Ward, Gleason blend intensity of hockey, tranquility of wine
Posted June 12
Raleigh, N.C. — The intensity of hockey can only be combated by the tranquility of a fine glass of wine. It’s a contrast of brut and beauty that plays out over the course of a season, from city to city, at a steak dinner with teammates and opponents alike.
“People think of hockey players as tough, beer drinking guys – and they are,” said Jason Earnest. “But they are just regular guys, they like fine wines.”
Earnest is an East Carolina graduate and the business brain behind Vineyard 36. And it was at a steak dinner at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Raleigh where Earnest got Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Cam Ward and former defenseman Tim Gleason on board to start a winery.
Earnest had the knowledge and business savvy already as he previously owned Tobacco Road Winery. Ward and Gleason brought an untapped market.
“I kind of jumped on board,” said Gleason, who was first introduced to the delicacy of a good dinner wine by former teammate Ray Whitney. “At first it started out as more of a hobby. As players we would be on the road, trying to find new restaurants.”
And so it clicked. And then they picked.
Gleason, Ward and Earnest literally pick their own grapes, on-site in California, ensuring the perfection of their product.
They use Andy Beckstoffer’s vineyards in Napa to produce predominately Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Beckstoffer himself was a football player at Virginia Tech in the 1960s before joining the Army. Earnest calls him “the Michael Jordan of grapes.”
“It’s an awesome situation being able to pick your own fruit,” Gleason said. “We flew six hours across the country, got all the grapes to the belt and sorted them for the Cabs and Merlots.”
It is that care and attention that has transformed Vineyard 36 – a duality of Ward’s No. 30 and Gleason’s No. 6 – that has attracted the best of the best to buy.
“People gravitate to us because of the product. There are catchy, gimmicky wines, but when people open our wine, they understand the quality,” said Earnest. “You take pride in knowing you made something really good. You always want to open those bottles and share them with your friends.”
Among the top clients of Vineyard 36 – The Staal brothers and recent Stanley Cup champion Ron Hainsey.
In fact, Hainsey is a good candidate to extend an NHL streak. Each of the last three Stanley Cups has seen sips of Vineyard 36 wine.
In 2014, Alec Martinez of the Los Angeles Kings tipped the Cup with the wine inside. In 2015, Canadian defenseman and good friend of Gleason, Brent Seabrook followed suit. After the 2016 Cup, a pair of Pittsburgh Penguins enjoyed the grapes as Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr drank from the iconic trophy.
“It would be a cool deal to get another year of the Stanley Cup,” said Gleason, who never played in the Cup Finals during a 13-year NHL career.
A CANADIAN MARKET
The Ward-Gleason-Earnest friendship really accelerated after Earnest moved to New York. The trio were already well-established friends, but when the Canes played in the northeast, dinner became all but assumed. And accompanying the dinner – a nice selection of wine.
“We have to have good wine around,” Earnest said of the still-to-date dinners.
In the 2013-14 season, Gleason was traded to Toronto for John-Michael Liles in a D-for-D swap. The personnel move on the NHL level led to the eventual growth of the Vineyard 36 brand.
Jordan Staal, a native of Thunder Bay in Ontario, became interested. As did a handful of other players in the Toronto market.
“The Canadian market is tough on the dollar,” said Earnest. “Fortunately, we make enough wine that it doesn’t hurt us.”
Still, the selection in Canada is not at all like that of the United States when it comes to wine. It is not uncommon for teams playing in Toronto to cross the border on off days to get a fine meal with a beverage. It is also not uncommon for players to slide a bottle of wine into team equipment bags.
CAM KEEPS IT SEPARATE
While Ward’s name is attached to the venture, he is careful to keep his day job the priority. Gleason and Earnest head to Napa Valley multiple times each year to ensure product quality, Ward makes one trip per year – before camp starts just before harvest.
“We all have our day jobs first,” said Gleason, who currently runs a training gym in North Raleigh where he works with youth hockey players. “Cam is still in the game. Once I got out of the game, I had more time to travel and find more places to grow.”
Ward was able to make a recent trip to Texas with the group as the brand has expanded to the Lone Star State. Vineyard 36 wines can now be found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Texas and two Canadian provinces (Manitoba and Alberta).
KEEPING IT SOCIAL
“When you get a good tasting bottle, you get a satisfaction,” Gleason said. “Especially on the road. It’s amazing what comes out of a glass of wine. It’s a great conversation piece.”
Ranging from $36 to $85 a bottle, and getting the approval of the finest of palettes, Vineyard 36 definitely fits the bill of a good bottle. And with names like “UnMask” and “Cross Check” – aptly named for Ward and Gleason – the conversation is definitely easy to come by.
“It’s a small community of guys, but real collectors of fine wine are our customers,” Earnest said.
Those customers can look for the next batch soon, some of which has been aging since 2015.
“When you open a bottle of wine, it takes you back to what was going on at the vineyard at that time,” Earnest said. “We just want to make the best wines we can make.”