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From the Ice to the Vineyard

by Deborah Lew / Los Angeles Kings

You may not know it at first, but wine-making requires many of the same skills as playing hockey. Perhaps that’s why a fair number of former hockey players have found themselves in the wine-making business upon hanging up the skates – NHL alumni, Val Bure, Jim Fox, Wayne Gretzky, Igor Larionov and Zenon Knopka are just a few.

Bure started becoming interested in wine at the age of 19, while playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal has its share of excellent food and wine establishments, and that’s where Bure’s wine career really began.

 “I went from not having any wine bottles in my house to having two or three, to a little fridge, to a bigger fridge, to a walk-in,” says Bure about the evolution of his affinity for wine.

In 2001 Bure started going to St. Helena in Napa Valley to study wine and work the harvest, which is how he spent the lockout season of 2005. In 2005, with the help of friend and French winemaker, Luc Morlet, Bure decided to start his own wine label. Bure Family wines released 150 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 125 cases of Sauvignon Blanc in 2006, their first year of operation.

 “His expertise is phenomenal, so from day 1 we came out swinging in the sense of the quality of the wine and how its ben received,” says Bure about Morlet.

For the last seven years, Bure Family Wines has produced about 800 cases per year, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon out of St. Helena, as well as some Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They sell directly to their mailing list and cannot be found in stores.

Bure compares his wine-making to his hockey playing, and cites the parallels between the two for his success in his current role of vintner.

“It’s a lifestyle, you have to be passionate, just like hockey. It was such a good transition for me after playing hockey, everything I knew about hockey like hard work and patience…I really transformed that into my next love, and that’s wine,” says Bure. “I loved hockey, I still do, but this is my new chapter, my new love.”

Although he has Morlet who is in charge of physically making the wine, a lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into Bure’s role, which has him in St. Helena once a week on average. With the fall harvest approaching, he has been on the vineyard even more, working with the vineyard managers and inspecting their progress.

“People don’t see a lot of the things that we do and that’s the beautiful part about it,” says Bure, who lives in the So Cal area still tries to spend the rest of his time watching his kids play hockey. “It’s similar with hockey – people don’t see most of the work hockey players put in, all they see is the two-and-a-half hours of the hockey game, but they don’t see all the preparation.”

“I’ll present a wine and people love it and they say ‘wow, it’s beautiful.’ It’s glamorous, without a doubt, but for me it’s more exciting for what it takes to put that bottle in front of them. My heart is in there,” says Bure, who played in more than 600 career NHL games and signed with the Kings in 2004 but did not see action after suffering an injury which ended his hockey playing career.

Gretzky, who also has his own wine label, has spoken briefly with Bure about their new common endeavor, an encounter that stands out boldly in Bure’s mind.

Both Bure and Gretzky were attending a party hosted by former Kings forward, Russ Courtnall, and each guest was required to bring a bottle of wine. Bure was already at the party when Gretzky arrived carrying a bottle of Bure Family Wines.

“That was the best day of my life, as far as a vintner goes,” says Bure. “No matter what I do, Wayne Gretzky is someone I looked up to. He’s a special player and person.”

Although Bure regrets not having snapped a photo of himself and Gretzky with his wine bottle, he cherishes the memory and shares it fondly.

Fox, the Kings’ television analyst, spoke with Bure about the wine business just a few years before Fox started his own wine label, Patiné Cellars, when he was beginning to put his idea in motion. The two exchange wine experiences, even as recently as last week.

Similar to Bure, Fox’s love for wine began while he was playing in Los Angeles, at a restaurant called The Bottle Inn, where he was able to try many different wines.

“I think it was more or less just living in California. It’s a very popular drink of choice here,” says Fox, whose wife, Susie, is one of his business partners. “I went from just enjoying it to studying it and taking classes on it.”

Travel plans for Fox quickly began taking shape around wine-rich destinations, and he’s visited places like Santa Ynez, Paso Robles and Temecula, California; Bordeaux, France; Tuscany, Italy; Spain; and Portugal. Fox took more wine classes in these places, which further enhanced his knowledge and desire to become a winemaker.

Fox keeps his hockey ties obvious in the branding of Patiné Cellars, as the word ‘Patiné’ itself means ‘to have skated’ in French. To Fox, the act of skating requires power and grace, which are two things he achieved in his hockey career and strives to achieve in the production of his wine. The outside of a Patiné Cellars wine bottle is wrapped with the outer edge of a hockey puck, and the marketing design incorporates skate blade edges etched in the ice. Current Kings players have approached Fox about Patiné Cellars and have complimented it.

For the last two years, since Patiné Cellars’ first release in December of 2013, Fox has included his wine in The Guidance Center’s annual fundraiser, Sunset Sip. Fox is heavily involved with The Guidance Center via his good friend, Trish Costales, who serves as the Center’s executive director.  

The Guidance Center is a non-profit organization that provides quality mental health care to more than 2,800 children and families in the communities of Long Beach, Compton, San Pedro, and Avalon.

This year’s Sunset Sip, again hosted by Fox, will take place at the Museum of Latin American Art on Saturday, September 12, and the theme is ‘Stop the Stigma, Start the Conversation.’

“I think more and more people are comfortable speaking about mental illness, whether it’s them or their family or an acquaintance, and we want to keep that going as much as possible to make sure that everyone understands that there’s a possibility of treatment,” Fox says.

“It ends up being a great event and fun for everyone, and we have a chance to raise some money,” Fox says of Sunset Sip.

There is much to be said about finding work you love and are passionate about, and even more to be said when you’re able use it to positively contribute to a better cause.

We can all drink to that.

To learn more about this year’s Sunset Sip event – and the numerous, fan-friendly events the Kings are hosting to help kick off the 2015-16 season -- visit LAKings.com/events.

 

Follow on Twitter: @by_DeborahLew & @LAKingsPR

Email Story Ideas: DLew@LAKings.com

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