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How a sporting legend is putting Washington wines on the map

In what might seem like an unlikely series of connections, Washington, Oregon and American football are linked together by one sporting-legend-turned-winemaker – and his bottles are now in the UK.

Drew Bledsoe played Quarterback for the New England Patriots. Picture credit: The Sporting Wine Club

The person I’m referring to is Drew Bledsoe, a record-breaking former American football quarterback who played in the National Football League (NFL) for 14 seasons, but since 2007, has been producing wine in the US.

Starting his second career in Washington State, he told db in 2023 that he chose to begin a wine business at the southern end of the Washington’s Walla Wally Valley, because it was his home region, commenting that, “The winery is less than a mile from the place where I grew up”.

Today he’s making a range of wines from the AVA, notably a pair of top expressions comprising a varietal Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon called Doubleback – in reference to Bledsoe’s decision to “double back” to his hometown of Walla Walla.

He also produces further wines in the same region, as well as more recently Oregon too, under the brand Bledsoe McDaniels, to represent the involvement of winemaker Josh McDaniels, also a Walla Walla native.

Commenting that McDaniels “is a gifted winemaker with a business brain,” Bledsoe said the range of wines carrying both their surnames reflects the fact that McDaniels is a shareholder, adding, “McDaniels is now on the label: that’s the wedding ring.”

Under the Bledsoe McDaniels is a Walla Walla Syrah as well as an Oregon Pinot Noir, a region where the pair were sourcing grapes from, but have now invested in land too, having bought in 2021 the Hope Well Vineyard in the Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills from Mimi Casteel – a major proponent of regenerative viticulture, and daughter of Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley, co-founders of Bethel Heights Vineyard.

“We’ve carried on 90% of the practices,” Bledsoe said of the regeneratively-managed vineyards bought from Casteel, adding, “The only difference is that we like things to look a little tidier.”

Notably, Bledsoe, whose bottlings sell-out on release in the US, is trying to develop his presence in countries beyond his home nation’s borders, including the UK.

Explaining his rationale to db, he said, “I’m trying to develop new markets because having demand around the world makes me feel more comfortable.”

Continuing he said, “We are going to keep pushing until we retire, and we are not retired yet… and another reason [for developing exports] is to spread the word about our region: Washington.”

Finally, it is interesting to note that Merlot, a grape variety that was much-maligned 20 years ago in the surprise box-office-hit film Sideways, is “making a comeback”, said Bledsoe, noting its hugely-improved quality, as well as its particular affinity for the soils and climate of Walla Walla.

Importing and distributing Bledsoe’s wines in the UK, including an excellent Walla Walla Chardonnay called Elizabeth, is ex-England rugby international Simon Halliday, who founded The Sporting Wine Club in 2017 – selling wines from famous sporting figures to the trade and consumers.

Below are some tasting notes from me on three wines from his range that I tasted at the start of 2024. The wines are very fine, especially the Syrah, which is a serious and exciting find in the expanding if strangely unfashionable world of high-end varietal Syrahs.

Bledsoe McDaniels Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills, Coulee Vineyard, 2021

This has a lovely and aromatic nose, with notes of redcurrant and cranberry mixed with dark cherry and a hint of cream. The mouthfeel is fleshy but not heavy, with flavours of sweet Morello cherry, crushed raspberry and blackberry, then some subtle milk chocolate followed by some refreshing and slightly crunchy cranberry character too. While there is ripe black fruit here, this is an elegant, lively Pinot, with real persistence and class. Also, while it’s delicious now, there is clearly potential for this to develop more complexity over the next three to five years.

Bledsoe McDaniels Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, McQueen Vineyard, 2021

Just such an inviting nose, crammed with aromas of fully ripe red fruit and some darker blackberry notes, followed by hints of wood smoke, toast, grilled meat and black olives. The palate delivers yet more appealing characters, with delicious, fleshy cherry and raspberry flavours, along with sweet blackberry, then cracked black pepper, parma violet, dark chocolate, plums and subtle touch of tapenade. Texturally, there is a juiciness, but also fresh acidity, wonderfully fine-grained dry tannins, even a chalkiness, and no alcohol warmth at 14.1%. Delicious now, but with a great life ahead of it, this is a very fine and complete wine; one of the world’s great Syrahs.

Doubleback no. 98, Estate Reserve, 2020

An outstanding and surprising Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux blend from Walla Walla, this mixes wonderfully ripe, soft fruit and warming alcohol (14.7%) with a medium-weight feel and dry, refreshing finish boosted by a wonderful fine-grained mouth-cleansing tannic texture. Among the layers of flavour that feature are raspberry compote, intense blackcurrant, dark chocolate, toast and roasted coffee bean, along with a pleasing hint of sage and then crushed rock and pencil led too. A lovely, youthful, lingering and age-worthy red.

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