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Golden Knights fans toast owner, playoff success

Tour one of Foley's California wineries during second-round series against Sharks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

RUTHERFORD, Calif. -- If you think an NHL team must age like a fine wine, hop aboard the VGK Express, a bus trip for Vegas Golden Knights fans to the Foley Johnson Winery in the heart of Napa Valley. 

You'll get a taste of the success the Golden Knights have had in their inaugural season and of the wine made by their owner, Bill Foley. At least one variety doesn't need to spend years in a barrel before it can be enjoyed.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Sharks series coverage]

 

The Golden Knights have gained fans in Las Vegas and around the world by shattering records for first-year teams, reaching out to the community and coming up with creative ideas like this.

Before Vegas's 4-3 overtime win against the San Jose Sharks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Second Round on Monday, the VGK Express bussed fans from downtown San Jose about 100 miles north. Everyone received a Golden Knights GoVino shatterproof wine glass, a tasting of Foley Johnson wines and two surprises: a lunch catered in person by renowned chef Larry Forgione and a chance to meet Foley.

Cost? Thirty bucks.

Which could be credited toward the purchase of a case of wine or wine club membership.

Foley owns 22 wineries. He has four in New Zealand and is closing on a fifth. The rest are in California, including three in the Napa area and six in the Sonoma area. Golden Knights season-ticket holders receive four free tastings and 30 percent off wine.

He called the Foley Johnson Winery one of his showpieces. His son, Patrick, was working here in a Golden Knights hat and jersey Monday. A Golden Knights flag flew out front. A bobblehead doll of Chance the mascot was on the tasting bar.

"This is a great winery," Foley said. "The wines are fantastic. My son's the winemaker. He's completely dedicated to making the biggest, boldest [cabernets] he possibly can, and he's doing a great job. So that was the motivation. Let our fans from Las Vegas experience wine country."

The soil and climate here create the perfect conditions for making wine, just as the NHL Expansion Draft and the NHL Salary Cap helped create the perfect conditions for building the most successful expansion team of all time.

About eight varieties of grapes grow on 55 acres at Foley Johnson between Highway 29 and the Napa River. Near the road, the soil is deep and loamy, or full of nutrients, like the rich expansion draft was for Vegas. The soil produces a wine like the 2017-18 vintage of the Golden Knights.

"The merlot, they're really easy to drink," said Kenny Koda, senior hospitality manager for Foley Family Wines in Napa Valley. "You don't need to age them. They're delicious. Have fun with it tonight."

As you go toward the river, you start getting layers of clay and gravel mixed with the loam. The grapes are smaller and more intense, which is better for cabernet sauvignon. Maybe the Golden Knights will mature like a cab too.

"This is a cool property," Koda said, "because we have some immediate-drinking wines and we have some wines that if you age for 10 or 15 years, they're going to knock your socks off."

Foley's team and his wines are trying to get to the same place.

"The reason why the Stanley Cup is the best trophy in all sports is it's the only one you can drink wine out of," Koda said.

If the Golden Knights win the Cup, the only question will be which wine to pour into it.

Video: Golden Knights fans head to owner Bill Foley's winery

The Meritage? Because it's a blend of five grapes, like the team is a blend of players? (A Vegas Golden Knights special edition of the Meritage sold out).

The chardonnay? Because white won't stain like red when it splashes everywhere amid the celebration?

Something new?

"They're going to find that one impossible grape that actually grew this year, make it into a wine and pour it into the Stanley Cup," said Amy Groves, a fan from Henderson, Nevada, "because anything is possible."

The VGK Express represented the way the Golden Knights have brought people together. The bus was full of strangers on the ride north, quiet. But the fans stepped off the bus and were greeted with glasses of chardonnay, and they mingled on a patio overlooking the vineyards and mountains on a gorgeous day, tasting more wine, talking about their team.

They were of all ages and from different places originally and had their own reasons for falling in love with the Golden Knights -- because they'd always loved hockey, or because they'd gone to a game, or because of the response after the Oct. 1 mass shooting on the Strip, or because of how the season had gone on and off the ice. But they had that love in common, and they all cared enough to go on the road in the playoffs.

"Magical," said Carol Fairbrother, a longtime hockey fan who retired to Las Vegas and requested season tickets the first day they were available. "We would have been happy just having a team, but seeing the way the city has responded? It's just amazing."

When Foley arrived unannounced, the fans shook his hand, got his autograph and talked hockey with him. Finally, everyone gathered on the lawn for a group picture and shouted, "Go, Knights, go!" Let's just say the ride back was more boisterous. Calling each other by first names, friends now, feeling good, the fans chanted "Go, Knights, go!" again.

"This winery thing was unbelievably cool of Mr. Foley to do," said Josh Greenbaum, 32, who lives in Reno, Nevada, and drove four hours to San Jose. "This is something that he definitely didn't profit off of. It was just something to get fans who were going to be here to see his winery and his vineyard.

"The fact that he even came here and talked to us just showcases the individual he is. He's a laid-back individual. He earned all his success, but he also let other people into it, especially Knights fans who have been supportive of this team the whole year."

In vino veritas.

***

 

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