I got to the point in football, I don’t want to say where I knew everything, but it was not intellectually challenging on a daily basis anymore. In this business you literally keep learning every day for the next 50 years because it is continually changing and evolving and new and different all the time.
“That part is really exciting to me. In order to produce great wine I’m going to have to learn and evolve with it.”
And he is happy to have Figgins alongside.
“Chris has been in the wine industry since he was born,” Bledsoe says. “Having a guy like that who can give you the scientific knowledge but have the instinct that comes from a lifetime experience is invaluable. Our friendship reconnecting has been really, really cool. That will continue to grow as well.”
The connection between Bledsoe and Figgins extends from their love of wine to their association with Washington State University.
“I remember the time when Drew decided to go to Wazzu it was a pretty big deal,” says Figgins, “because he could have gone anywhere, and he chose to go to Pullman rather than doing the more obvious route of Notre Dame, Florida, or USC,” adds Figgins. “For him to look in his backyard I thought was really, really cool. It speaks to the whole Doubleback project of just, hey, this place matters, where you are from matters.”
Returning to Walla Walla evokes memories of his own for Bledsoe, not only of his hometown, but his time at WSU.
“I like to say that I don’t have any regrets, but looking back on it, my time at Wazzu was awfully short,” Bledsoe admits. “I was there two and a half years. I loved every minute of it.
“I wouldn’t go back and change the decision because it worked out really well, but I wish I could have spent more time there. I really enjoyed it.”
And the one game he enjoyed most was the 1992 Apple Cup, what WSU fans fondly refer to as “The Snow Bowl.”
“It still is and always will be my favorite memory in my whole career,” says Bledsoe, whose career included two Super Bowls while with the New England Patriots, including the Super Bowl XXXVI championship team. “Playing in that game with the snow flying, against the Huskies, and then beating the Huskies, was just awesome.”
In the future, when Cougar fans reminisce about that game, their memories may well be accompanied by a glass of Doubleback wine.